A rudderless U.S. foreign policy: Obama flounders in dealing with the Ukraine, ISIS, and Ebola

Draft

While the United States has finally, and belatedly, begun military actions in Iraq and Syria to slow the advance of ISIS forces, the country is still led by a White House of extraordinary incompetence. This is not about politics, but rather about the ability to formulate coherent strategies, policies and plans, and then to execute them effectively.

If this is what “driving from the back seat”means, it is a total and unmitigated disaster.

We have witnessed this disaster in the making, with Obama’s contradictory and indecisive policies toward Syria as far back as 2011 and 2012, when he refused the unanimous advice of his principal foreign policy advisers to provide military support to the Syrian opposition forces. His refusal to do so had the result of helping Syrian president al-Assad beat back the insurgents, and opened the space for the growth of what became known as ISIS, which now threatens not only Iraq and Syria but countries across the world, from Australia to the U.S. and Europe.

One element of Obama’s indecisiveness led to pulling the rug out from under Turkey in 2012 as it was poised to intervene in Syria, according to well-founded reports.

At the moment, Turkey stands over the border from Kobanê in Syria, a town with a large Kurdish population which has been coming under increasing pressure from ISIS notwithstanding U.S. and perhaps allied airstrikes and which, according to some reports, could soon fall into the hands of ISIS.

In order for it to intervene, Turkey is demanding a commitment from the U.S. that it will also include in its goals the defeat of the Syrian regime, which has caused the deaths of over 200,000 persons in Syria through barbarous atrocities including war crimes and crimes against humanity on a grand scale.

In Iraq, despite U.S. and allied coalition airstrikes, and even the use of Apache heliocopters, in addition to the successful formation of a new Shiite-led government after the departure of former president al-Maliki, reports speak of the realistic possibility that all of Anbar province could fall to the ISIS fighters. ISIS already holds a broad swathe of territory in the province.

While the U.S. has done an admirable job of putting together a coalition to fight ISIS, at least on paper, it has yet to prove that it is capable of leading and coordinating an effective military campaign and coalition war against ISIS, as demonstrated not by statistics on the number of airstrikes launched (self-regarding) but rather by strategic objectives and results obtained on the ground.

At the moment, Obama would appear to be not following the advice of his generals. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stated in Congressional testimony that conditions could conceivably arise under which he would advise the president to send ground combat forces to Iraq, he was immediately contradicted the following day by President Obama who, in a military setting, firmly asserted that he would not introduce combat troops into Iraq.

With respect to the Russian-Ukrainian war, Obama was so slow in reacting that the Crimea had been annexed before the U.S., NATO and the EU could get around to offering a serious response. On economic sanctions, the U.S. did succeed in getting coordinated sanctions adopted with the EU, but only after much delay. Since September 5, when the sanctions were agreed and NATO also announced the creation of a rapid deployment force, the ceasefire called for in the Minsk Protocol of September 5 has stopped the advance of Russian troops, tanks and artillery, but has proven shaky particularly in the Donetsk region and around the Donetsk airport.

Over a month after the sanctions were agreed and the Minsk Protocol was signed, Russian troops remain in the Ukraine, and neither Obama nor the EU have taken any concrete initiatives to force their withdrawal.

With respect to the Ebola epidemic, currently out of control in West Africa in Liberia, Sierra Leone and possibly Guinea, which potentially threatens the entire world, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have played a superb role in leading the response to the crisis on a technical, medical level. They have laid out the case that if 70% of new cases are not confined to Ebola treatment centers by November 20, the exponential growth in the number of infected individuals may reach 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20.

Obama has pledged to send 3,000 military personnel, but they will not be on the ground before November. Meanwhile the contagion of the disease continues to explode. Resources and above all the coordination of efforts have been slow to materialize on the ground. This is a situation which calls for massive and extraordinarily urgent action, but the U.S. has only said what it is going to do, and that’s it.

The common thread to these ongoing failures of foreign policy, to which many other examples could be added, is Obama’s emphasis on what the U.S. is going to do–no more, and what other nations need to do. The emphasis almost seems to be on what the U.S. is not going to do, in a world in which time is not of the essence.

The focus is self-regarding, on what the U.S. and others are going to do, and not going to do, and not on the realities of the challenge on the ground and what is required to meet that challenge within the time limits that those realities impose.

Whether with respect to the Ukraine, ISIS and al-Assad in Syria, the defense of Anbar province and beyond in Iraq, or halting the explosion in Ebola infections, we are faced with policies which include many necessary elements (e.g., the replacement of al-Maliki with the formation of a a more inclusive regime in Baghdad (a work in progress, yet to convince the Sunnis), but which are blind to the urgency of the moment, to quickly developing military advances of ISIS on the ground, or the rapid explosion in the number of Ebola cses in West Africa.

Returning to the situaiton in Kobanê, one has the impression that Obama is far more interested in winning a battle of wills with the Turks over whether to also target the al-Assad regime than he is in protecting the hundreds of thousands of human beings who will be affected by a continued failure to take effective action. The airstrikes are important, but not sufficient to achieve the goal.

Obama doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of symbolic and strategic victories or of momentum on the ground.

The Daily Star in Beirut expressed the general exasperation with Washington’s policies in the Middle East in an Editorial published on October 10. The paper wrote,

The vastly contradictory statements coming from the U.S. government over the last few days are emblematic of a wider problem: that the Obama administration apparently has no coherent strategy when it comes to Syria, and now Iraq, and is playing the whole thing by ear. But this absence of any tangible policy will have ramifications far wider than simply the countries directly involved.

Despite a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, backed by a coalition of some 60 countries, the U.S. is confused and confusing. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. was looking closely at the idea of a buffer zone along the border with Turkey, inside Syria. Hours later the Pentagon and the White House said (the) option was absolutely not on the table.

This flip-flopping really makes one wonder where decisions are being made, and by whom….

(T)the mistakes of Obama’s administration have done untold and likely irreparable damage.

And the vacuum that has been left appears to have given oxygen to the most extreme and most dangerous groups around the world. The destruction and loss of life happening now across the Middle East is only the beginning. The aftershocks of current political indecisiveness will be felt for generations.

The Trenchant Observer

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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.