“We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” said President Barack Obama at the end of a unscheduled national address from the White House press room Wednesday. And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions, but all of them require American leadership.”
His words surprised no one, and the president even prefaced his final point by saying in closing, “I’ll point out the obvious.” Still — in a week wracked by escalating violence in Ukraine, which saw pro-Russia rebels shoot down a civilian aircraft carrying nearly 300 passengers, and the failure of an Egypt-brokered ceasefire between the State of Israel and Hamas — his words had resonance. Yet, as Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS News program “Face the Nation” and chief Washington correspondent, reported Wednesday that Obama’s description of the world as “complex” may be “the understatement of the year.” And even his comments only hint at the growing criticism of Obama’s foreign policy — which, to his detractors — has returned very few victories.
As Obama describes it, his foreign policy is not about achieving major victories. Defending his strategies during a visit to Asia earlier this year, the president said his administration has focused on not rushing to judgement, in order to avoid “errors.” That thinking will keep U.S. troops “in reserve for when we absolutely need them,” he said, and critics who argue the United States is not using enough force “haven’t learned the lesson of the last decade,” during which the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on U.S. forces and the nation’s budget.
“That may not always be sexy,” Obama said of his administration’s focus on engagement and unity among allies. “That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
What is Schieffer’s evidence?
Schieffer pointed in particular to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the United States’ once-again languishing nuclear talks with Iran, as evidence of the world’s growing complexities. “Not so long ago we were trying to get Russia’s help in tamping down the Syrian Civil War; we were wanting Russia to help us in trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear capability … and just to underline that whole idea of complexity we now find ourselves on the same side with Syria and Iran in trying to do something about this group called ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] that is now claimed so much territory in Iraq, where so much American blood and treasure was expended.”
While Obama’s brief words on Wednesday appear to be meant as a rebuttal to his critics, the opinion that the world is growing more unstable is shared by many politicians and experts in the foreign policy world, including Senator John McCain of Arizona. Paraphrasing the lawmaker, Schieffer told CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley on Wednesday that McCain — who has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2013 and in the U.S. Congress since 1982 — could not recall a time when so many places in the world were “in such turmoil over so many different things” since the Cold War.
“I don’t want to be overly dramatic here tonight, Scott,” Schieffer added, “but I think that we are in a very dangerous time right now. Even more so, perhaps, than at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In those days we had a clearly identifiable enemy. We knew what they were up to. Now we seem to be immersed in a series of events that are totally out of control.”
Describing current events as “totally out of control,” is a position that begs further analysis.
Where are the crises?
July dawned with an escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko stated Ukraine would not renew a ceasefire, but rather go on the offensive to rid the country of the pro-Russian separatist “parasites.” In the Middle East, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens ushered in a new wave of violence, which is now engulfing Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. On June 30, the bodies of the three teenagers were found, and on July 1, responding to a series of rockets fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Israel attacked more than thirty targets in the Palestinian territory. The following Israeli offensive and incursion into Gaza has spawned protests in dozens of European cities, left 500 Palestinians dead, many of whom were civilians, and killed more than two dozen Israelis, almost all of whom were soldiers. And in the past month, Afghanistan experienced an electoral crisis; Syria’s civil war raged on, nuclear talks between the United States and Iran began to languish for an umpteenth time; and, insurgent violence in Iraq worsened. Plus, over the past several months, conditions in Central America have grown more violent, pushing millions of unattended children to immigrate to the United States.
But is this violence without precedence?
The phrase “historical precedent” is a dangerous one to throw about when quantifying and contextualizing current events because the implications of history are not simple to unravel. Yet there are several basic truths about the world that can be used to explain what both McCain and Schieffer described as the growing turbulence of the world and what Obama termed complexities. And, while the debate over whether current turmoil is without historical precedent is too complex for this discussion, several forces shaping the current world order are more easy to identify and catalog. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the United States-led “War on Terrorism” that followed created upheaval in the Middle East; most notably, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime left a power vacuum that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has been unable to completely fill, a void that has allowed ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, to began taking control of the country.
Serving as a backdrop and catalyst for the unrest in Iraq has been the broader shifts in global influence that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. That event allowed for a broad redrawing of the geopolitical map. Not only did the countries of Eastern Europe that had sat behind the Iron Curtain reemerge as independent states, but without the omnipresent need to divide the globe into communist and democratic camps, countries around the world gained greater levels of sovereignty. In the days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union sought to increase their powers of influence, financing guerrilla movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and supporting totalitarian and brutal regimes from Angola to Chile. But with the end of the conflict, the fight for influence came to a conclusion as well, meaning ruling ideologies of small countries like Vietnam and the Dominican Republic were no longer part of a high-stakes game. This profound change created a pragmatic China, but it also meant the world largely ignored events like the genocide in Rwanda. And, preoccupied with changing superpower dynamics, the world also did little to advance the cause of peace between the Israel and the Arab states of the Middle East.
The ongoing, post-Cold War shift in power, which has left superpower influence receding, has been considered as one root cause of the current turmoil. And, as U.S. security strategists told The Wall Street Journal, the breadth of global instability now in progress has not been seen since the late 1970s — when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Southeast Asia staggering from the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Vietnam, and revolutionary Islamists had taken power in Iran.
Yet, some experts argue 2014 is by no means unusual.
“Every generation has this moment that they believe that they’re the ones able to identify a moment of great change and great turmoil that is unique and different and worse than all other moments of turmoil and change that came before,” The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on July 20. For example, take a look at 1973 — the year John McCain was released from a Vietnamese prison camp. Several thousand people died as the result of the war in Vietnam, tens of thousands died in the Yom Kippur war, OPEC implemented an oil embargo, the Watergate scandal had broken, and Cold War tensions, exacerbated by the propelled U.S. troops to a high level of alert. Many argue, including The Washington Post contributor Fareed Zakaria, that the Cold War represented a far more turbulent and dangerous time in U.S. history. As evidence of that claim, Zakaria noted that nuclear war is now “unimaginable,” with size of Russian-American nuclear arsenals at one-fifth the size of their 1973 stockpiles. Furthermore, according to Freedom House data, the thumber of “free” countries now outnumber “not free,” countries, a relationship that was inverted in 1973.
And, the president generally espouses an optimistic world view. As Obama tells White House interns: “despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you seen on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.”
So why is Obama receiving so much criticism?
Obama has noted the undeniable complexities of the modern world, but as Schieffer’s comments show, his critics believe his assessment of the world’s problems is an underestimation. In fact, some U.S. diplomats and lawmakers in Washington believe that Obama’s policies have actually fueled current conflicts. As evidence, these critics cite his decision to exit Iraq and soon withdraw troops from Afghanistan, his refusal to provide greater support for U.S. allies in Europe and Asia who face the aggressive foreign policies of Putin’s Russia, China, and Iran, and his choice to avoid playing a decisive role in the Syrian Civil War.
The developments of the past month — most importantly the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine and the renewal of fighting between Hamas and Israel — has intensified the critical focus on the president’s foreign policy objectives.
“America must always lead,” President Barack Obama told West Point graduates during a May 28 commencement speech. It would seem those four words should not prompt much criticism from the president’s conservative critics — who argue his stance on American foreign policy is weakening the country. Essentially, Republican lawmakers have made the same argument: the United States must take a leadership role on the world stage. But congressional Republicans and the Obama administration disagree over the form that leadership should take. “Our allies are looking to America for leadership, but rather than acting boldly and speaking with moral clarity this president’s tenure has been marked more by obfuscation and weakness,” stated Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in a response to Obama’s defense of his approach to foreign policy at West Point.
Circulating through the national dialogue are two explanations for Obama’s desire to minimize the United States’ global footprint. The more generous of the two theorizes that Obama is both exercising caution in involving the U.S. in further global entanglements and listening to a war-weary American public. The other possibility is that Obama entered the White House with far too little experience in foreign affairs, and therefore he has struggled to effectively exercise American power abroad. Just as Republicans and Democrats argue over the nature of the president’s foreign policy objectives and his skills and effectiveness in global affairs, the right and the left debate how his foreign policy decisions have impacted international relations.
According to historian and Brookings Institution foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan the United States is in the midst of an identity crisis; in a recent piece for The New Republic titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” the government is allowing the world order that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War to break down not because the country’s power is declining or because the world has grown more complex or even entirely due to a war-weary American public, but because of “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” And the result of the nation’s collective rejection or forgetting of “the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades,” he wrote, “American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests.”
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