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Pure Onsense

In search of a foreign policy win

Scott Zuke

(12/2014) The passing of Novemberís mid-term election marks the unofficial start of the next presidential election cycle. It is also traditionally the time in a two-term presidentís tenure that he sees the finish line ahead and begins to be more concerned with his legacy. Like his recent predecessors, President Obama has struggled with low approval ratings as his second term winds down, and the prospects for adding any major new pieces of legislation to his list of accomplishments in his remaining two years diminished further as Republicans have regained control of the Senate in the next Congress.

As a candidate and in his first few years in office Obama was focused mainly on domestic policy. This was partly out of necessity, as the financial crisis demanded a swift and robust response, and then out of convenience, as a Democrat majority in the House and Senate allowed the 111th Congress to be the most productive in decades, with landmark (albeit controversial) legislation including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, among others.

Then the wheels came off with the 112th Congress and the rise of the Tea Party movement and its calls for limited federal government and fiscal austerity. It wasnít all that long ago that we were all talking about "fiscal cliffs," sequestration, and the debt ceiling. The issues under debate have moved on since then, but that period established the prevailing Republican strategy of taking every possible measure to prevent President Obama from adding further accomplishments to his legacy.

So what is a president to do as he finds himself on the home stretch, facing lame duck status, and with a hostile Congress? One option is to circumvent Congress, as he is attempting to do with his executive orders on immigration. Another is to shift more of his attention to policy areas that donít require as much cooperation from the legislative branch, namely foreign policy.

President Obama has a very mixed record in this arena. A year or two ago we might have credited him with ending the Iraq war and committing to end the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. But now Iraq has effectively ceased to exist as a state and weíre learning that Americaís combat role in Afghanistan is being extended into its fourteenth year. The U.S. and international mission to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya was hailed as a model intervention at the time, but the power vacuum that followed consumed the state, leaving behind an ungoverned space filled with warring militias.

The collapse of Libya influenced Obamaís approach to Syria, not only in that it served as yet another reminder of the risks of hasty regime change, but also because it set the authoritarian governments in Russia and China on edge and ensured that the U.N. Security Council would no longer cooperate with humanitarian interventions against brutal dictators. This gave Obama limited options for dealing with Bashar Al-Assad, who is now responsible for over 200,000 civilian deaths in Syriaís tragic civil war.

President Obama misguidedly threatened military intervention if Assad crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons. Then when the line was crossed, he waited for Russia to bail him out of having to follow through on that threat by offering to dispose of the weapons. This effectively gave Assad a pass on using conventional arms, which have been perfectly capable of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. At the same time he decided against shipping U.S. weapons to moderate Syrian opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime, which allowed space for the rise of the extremist opposition, including the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, among others.

American influence has waned in Egypt, where the uncertain U.S. response to the revolution and multiple coups has left the people suspicious of its commitment to their well-being, or even to its own professed values. And despite the very strong, genuine efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to restart peace talks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this summerís flare-up in Gaza torpedoed hopes of finding a peace deal anytime soon and also demonstrated the limits of Americaís influence with Israel, its closest ally in the region. The Israeli government has paid no heed to U.S. protests against its continued settlements in the West Bank. Why would it, when there are no real consequences attached to those complaints?

What was intended by the Obama administration as a cautious approach to foreign entanglements has created a problem of credibility. This is not to say that all the decisions themselves were wrong, but the rhetoric preceding them forced the administration into corners that it was not prepared to fight its way out of.

Time is running out for President Obama to add significant achievements to his legacy, but opportunities remain. Most notable is the prospect of reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear aspirations. According to reports at the time of this writing, a deal has remained elusive and the talks will need to be extended once again beyond their deadline. This is just the latest sign that the negotiations may be faltering, but no one is in a hurry to abandon them altogether. The deal isnít just about preventing the arrival of a new nuclear-armed nation (and one with a history of saber-rattling), but about thawing a 35-year-old conflict that vastly complicates regional affairs. A nuclear settlement would only be the first step in a long process, but it would affirm the more moderate tone that Iran has tried since shifting away from the tactics practiced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the inflammatory former president.

President Obama doesnít have free reign over foreign policy by any means, and Congress could still throw a wrench into the administrationís efforts, but so far in his terms most of his wounds have been self-inflicted. As his predecessor found with his lauded AIDS relief efforts for Africa, though, one big victory in foreign policy can absorb a lot of the heat from failures when it comes to the bullet-point summary of his legacy.

Read other article by Scott Zuke