BY: Thomas Friedman
Obama has been accused of being all three in foreign policy decisions this month.
Barack Obama is surely the first president to be accused of acting in foreign policy like Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger in the same month. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea, conservatives have denounced President Obama as a man who doesn’t appreciate what a merciless, Hobbesian world this really is. He’s a Pollyanna — always looking for people’s good side.
Meanwhile, liberals have been hammering Obama for what they say is his trigger-happy drone habit, having ordered the targeted killing by air of hundreds of individuals; he’s John Wayne, seeking vigilante justice against those who have harmed, or might be planning to harm, the US. And, just to round things out, Obama has been accused by critics on the left and right of being a Kissingerian hyperrealist who is content to watch the Syrian regime crush its people, because, as tragic as that is, American interests there are minimal.
It can’t be easy being Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger all at once. So who is Obama — really — on foreign policy? I’d say less Pollyanna than his critics claim, more John Wayne and Henry Kissinger than he’d admit, but still undefined when it comes to the greatest leadership challenges in foreign policy, which go beyond Crimea but lurk just over the horizon.
If Obama has been a reluctant warrior in Crimea, it’s because it’s long been part of Russia and home to a Russian naval base, with many of its people sympathetic to Russia. Obama was right to deploy the limited sanctions we have in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and try to coolly use diplomacy to prevent a wider war over Ukraine — because other forces are at play on Putin. Do not underestimate how much of a fool Putin will make of himself in Crimea — in front of the whole world — and how much this will blow back on Russia, whose currency and stock markets are getting hammered as a result of Vladimir’s Crimean adventure.
And if Obama has been a Kissingerian realist in his reluctance to dive into the Syrian civil war, or Ukraine, it’s because he has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that the existence of bad guys in these countries doesn’t mean that their opponents are all good guys.
Too many leaders in all these countries turned out to be more interested in using their freedom to loot rather than liberate. Where authentic reformers emerge in Syria or Ukraine we should help them, but, unlike Senator John McCain, most Americans are no longer willing to be suckers for anyone who just sings our song (see dictionary for Hamid Karzai), and they are now wary of owning the bailouts and gas bills of countries we don’t understand.
As for John Wayne Obama, “the quickest drone in the West”, every American president needs a little of that in today’s world, where you now have legions of superempowered angry people who wish America ill and who have access to rockets and live in ungoverned spaces.
So I have no problem with Obama as John Wayne or Henry Kissinger. If you want to criticise or praise him on foreign policy, the real tests fall into two categories: One, how good is he at leading from behind on Ukraine? And two, how good is he at leading from in front on Russia, Iran and China? There is probably no saving Crimea from Putin in the short term, but we do not want to see him move beyond Crimea and absorb the parts of eastern Ukraine where the Russophones reside.
We should be ready to offer arms to the Ukraine government to prevent that. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the key to keeping more of Ukraine out of Russia’s paws will depend on the ability of Ukrainians to come together in a way that is inclusive of both the majority that sees its future with the EU and the minority of Russophones who still feel some affinity for Russia.
If the Ukraine drama pits a united Ukraine — seeking a noncorrupt democracy tied to Europe — against a Putin trying to forcibly reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian empire, Putin loses. But if Ukrainians are divided, if hyper-nationalist parties there dominate and pro-Russians are alienated, Putin will discredit the Ukraine liberation movement and use the divisions to justify his own interventions. Then our help will be useless. We can’t help them if they won’t help themselves.
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