Doomed to Fail: A President Dithers

During a 60 Minutes interview in which President Obama could only offer rambling and incoherent answers to Steve Kroft’s fair and pointed foreign policy questions, the President did manage to shed new, and rather unflattering, light on his disastrous Syria policy. After backing down from his own red line when Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, Obama decided to launch a $500 million rebel training program whereby the United States would train moderate fighters to oust Assad. With only 4 or 5 trained rebels currently fighting in Syria, it is safe to call this program a failure. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the President himself said last night, “I’ve been skeptical from the get-go” that the training program would work.

What does it say about a President who built a strategy around a program he deemed doomed to fail? How callous to watch thousands of Syrians die each month at the hands of Assad, and now ISIS, while pursuing a program that you don’t believe can work. It is one thing to try and fail; it is entirely different to pretend to try and fail. In a Presidency chock full of stunning admissions, this has to rank near the top of the list. The Syrian Civil War has raged for over 3 years, and the only strategy the Administration could come up with was essentially fictitious.

While dithering away time and letting Syria devolve into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises of the past quarter-century, he’s let ISIS stand up and fill the power vacuum. The President doesn’t even have a plan to deal with ISIS, saying that over time “the community of nations” will deal with ISIS. What is this community the President speaks of? China enjoys all the perks of being a world power without assuming any responsibilities, Europe hasn’t led in decades, and Russia is directly flouting Obama’s high-minded goals. The concept of such a community is noble and works well as a dissertation at Columbia University but is dangerously simplistic when applied in the real world. A community of nations only exists when America plays the leading role.

Instead, Obama has stepped back and is now letting Vladimir Putin decimate the rebels we’ve aided without impunity from the air. What message does this send to other potential allies in the region? The US will not stand by you when times get tough, which will undermine our ability to form strategic relations in the region for years. With Putin allied with Iran—the region’s aspiring hegemon—the moderates are being wiped out, leaving only Assad and ISIS, an unpalatable choice, and the Russia-Iran axis will inevitably pivot to push back ISIS from Syria and Iran all while the President awaits for the community of nations to respond.

The overarching failure of President Obama’s foreign policy is a simple one: he dithers until the United States is left with virtually no winning option. In Syria, we could have provided substantive support for moderate rebels and toppled Assad. Now any action risks direct military conflict with Russia, and quickly, the only two feasible options are ISIS or Assad. Three years ago, we had options that could tip the balance in our favor; now, there are none.

In Iraq, we could have signed a “status of forces” agreement to leave residual troops in Iraq, continue to train their military, and ensure the hard-fought gains we made were kept. Instead, Obama made no serious effort to get this agreement, pulled out entirely, leaving Iraq weak and vulnerable, and leaving it easy for ISIS to take large swaths of territory. Now, what is left of Iraq is morphing into an Iranian client state as the US has unilaterally ceded all influence. Obama could have kept troops in Iraq, or he could have provided serious assistance in the fight against ISIS last year. Instead, he has done as little as possible and somehow allowed a nation we spent a decade building to align with our major rivals, Iran and Russia.

In 2014, Obama had a chance to swiftly respond to Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea by providing arms to the Kiev government and restart the Eastern Europe missile defense shield, a real cost in Putin’s eyes. These actions could have stopped Putin in his tracks, winning Crimea but realizing the rest of Ukraine would not be worth the fight. Instead, Obama merely lectured Putin, so he launched a covert operation in East Ukraine and essentially split the country in two. What can the US do now apart from some meaningless sanctions? Providing the necessary support to the Ukrainian government to roll back Russia would be exceedingly costly and risk direct military confrontation with a nuclear power while giving Putin cover to escalate his involvement. The other option, to accept Russian expansion, would be the most humiliating strategic defeat against Russia since the Carter Administration. By doing virtually nothing serious for 18 months in Ukraine, we face another no-win situation.

Last, Obama foolishly loosened sanctions on Iran just for coming to the negotiating table, ceding the leverage that brought them there. At that point, reasserting the sanctions was all but an impossibility, forcing us to accept an embarrassingly weak deal. Iran doesn’t even care about the few restrictions in the deal, testing a long range missile this week despite that likely being forbidden in the text. They know this administration won’t do anything to nullify the deal because we could never get Russia and China to okay sanctions at the UN again. If we had actually kept sanctions in place during the negotiation, we would have maintained leverage and been able to reach a good deal with real verification. Either we accept a flawed deal that lets Iran become a threshold nuclear state over a decade or we isolate ourselves diplomatically by exiting the deal and imposing further sanctions ourselves.

From Syria to Iraq to Russia to Iran, Obama has been so consistently wrong and soft that we are left with a host of complex situation where there is no clear option for the US. In each situation, had we acted swiftly, we could have gained the initiative and reached a strategically favorable outcome. Instead, American power is being challenged around the world. That is the legacy of this President. His successor will have to navigate minefields just to scrape out draws, by aggressively reasserting our military presence to assuage panicked allies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe alike while reminding bad actors like Putin that the U.S. really is a force to be reckoned with.

Obama’s Presidency is one of bungled opportunities. Would you expect less from a man who expects his own policies to fail?

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Beware Russians Bearing Gifts

When addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely have a swagger in his step. Thanks to his reassertion of Russian power on the world stage over the Ukrainian crisis, Putin enjoys domestic popularity that Western leaders would salivate over—despite an economy in recession and overly reliant on exporting oil and gas. On top of this, Putin can take additional delight over his ability to reshape the West’s thinking over the Syrian crisis almost overnight by deploying forces to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is now offering assistance in fighting ISIS and supposedly is even willing to fight ISIS single-handedly. However, we must view this offer with deep skepticism. Often, accepting gifts from enemies is a dangerous proposition.

With over 200,000 dead and millions displaced, the Syrian civil war has devolved into arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda, and our failure to do anything substantive merits significant blame for this. Europe prefers to live in blissful decline than carry its weight in the Middle East and now faces refugee inflows unseen since the end of World War II, putting tremendous pressure on its political union. At the same time, the President failed to act when Assad crossed his red line by gassing his own people. Our effort to arm moderate rebels has been a total embarrassment; for $500 million, we have trained “4 or 5” active fighters. Considering our government lacks the competence to even count with confidence to 5, it is no wonder this training program has failed at every level.

Unfortunately, power vacuums inevitably get filled; that is the one time-tested truth of geopolitics. By abdicating our leadership role, we left space that has since been filled by ISIS, leaving us with a civil war where both sides are evil. Fight ISIS and the child-gassing Assad stays in power; fight Assad and watch an apocalyptic terrorist state reign. The moderate rebels have been all but vanquished in the cross-fire. From Syria to Ukraine to the Iran deal, the bumbling of the Obama Administration has consistently left the United States with no-win situations.

Our calls for Assad to go have virtually no credibility given our unwillingness to do anything about it. Assad’s days have supposedly been numbered for years after all. At the same time, our effort to roll back ISIS from the air alone is proving to be ineffectual. Since stopping its advance on Mosul, ISIS has regrouped, solidified its territory, and controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Containing it is simply not a viable long-term strategy, and when the White House resorts to using inaccurate intelligence, you can be sure things are not going swimmingly.

Enter Russia.

Putin needs to keep Assad in power or at least ensure that a pro-Russia government takes power. Russia has a strategically critical naval base in Tartus, providing the Navy with a year round warm water hub and a replenishment base on the Mediterranean Sea. Putin cannot allow a regime that would threaten this base take power. At the same time, having risen to power in part thanks to his aggressive response to Chechen terrorists, Putin does understand the threat Islamic extremism poses to the world and probably sees the need to crush ISIS. As such, he has moved troops, tanks, and aircraft to Syria to assist Assad. With Russian assistance, Assad can stabilize the fight and even take some territory back.

Putin is now reaching out to the President to form a joint task force to fight ISIS and resolve the Syrian Civil War. While Putin may accept Assad gradually leaving power over time, Putin wants Assad at the negotiating table, a prolonged transition, and assurances any new government will be in-keeping with Russia’s strategic interests. Make no mistake, the timing of this military buildup is not coincidental. Putin is looking to gain leverage into the UN General Assembly where he can make a triumphant return to the world stage and show his citizenry the key role he played in solving this crisis. Putin has picked the perfect time to apply pressure and force the West’s hand.

Already, our European allies are ready to sign on. Nations like Austria and France now appear willing to let Assad remain in power for some time—perhaps indefinitely.

We mustn’t strike a deal with Putin so easily as there is a significant cost. Putin sees the U.S. retreating from the world, particularly the Middle East, and he has the ability to turn Russia into the regional power. Now with its lackluster and unproductive economy, Russia can do little to project power outwardly and compete with the US by itself (though its national will and nuclear arsenal keep it from being influenced by the United States). However, Russia with one or two regional powers can form hegemonic alliances that can effectively counter US power.

We have already seen Putin pivot East, ensuring Russia will be China’s primary energy supplier for decades as he tries to ally with a rising global power and project strength in the Pacific Basin. At the same time, with $150 billion in fresh funds, an economy unshackled, and 77 million people, Iran has the potential to be the regional power in the Middle East, usurping Saudi Arabia over time. Of course, this is another nation Putin is hitching his horse to. Iraq has turned to Iran for help fighting ISIS since Obama has all but abandoned the region. Shia Iraq is quickly turning into Iran’s proxy.

Similarly, Assad is merely an Iranian proxy, and a proxy Iran needs to keep funneling Hezbollah weaponry. Assad is the key to Iran maintaining its sphere of influence throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This is the danger of inviting Russian participation in a coalition against ISIS and accepting Assad at the negotiating table. Doing so guarantees a Russian-Iranian axis that extends from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. All the while, Russia makes overtures to Egypt and Turkey, which become all the more compelling as Russian dominance in the region becomes clearer. Even without these two nations, this turn of events would be devastating for the United States, shifting the balance of power away from us in the region and isolating the Gulf States who could turn to nuclear weapons to re-balance—opening the door to an arms race in the most volatile part of the globe.

The case for accepting Putin’s offer today may he compelling in the short-term. 2,000 Russian troops would help in the fight against ISIS, and since we have dithered for so long, there is no viable moderate opposition anymore. This makes our position that Assad must go less tenable—there is no one who can replace him. But to strike a deal with Putin today is to ensure Russian influence in the Middle East only grows over time as the balance shifts towards the Russian-Iranian axis. Plus working with him likely weakens Europe’s resolve to maintain sanctions over Ukraine, which will provide his economy with much needed oxygen.

Are we really prepared to welcome Vladimir Putin back to the world stage as the central dealmaker and risk ceding regional influence to him? A weak-willed Europe unwilling to do anything to actually deal with ISIS and Syria is. The United States should not be. Instead of striking the proverbial deal with the devil, the US should fight to win against ISIS, re-engage with Iraq, deploy 10-15,000 ground troops, roll back ISIS, and pry Iraq back away from Iran. Then with ISIS on the run into Syria, we again have leverage over Putin and can resolve the situation there in a more advantageous fashion. Yes, this strategy is more costly today than Putin’s offer of expedient assistance but it will pay dividends in years to come as Russia remains the outsider looking in at the Middle East.