Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Obama’s Real Legacy: A World without Rules

The historic nature of Obama's recent diplomatic overtures in Cuba, Vietnam and Japan has been severely undermined by existing global perceptions surrounding his handling of foreign policy over the last few years, especially in regard to the Syria conflict. The issues are connected. Indeed, for years now, states and leaders around the world must have watched how Obama managed the situation in Syria and how he set his priorities; and their perception of that influenced their decision on a variety of other issues, encouraging them to adopt more aggressive policies that show completely disregard for the opinions of America’s leaders and its perceived interests.

Certain developments are by their very nature and the nature of the times at hand become overarching, and cannot be dismissed as too “small,” “contained,” or “particularistic,” without there being serious consequences. The conflict in Syria proved such an event. Indeed, this small and particularistic conflict which at one point seemed containable to the people in the Obama administration, people who seem to have cared more about containability than resolvability, not to mention preemption, has over the last few years served to intensify the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has facilitated Russia’s return to the Middle East in a manner not seen since the czars, and not simply Soviet leaders. Russia has become relevant in the Middle East against through its direct military involvement in a conflict and not simply through the provenance of logistical support to perceived allies. The conflict in Syria has also given birth to a multifaceted global terrorist threat posed by what Obama has once characterized as the “JV team” of terrorist groups.

The situation continued to worsen until Obama himself had to finally reverse his policy of minimal and indirect engagement in favor of a more direct involvement, but he did so at a time when suitable partners have mostly been eliminated, forcing him to settle for cooperation with groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham, which were ideologically, but not operationally, linked to A-Qaeda. He also had to rehabilitate a Kurdish group that is in fact an offshoot of the PKK – an organization still on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, just as he had to work in Iraq with Shia militias whose actions and sectarian motivations make them practically indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda and Daesh. By working with these groups, the Obama administration has become party to an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunni Arabs in southern Iraq and northern Syria. This development will provide terrorist groups of Sunni extraction, such as Daesh, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda itself, among others, with an effective recruitment tool for decades to come. It will also be used by Russian diplomats and propagandists as further proof of America’s fickleness, unreliability and hypocrisy as they seek to replace America as the new powerbrokers in the region and beyond.

It is no wonder then that Obama has become insignificant on the global stage. Theoretically, he can still choose to turn on a dime, and show a different face and attitude. But will he? Over the last 2-3 years he had ample opportunity and a variety of occasions that would have allowed him to do so, from Iran’s repeated violations of the nuclear agreement to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, its current military intervention in Syria and Ukraine and its current threats against Baltic nations as well as Rumania and Poland. But Obama remains unperturbed – a stalwart of stoic do-nothingness in the face of increased threats and provocations. The realists would claim that Obama is simply refusing to take the bait, and that by staying his grounds he is avoiding spilling American blood and wasting American treasure.

Is that really the case? Were people like Khamenei, Putin and even Kim Jong Un baiting Obama? Or were they testing the waters to see what and how much they could get away with?

Over the last few years, certain threats that were initially dismissed as mere saber-rattling quickly turned into reality catching the Obama administration completely off-guard and without any planned response: Crimea was annexed, Russia did venture into eastern Ukraine, and Russian soldiers and pilots are currently fighting in Syria. Iran has recruited Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has trained and equipped them, and has sent them to fight in Syria alongside its own IRGC recruits and what’s left of Assad’s army and loyalist militias. And “Kim Jong Un is on the home straight to making his country a serious nuclear power. Nobody knows how to stop him.” Let’s not forget as well “small” gestures such as hearing Egyptian military officials accusing the U.S. of trying to undermine security of the Middle Eastern even as they receive billions of dollars of military aid from it, and watching helplessly as Vietnamese authorities prevent dissidents from meeting with President Obama during his historic visit to the country.

Under the leadership of President Obama, it seems, the U.S. has become incapable of taking any serious stand that goes beyond rhetoric on any issue of note from individual human rights violations and mass slaughter of civilians, even when it assumes genocidal proportions, to wholescale invasions and annexation of whole or parts of sovereign countries by aggressive leaders in search of renewed imperial glory.

So, is there a red line from which the administration will not back-peddle? Is the U.S. allowed to assume an aggressive attitude towards a state anymore, or should it reserve its aggression to designated terrorist groups supported by certain nations (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, etc.) but not by others (Iran)? Is this truly conducive to a better foreign policy, a safer world, or at least a safer United States? Is the U.S. allowed to express aggression by means and modes other than your occasional drone strikes, as deadly and effective as they can be, or working with sectarian militias to achieve certain immediate goals, even if that meant aiding and abetting in ethnic cleansing? Does the U.S. have to wait until there is a danger to the home front as clear and present as the debris falling from the skies of New York City after the attacks of 9/11?

Did the Obama Doctrine, announced in a retroactive fashion, provide any cogent answers to these questions, answers that I have somehow missed? Shouldn’t these questions be asked of the current presidential candidates? Can we really speak of an actual foreign policy doctrine without providing clear answers to such questions?

Obviously, this is not what I think. For in my opinion, an effective foreign policy doctrine requires more than hope and hype, it requires taking clear stands on issues that go far beyond posturing, it requires presenting a clear exposition of the rules of the game one is trying to enforce. After two terms of Obama’s presidency, does anyone know what the rules are anymore?  Does “everyone for oneself” constitute a viable foreign policy rule? 

Again, this is not what I think. But this is what we are left with today. This is what the future administration will have to deal with: a world without rules.

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