Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Strategy Deficit

In September 2012 at the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry stepped up to the microphone to mock President Obama’s Republican opponent. “Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV,” pronounced Kerry. The joke was unintentionally funny if only because the primary foreign-policy criticism of Romney from the Obama/Biden ticket was that the GOP nominee was stuck in a Cold War “mind warp”; as Rocky IV appeared in 1985, the same could apparently be said of the Obama campaign’s pop culture references.

Nonetheless, the laugh last would come not from Kerry but at his expense, and that of his boss. Last month Kerry went hat-in-hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin to beg for mercy from Russia’s ongoing diplomatic humiliation of the Obama administration, especially on Syria. Putin kept Kerry waiting for three hours, refused to even feign interest in what Kerry had to say, and then ignored the issue afterwards. Since then he has helped Bashar al-Assad’s forces turn the tide in their favor, and today suggested Russia would be happy to station forces on the Golan Heights, since Western countries were slinking away from their peacekeeping responsibilities in unceremonious retreat.

But the Cold War references of Obama, Biden, and Kerry actually help illuminate the mistakes this administration has made. They have only defined geopolitics according to what isn’t, rather than taking the logical next step and also defining what is. Russia is a case in point. No, Putin is not trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union nor seeking to perfectly emulate Stalin. But so what? American strategy cannot stop there–yet that’s exactly what the Obama administration, with its failed “reset” and Kerry’s groveling, has done.

This isn’t about what Putin is not, because that only gets you so far. What matters is what Putin is actually doing. It’s ironic, in a sense, because by using the Soviet Union as its yardstick, it is the Obama administration that is actually living in the past. This has been an issue not just for Obama but for his ideological associates. The Arab Spring has left the realist approach to the Middle East in ruins. In response, realists have been reduced to reciting balance-of-power platitudes and other clichés, with no detail or strategic adjustment.

A good example of this is Robert Kaplan’s column yesterday about the need for Obama to behave like Richard Nixon (a proposition that is poorly timed, to say the least, considering the current wave of Obama scandals). Kaplan wants the U.S. to look at the world “through Putin’s eyes”–a helpful suggestion. But that would mean ditching talk of human rights and using Russia to balance out China’s influence. Here is Kaplan’s advice:

Nixon would understand Russia’s geopolitical insecurities and partially assuage them, in order to gain some leverage over China, just as four decades ago he had moved closer to China in order to gain some leverage over Russia. Were the United States to give Russia more leeway in the Caucasus and Central Asia — rather than trying to compete with Russia in those regions — Russia might find ingenious ways to make China more nervous along its land borders. And that, in turn, would make China somewhat less able to devote so much of its energy to projecting power in the Pacific Basin, where it threatens American allies.

Notice the vagueness? If the U.S. stopped telling Russia what to do, Russia, in turn, “might find ingenious ways” to balance China. No word on what those “ingenious ways” might be, or even if they would actually come to fruition. Just wish upon a star, and you might wake up to a whole new world. That’s not strategy, and it ignores the “leeway” the Obama administration has already given Putin. This is an idea that has been tried and failed–indeed, it is currently failing as we speak.

Though he doesn’t mention Kaplan, Charles Krauthammer’s latest column can be read as a response to this type of thinking. Krauthammer rejects the idea that realism consists only of asking nicely. He writes:

In 1958, President Eisenhower — venerated by today’s fashionable “realists” for his strategic restraint — landed Marines in Lebanon to protect the pro-American government from threats from Syria and Egypt.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russia threatened to send troops on behalf of the Egyptian army. President Nixon threatened a U.S. counteraction, reinforced the Sixth Fleet and raised the U.S. worldwide military alert level to DEFCON 3. Russia stood down.

That doesn’t mean putting American troops on the ground is always the answer either–Krauthammer specifically rejects sending American troops into Syria today. But diplomacy is about sending a message. When there was a vacuum earlier in the conflict, the Obama administration declined to influence just what would take its place. Obama then set “red lines” from which he would back away once crossed.

The Obama administration has been sending the message that it doesn’t mean what it says. And no politician more thoroughly embodies this tendency for waffling and bluffing and general confusion than John Kerry. Hiring Kerry to be secretary of state reinforced this message, and sending Kerry to Moscow does the same. Three days after Kerry got rolled in Moscow, he waived restrictions on military aid to Egypt that would force Mohamed Morsi’s regime to take steps toward democracy in order to receive the aid. Morsi followed that by further cracking down on democracy and human rights. The message was received loud and clear.

Administration officials are fond of categorizing Obama’s policy failures as communication failures. In this case, nothing could be further from the truth.

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