Pluses and minuses of Obama’s foreign policy

By Jonathan Power

So Putin on Monday met Obama. They are going to cooperate against ISIS, the world’s worst problem. President Vladimir Putin says we should not be surprised to see Russian jets working cooperatively – even coordinating – with the US on missile attacks.

Even with both powers working in tandem it will be uphill work. ISIS has attracted over 30,000 foreign fighters, according to a UN Security Council report. At least 2,000 from Russia and ex-Soviet territories are in their number. (In contrast to Russia the US is more threatened by domestic, non-Muslim, terrorists than Muslim extremists.)

Will rapprochement over Syria and ISIS wind the clock back to the benign US-Russia relationship that was begun with President Barack Obama’s early “re-set” which led to, among other things, a significant agreement on reducing nuclear arms?

It could, since time is running out for Obama and he wants to go down in history as the president who made the single greatest impact on reducing the world’s nuclear armories.

Will rapprochement lead to ending the Ukrainian civil war which is the worst single blot on Obama’s foreign policy where intrigue, de facto compromise with Ukrainian fascists and the shunting aside of a planned presidential election fuelled the insurgents of the pro Russian east?

Probably yes, since the agreement made in Minsk in February between Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko now seems to be gaining traction. The truce is working and the Ukrainian parliament has taken steps towards granting devolved powers to the East. There isn’t enough devolution offered but Ukraine has until the end of the year to get that right.

That done Obama will have a year and a month to get a nuclear missile reduction deal with Russia.

On nuclear matters Putin and Obama know how to work in tandem. They did it with their own weapons’ agreement and they did it working together to forge the landmark Iranian denuclearization agreement.

They could also make a push to get North Korea to nuclear disarm. Obama and his predecessors were always undermined by the Republican Congress which sabotaged earlier deals. This time China, which holds the whip hand over North Korea, must be encouraged by both to be the lead power. China wants to see North Korea disarmed more than anybody.

Turning the page, evaluating Obama’s overall foreign policy achievements, one comes up with a mixed bag.

There has not been an iota of progress with Israel and the Palestinians and the Israeli land grabs and settlement building continue. The US continues to refuse to crack the whip with Israel. A military and economic boycott is overdue.

In Egypt there is a post-Arab Spring military dictatorship. The US, initially wary of the street movement that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, did support the subsequent Muslim Brotherhood government. But that was out of the frying pan into the fire and when demonstrators stupidly brought that anti-human rights regime down it was replaced by the present military dictatorship.

The demonstrators and the opposition were too impatient to wait for elections in which the Brotherhood government would have been thrown out. The US has had to accept the new military government, but it should do it in a more detached way. Could Obama have done better? He probably could if the US had brought more pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood government.

Was Obama right to pull out of Iraq after Britain and America’s invasion plunged the country into 8 years of war and left it with a sectarian leadership of a multi-religious nation? He certainly was. The genie had already escaped the bottle and nothing could push it back in. It is Ba’athist officers in Saddam Hussein’s army that have provided the leadership for the extremist Sunni ISIS. For them to keep undermining the present Iraqi army is as easy as pie. Going back into Iraq via the present Iraqi government to turn this around would not work.

Obama, long before he became president, was against George W. Bush’s policy of intervention. But he prevaricated over and delayed withdrawing from Afghanistan (where Russia again helped the US). Now US and Nato withdrawal is well underway, but too late to make a compromise deal with the Taliban.

In Libya, breaking his own rules, along with France and the UK, Obama’s intervention has made a mess. A peace deal between the competing factions, followed by a UN peacekeeping intervention, have to be pushed for hard.

Finally China. Obama should be reminded that making clear one’s principals is right but drawing red lines that could lead to conflict is counterproductive.

Adding all this up and looking into the crystal ball Obama could yet go down in history as a good foreign policy president if he works closely with Russia and China. If he doesn’t he will be seen as a failure.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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