Monday, July 28, 2014

The World at War - Foreign Policy and Priorities

The attentive reader will recall that I opined on Putin and Marxist thought last week. Today, I'd like to focus on Obama and the United States.

The world now finds itself with violent and dangerous brush fires raging widely – Israel-Hamas, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran negotiations, and our friends in the Ukraine. ( Not to mention Ebola in West Africa - wow!  But we'll keep that out of this discussion.)  The role of the President at this time is to sort out priorities – what do you do with whom, in what time frame, and how. The role of all our opponents is to take advantage of the chaos to use the distractions to sneak off and do what they want to do.  So while making priorities is hard under duress, doing so also presents an opportunity to show the world where you will put your resources, and what you care about the most.

The Gaza crisis certainly grabs headlines and strums heartstrings. Kerry is spending a great deal of time there. This is a mistake. Although there is a humanitarian crisis, there is really little for the US to do. If you look at the Middle East, the conservative forces there see the threat of radical Islamism and are starting to act accordingly, as on the other side Turkey and Qatar try to take advantage (a couple of years ago when we were in Turkey we read that Erdogan was doing some Holocaust denying – that's the kind of guy he is.) They will all sort this out. In the meanwhile, it is in our interest to let the Israelis clean out the tunnels and do whatever else they want to do with Hamas. They will live with the results. Even if we were to be fully, fully engaged, who can predict what efforts will yield what result? It's just unpredictable. The Israelis' long term problem is not so much Hamas as the demographic challenge of their own Ultra Orthodox and other Rightist-enablers, and once again, there's not a whole lot we can do about that. So, as a matter of priorities, I would reassign Kerry and leave this firefighting to someone else. Perhaps Susan Rice – why let only the Israelis and Hamas be abrasive? We are concerned, we are willing to be helpful, but it's a little bit down on our list.

Libya is going to pot with internecine warfare. Again, what are we going to do about that? The US has done the right thing by just getting our people out of the line of fire. Again, the Arab world has the most fish to fry in this situation, let them see what they want to do, and if we can help, we will. Our main task should be to avoid making enemies.  This is even further down on our list than Israel-Hamas.

Iraq is another place we can only do so much. We have called Maliki's bluff very well, and the Iraqis are now sorting it out themselves, trying to develop a new government that may or may not be able to govern and to include Sunnis properly. They can't do worse than Maliki. It's true that a new state run by extreme Islamists could in time be a threat, and even if it would not threaten us directly, it is worthwhile blocking Islamic extremists from having a state of their own. But as threatening as it would be to us, it would be much more threatening to the regional powers. We should stand by ready to help, but that's it. I would continue to have this area staffed at the Assistant Secretary level. 

On the other hand, although it is less spectacular than the wars, the Iran negotiations are in reality more important. What is at stake is the balance of power in the region and actually in the world, and how that balance will be addressed. We are trying to maintain the rules as they have been, with nuclear weapons increasingly restricted, not proliferated. It would be very useful if the US could show the importance of this issue by having the President address this personally from time to time, and having Kerry stop running around the world and instead concentrating on the negotiations personally. The Iranians would be pleased. Everyone wants respect, and attention despite the distractions would show them lots of it. The President would certainly be taking a chance with his prestige, but that's the game. It's a better big goal to have than the stupid one that W attempted. This should be the President's very strong priority number two.

Finally, number one priority should be the Ukraine. The stability and prosperity of the world hinges
on a certain level of trust and stability. If a country is going to revert to 19th or 18th century land grabs, neither trust nor stability will be possible. Thus, the collective world needs to enforce this modern norm, just as they did when Iraq invaded Kuwait – no land grabs.

What is Putin after? Territory, of course; a sphere of influence; prestige. I believe he can't have been anything but severely stung when Obama dissed Russia as a “regional power” in a Romney debate. “Regional Power, eh?” you can hear Putin saying. How'd you like this Regional Power crawling up your ass?

This is really the most difficult of the tasks. The EU should be concerned, but France still wants to sell Russia the superships, Germany wants to keep trading, and even England doesn't want the Russian money to disappear. It's probably about time for Obama to send them black umbrellas. He should do this with style, making personal visits and instructing Kerry that this is his first priority. Kerry should do what Jim Baker did in the run up to the First Gulf War – globe trot for money and troops. Forget globe trotting for a cease fire – that's for Susan Rice. Maybe Obama himself should visit the Ukraine. Certainly the US should be giving the Ukrainians targets in real time – as long as they do everything we want them to do to construct a government that works and doesn't steal. The risk of a shooting war should be a danger to everyone, and Obama shouldn't do his favorite negotiating with himself to dissuade him from taking the risk.

Just as with the Iranians, making this the highest US priority would give Putin the center stage as a World Power, not a Regional Power. Respect is a precious commodity, but unlike other commodities, it doesn't deplete any coffers. Like love, there is always more available. So give it freely. You don't need to protect your resources of respect. And in giving respect, be prepared to receive it as well – after some more violence, probably and a minor game of chicken.

So that's my recommendation. Make your priorities, Mr. President, and don't bargain with yourself the way you did domestically. Maybe it's very simplistic. As my friend Michael Nacht, who actually did negotiate with the Russians, likes to say, "What do I know?"  But that's what I think.

Budd Shenkin

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