Obama’s six crises and collapsing foreign policy: Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and China’s actions in the East and South China Seas

Developing

President Barack Obama now faces six simultaneous crises, amid the collapsing edifice of his foreign policy. They are:

1. Russia and the Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of the eastern Ukraine continues, calling the West’s bluff that it would impose sectoral sanctions.

The fact that Russia is acting through special operations and irregular foces has no bearing on its responsibility under international law for these actions. They amount to an “armed attack” under the terms of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, creating a right self-defense on the part of the Ukraine, and a right of “collective self-defense” on the part of other states, up to and including the use of force, to repel the invasion.

Economic and other sanctions are similarly justifiable as measures of self-defense, and also as “countermeasures” in response to illegal intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

But where legal authority for action to stop the Russians is abundant and clear, the political will of the countries in the West to act effectively is almost non-existant. Instead, appeasement and a new form of “hybrid” pacifism have taken hold.

Putin knows his antagonists. As the one-month deadline for stopping support of the “separatists” in eastern Ukraine draws near, the EU and the U.S. are already backing down, talking now of further “targeted” sanctions–not sectoral sanctions. Today Obama added seven individuals to the list.

If there were any doubt in Putin’s mind about Obama’s decisiveness, the latter’s meek and temporizing responses to the advances of ISIS in Iraq should have put those doubts to rest.

Russia continues its invasion of eastern Ukraine, sending additional tanks and other equipment across the border right now.

Having concentrated control of foreign policy in the White House, President Obama does not have the decision making capacity to deal with multiple crises at the same time, or indeed the decisiveness to take timely and effective action in any one of them.

We have devoted great attention to Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea, and its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine, because these actions and the pacifism and appeasement with which they have been met in the West directly threaten the collapse of the institutions and norms established to uphold the maintenance of international peace and security.

In the hierarchy of grave crises, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine remains the most serious, because it threatens to destroy or eviscerate the necessary tools of international law and institutions which are essential for the resolution of other crises, including those which are presently all raging at the same time.

When the question seems to be where to send the fire brigade, actually the more fundamental question is how can you keep the fire brigade functioning, and operating effectively?

See:

Brett Logiurato, “Ukraine Wants A Ceasefire — Russia Is Sending A Bunch Of Tanks Into Ukraine,” Business Insider, June 20, 2014 (1:16 p.m.).

To be continued…

2. Iraq

The armed forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured Mosul, and are driving south toward Baghdad. Kurdish Peshmurga forces have occupied Kirkuk. The tribes in the Sunni triangle are collaborating with ISIS. The newly elected Parliament is to convene and elect a new prime minister.

Iraq has requested the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIS forces. Obama has disatched under 300 soldiers to help protect the U.S, Embassy, and also approximately 300 special forces troops and advisers to help the Iraqi military.

If the ISIS advance is not stopped, particularly toward Shiite shrines in the south, Iran may intervene militarily to defend the shrines and the al-Maliki Shiite government.

Tellingly, one of Obama’s first moves was to go to Congressional leaders to see what actions might be politically acceptable, instead of huddling with all of his top national security officials to decide what actions are required by the exigencies of the present military and political situation in Iraq.

3. Syria

Syria has been reported by the international chemical weapons agency, charged by the Security Council with overseeing Syria’s surrender and destruction of all of its chemical weapons, as having recently used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) against its population on a number of occasions.

Such actions would appear to cross Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use. What is he going to do about it? His “red line” seems to have been written in the sand.

4. Afghanistan

The Afghan presidential run-off election on June 14 was, according to the leading candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, the subject of massive fraud in the eastern portions of the country, the traditional base of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani.

The actions the U.S. takes in the coming days may have a decisive impact on the transparency and outcome of the election. If a satisfactory way out of the present crisis is not found, the legitimacy of the new government and the prospects for its survival after U.S. forces withdraw in 2015 could be greatly diminished.

In thinking about Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers should keep one image firmly fixed in their minds: that of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers laying down their arms and fleeing from battle as ISIS forces approached in Mosul, and elsewhere.

A full-blwn crisis has erupted.

5. Iran

A settlement of the nuclear dispute with Iran is far from assured. The six-month interim agreement will expire on July 20. The talks could not bear fruit, raising again the possibility of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s buclear installations.

6. China and territorial claims in the South and East China Seas

In the last week China has begun moving oil rigs into disputed territorial waters. This is highly provocative, and has the potential to generate an arms race with its neighbors in the region, including Vietnam, Japan and Korea.

The U.S. needs to actively intervene in this crisis to ensure it does not lead to military incidents in the region, or an arms race. The ultimate risk is that Tokyo could be driven to deploy nuclear weapons. Few doubt that it has the capability to do so.

Can President Obama and his administration handle all of these crises simultaneously, and successfully?

We shall see, and very soon.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.