The perils of foreign-policy weakness
With each passing day, President Obama’s foreign policy looks more like a case study in the perils of weakness, naivete and indecision. From the Middle East to the Far East, from South America to the South China Sea, the current administration has alarmed our friends, emboldened our adversaries and seriously weakened U.S. credibility. Faced with the crisis in Ukraine, it is imperative that the administration not make any more unforced errors. Unfortunately, its record doesn’t inspire confidence.
Take Syria, for example. President Obama has rightfully called for regime change in that country since August 2011. His muscular rhetoric, though, has repeatedly been contradicted by his inaction. In the summer of 2012, he rejected a plan to arm the more moderate Syrian rebels that had been endorsed by the Pentagon, State Department and CIA. A year later, Bashar Assad launched a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb, which, according to the White House’s own estimate, claimed more than 1,400 lives — most of them civilians.
In response, the president announced a retaliatory plan that was so poorly conceived, so foolishly telegraphed and so sure to fail that it was met with bipartisan rejection. Such misguided passivity has helped the jihadists and their Iranian backers, thereby making the Syrian war even more dangerous to U.S. interests.
Speaking of Iran, the Obama administration’s attempts at rapprochement with that country, along with its mishandling of the Syrian war, have only served to raise doubts about American dependability among the leaders and people of Israel, our only true ally in the region. It’s hard to blame them when we see our president rushing to cut deals with a country whose leaders would like to see Israel wiped off the map.
All of this has weakened the stature and credibility of America on the world stage, and our adversaries have taken note. It’s a fair question to ask: Would Vladimir Putin’s calculus on Ukraine have been different just a few years ago?
Similarly, it’s important to keep in mind America’s standing commitments to Ukraine. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for pledges from the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom to respect its territorial sovereignty. With Russia now in open defiance of the memorandum, the question becomes: What will the United States do about it? We’re not off to a good start. The sanctions enacted by the president have been hesitant and anemic. Moreover, they ignore a convenient fact: The United States actually has more leverage over Moscow today than it did a decade ago, owing largely to Russia’s stagnating economy and America’s ongoing oil and gas boom.
Before the shale-gas revolution in this country, there was very little America could do to crack the Russian energy monopoly in Eastern Europe. Today, that’s no longer the case. Eastern European nations are increasingly expressing their desire to purchase American gas. In response, the United States should remove the trade barriers that are preventing us from exporting gas to Ukraine and our NATO allies. In doing so, we would substantially weaken Russian leverage over the long run.
In addition to sanctions and exports, America needs to provide serious military assistance to Ukraine and other allies in the region. That doesn’t necessarily mean American boots on the ground. Simply facilitating the purchase of military equipment and the necessary training would significantly deter Russian aggression. Remember, when Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, it did so after receiving assurances from the United States. If Russia’s annexation of Crimea is allowed to stand, our allies will have another reason to question American promises, and would-be aggressors — such as China — will be emboldened to pursue their questionable territorial claims.
The outcome of the crisis in Ukraine is critically important both to American credibility and the future of the international order. Our policies must reflect that.