CoverStory

American global retreat

Obama’s feckless foreign policy has encouraged Russian intransigence in Ukraine

By Mary Kissel

Not content with seizing Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s unmarked militiamen steamroll into eastern Ukraine. The White House announces there will be “consequences” and that Vice President Joe Biden will fly to Kiev to “underscore the United States’ strong support for a united, democratic Ukraine that makes its own choices about its future path.” That’s nice. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Putin’s “choices” decide Ukraine’s fate, pulling it decisively and violently back into Moscow’s murky, autocratic orbit. 

These events are not unrelated. Barack Obama has been implementing his vision for an American retreat from the world since he took office, egged on by media cheer squads eager to embrace an urbane, intellectualised, academic-approved, “21st-century” foreign policy, where conflict is resolved in global bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The 20th century — the era of Bushes, Clinton, Kennedy, and ugly wars — is just so... yesterday. Obama’s foreign policy, to borrow a phrase, is “evolved.” 

And feckless. Roll the highlight reel: 

21 January 2009, President Obama’s first inaugural address: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” How and why a dictator would unilaterally decide to relinquish power remains unexplained. Is the Presidential personality supposed to inspire — sorry, Barack — shock and awe? 

4 June 2009, in Cairo, from a speech titled “A New Beginning”: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” The freedom agenda is a thing of the past. “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” Democracy and autocracy now enjoy moral equivalency. “It’s easier to start wars than to end them.” I’ll get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter what! “The people of the world can live together in peace.” Kumbaya. 

13 June 2009: Millions of Iranians flood the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahanto and other cities to protest a fraudulent presidential vote and demand democracy, in what becomes known as the Green Revolution. The regime unleashes a wave of brutal repression, chronicled by ordinary Iranians and transmitted to the world on social media. After two days of silence, President Obama convenes a press conference and says he is “appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.” But “the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.” Backdoor, bilateral talks between the US and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions continue apace. The Green Revolution is eventually crushed by the mullahs, as is another, similar uprising two years hence.

17 September 2009: The President cancels plans to deploy a missile defense shield to Poland, on the 70th anniversary of the former Soviet Union’s invasion of that country. The move contradicts promises made only a year earlier to then-President Lech Kaczynski. “We heard first from the media,” Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s national security bureau, reveals. He muses, “Is it appeasement toward Russia? Is it pragmatism? Is it transactional?” Prime Minister Donald Tusk refuses to answer a midnight call from the White House. Russian parliamentarian Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, gloats to the Washington Post: “We perceive this as another positive signal suggesting that in the current administration in Washington, pragmatism prevails over an ideological approach to foreign policy.” As in, an ideology that opposes oppression. 

21 October 2009: Vice President Joe Biden is dispatched to Poland in October to promise, publicly, that the US security guarantee to Poland is, “absolute, absolute.” Few believe him. But he has nice teeth and a big smile. 

16 November 2009: President Obama travels to China, where he tells a local audience that the US–Sino relationship is “positive, constructive and comprehensive,” adopting technocratic buzz phrases. “I believe that each country must chart its own course,” he says. “We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.” Now there’s a ringing endorsement of the free world. During a staged question and answer period, the President says, “The main purpose of my trip is to deepen my understanding of China and its vision for the future.” That would be the communist, one-party state China. The phrase “human rights” isn’t mentioned by either side. China later declares the entire South China Sea is its territory and seizes Japanese air space and a Philippine shoal. The Obama administration expresses displeasure, but little else. 

8 April 2010: President Obama and then–Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sign the New START arms control treaty in Prague. President Obama heralds the stop of bilateral “drift” and heralds “the benefits of cooperation.” “Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation, and for US–Russia relations,” he says. Former Czechoslovakia defence minister Lubos Dobrovsky, who presided over the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, tells the New York Times, “This treaty is a diplomatic and military victory for Moscow. I am not happy that this American defeat is being showcased in Prague.” 

2 May 2011: The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza publishes a lengthy profile of the President in which a White House advisor anonymously confides that the commander-in-chief’s approach to Libya — in which European countries led a military strike on Gaddafi’s regime — smacks of “leading from behind.” The phrase gains national currency, and notice internationally. It’s not news to the leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and other despots. 

26 March 2012: President Obama, caught speaking into a live microphone, tells Russian President Dmitri Medvedev: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility” when it comes to missile defence deals. “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Medvedev replies. After Republican criticism of the remarks, the President says “I think everybody understands that — if they haven’t, they haven’t been listening to my speeches — I want to reduce our nuclear stockpiles ... And so this is not a matter of hiding the ball. I’m on record.” No word on what such “flexibility” entails. 

20 August 20 2012: In the wake of rising violence in Syria’s civil war, President Obama makes the following statement from the White House: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” No “ifs, ands, or buts” there, right? Well. . . 

4 September 2013: President Obama denies he set a “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “The world set a red line,” he protested. “The world set a red line when governments representing 98 per cent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war.” The world? 

14 September 2013: The State Department announces a deal with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria — the same Russia that propped up the Assad regime in the first place. Syria misses deadlines for turning over said chemical weapons in December, and again in February. In March, the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says Damascus has relinquished only about a third of its chemical weapons stock. The fighting continues in Syria, with neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan overwhelmed by fleeing refugees. Assad kills the opposition with more traditional weapons: i.e. guns. 

22 November 2013: A Saudi prince, sitting down with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, offers his evaluation of President Obama’s foreign policy, or lack thereof: “The US has to have a foreign policy. Well-defined, well-structured. You don’t have it right now, unfortunately. It’s just complete chaos. Confusion. No policy. I mean, we feel it. We sense it, you know.” Two days later, US and Iran strike an interim nuclear pact, in which Tehran can continue to enrich uranium and evade inspection of its military facilities. The penalty for breaking the pact remains unclear. The Obama White House continues to push for a finalised pact. 

3 December 2013: Vice President Biden visits Tokyo to reassure Japan that the US remains committed to its security in the face of rising Chinese aggression. A Wall Street Journal Japan blog reports “many officials and security experts are growing frustrated about what they perceive to be Washington’s muddled response to China’s increasingly aggressive stance, a fear that has been exacerbated, rather than alleviated, so far during Mr. Biden’s visit to Asia.” In a later meeting in Beijing with Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping say he’ll “take on board” America’s position on China’s seizure of Japanese air space. And he has a Great Wall to sell you, too. 

16 March 2014: Crimea holds a “referendum” to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, after Putin’s forces have flooded the region with unmarked troops for weeks, intimidating local residents. The Kremlin moves quickly to formalise the annexation. The White House condemned the Crimea vote as a “breach of international law,” and later imposes limited sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, which the Russians openly mock. 

5 April 2014: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visits Tokyo and claims there’s no “weakness on the part of the United States as to our complete and absolute commitment to the security of Japan.” He adds, of Putin: “I think anytime you have a nation, Russia in this case, try to impose its will to refine and define international boundaries and violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a nation by force, all of the world takes note of that.” 

It certainly does. But this litany of foreign policy debacles should come as no surprise, even to the White House’s most partisan supporters. Back when he was a presidential candidate, then-Senator Obama pitched himself not as a man who had thought deeply about America’s role in the world and its foreign-policy interests, but as the anti–George W. Bush — a new kind of president who could charm autocrats into democrats through the power of his own personal charisma. His July 2008 Berlin speech, delivered to an adoring crowd of thousands, began, predictably, with his own personal story — as do many of his speeches. But there was no deep wisdom in platitudes like “we cannot afford to be divided” or “this is the moment to give our children back their future.” Who wants to be divided and have children with no future? 

The most interesting question may be why the President himself continues to pursue a policy of diplomacy at all costs, regardless of the increasingly dire and embarrassing outcomes. How many “red lines” and “off ramps” has the Obama team issued to the strongmen of Syria, Russia, or Iran? 

One explanation may be that the President believes in the power of his own persuasion more than anyone else in the room. Or he’s living in the classic White House bubble, surrounded by acolytes too reverential or afraid to challenge his judgement. (So much for that Lincoln-esque cabinet of rivals.) Or both. 

Or perhaps President Obama believes that what he’s doing is actually working to better America’s standing in the world, by letting other powers rise to “balance” US. might. In this telling, it’s a foregone conclusion that Beijing and Tehran will dominate their respective geopolitical space, and the US should just get used to the idea. The Cold War is over and America just has to deal with new realities like Vlad and Hassan. Viewed from that lens, the Obama foreign policy starts to make sense. 

It’s that flavour of foreign policy — of studied, deliberate weakness and accommodation of autocrats — that should scare the wits out of every democracy that depends on Washington for its security, from Ukraine to Japan to eastern Europe, and every citizen of a non-democratic state who wants a better future. Memo to them: Barack doesn’t have your back.