An Obama disconnect on foreign policy

Philadelphia InquirerJune 4, 2014 

Having just returned from Ukraine, I found it hard to recognize the world President Obama described in his West Point foreign policy speech last week. The facts on the ground — in Russia, Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan — contradict the key points he was making. That disconnect makes friends and enemies worldwide question his ability to lead.

Obama rightly says the odds of a direct attack from any foreign nation are minimal. But in a rapidly changing world, with China rising, Russia invading its neighbors, and terrorists multiplying, he failed to clarify how he would counter new threats.

He did say that he opposes both isolationism and those who claim every problem has a military solution. “Some of our most costly mistakes (since World War II),” he rightly argued, “came ... from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” He also emphasized the building of international norms, rules, laws, institutions and coalitions.

But it’s frustrating to hear the president constantly hammer the no-war argument, which is a straw man. No one, not even Sen. John McCain, suggests sending U.S. troops to Ukraine or Syria, or keeping U.S. troops forever in Afghanistan.

Rather, the question is what to do about new terrorist havens in the Mideast or the return of old ones in Afghanistan. Or how to ward off aggression by Moscow or Beijing that will unsettle Europe or Asia. Here’s where the president’s rhetoric fails.

Let’s start with terrorism, which Obama identified at West Point as the prime threat to Americans. His main proposal is a new fund to train partner countries from South Asia to the Sahel to fight their own terrorist battles. However, we already do that. Much more is needed. By more, I don’t mean war.

Take Afghanistan, which the president mentioned briefly, noting that the United States has trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces. What he did not say was that he had just undercut their prospects for success.

Last week, Obama agreed to leave just under 10,000 U.S. troops to continue training Afghans after U.S. combat forces leave in 2014. But he also announced that all 10,000 would be withdrawn by the end of 2016. Afghan forces depend on Western financing, so this sudden announcement raises questions about their survival after 2016, undercutting morale.

Obama is repeating the same mistake he made with the 2009 surge, prematurely announcing a date for withdrawal, thus encouraging the Taliban to keep fighting.

Afghanistan is at a crossroads. If its security forces fail, this could have a ripple effect on nuclear-armed Pakistan, where jihadis are growing stronger. If U.S. backing remains firm, a newly elected Afghan president can engage in regional diplomacy that might finally calm South Asia. So why announce now that Washington is pulling the plug in 2016?

The speech shows the same incoherence when it comes to Syria, where a new jihadistan has emerged that extends deep into neighboring Iraq. This radical belt has attracted thousands of foreign fighters — including 3,000 Westerners and more than 70 Americans — who could return home with terrorist skills. This new jihadistan could have been prevented had the president agreed to give CIA-vetted rebels heavy weapons two years ago as his top foreign policy advisers requested. Instead, jihadis — armed and funded by rich Gulf sheikhs — were allowed to dominate the field.

Unbelievably, Obama is still dithering about helping moderate rebels who are now battling the jihadis. In his speech, he says he’ll work with Congress “to ramp up support” for the moderate Syrian opposition, but a senior adviser says those discussions won’t be held before the “coming weeks and months.”

No sense of urgency on a critical problem that has been debated for the last three years. No clarity about whether he will offer serious weapons.

This disconnect between words and action is what undercuts Obama’s leadership image abroad.

Which brings us to Ukraine. In his speech, the president says American leadership helped isolate Russia. He says that “standing with our allies on behalf of international order (and) working with international institutions has given the Ukrainian people a chance to choose their future without us firing a shot.”

Again, no one is calling for the Marines to land in Odessa. But Obama appears oblivious to the fact that Vladimir Putin has already shredded the most basic rules of the post-World War II international order — by invading the territory of a neighboring country and annexing Crimea.

True, Russia does not directly threaten America, but Putin is trying to divide Europe and befriend Europe’s ultranationalist parties, which admire his autocratic model. If he can flout global rules with impunity, China will take full notice, and Iran will also. Failure to bolster Ukraine now may make more likely an armed clash with China over disputed Asian islands — or with Iran over nukes.

So, short of war, Obama needs to show more leadership on Ukraine. There are several options: more unilateral sanctions on Moscow, if the European Union refuses to increase its sanctions; a presidential visit to Kiev; a coherent U.S. energy policy that promotes gas exports as a strategic necessity to undermine Russia’s gas blackmail; or arms and training to Ukrainian forces (Russia is sending missiles, special forces, and Chechen fighters to eastern Ukraine).

It’s fine to denounce war and call for strengthening international norms. But if Obama wants foreign leaders to take him seriously, he must clarify how he will handle those who ignore international rules and coalitions. The world is watching what he does, not what he says.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email her at trubin@phillynews.com.

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