You would think it’s self-evident that Ukraine’s current crisis and the controversies sparked before its eruption by Iran’s nuclear program, China’s muscle-flexing against Japan and the Philippines over disputed tiny islands, and Syria’s continuing carnage are distinct—that they have little, if anything, in common. Well, you’d be wrong, at least in the eyes of the staunchest critics of American foreign policy under Barack Obama. In their mind, what connects these conflicts, which are so far apart spatially, is that each has been aggravated, perhaps even enabled, by Obama’s fecklessness, which projects to adversaries America’s weakness instead of its strength. In this reading, America’s friends have lost confidence in wayward Washington, while its foes have developed a contempt for American will, which inclines them to brazenness because they believe there’s no price to be paid. In this portrayal Obama is a stick figure evoking memories of Neville Chamberlain.
Let’s start with Ukraine, skipping the details, which have been explored in numerous pieces published recently on this site. Here’s where we are: Following the ouster of the inept, corrupt Viktor Yanukovych and his regime and the triumph of the Maidan protest movement the proclivity in the West has been to cheer what is hailed as a popular revolution that promises a new beginning—a democratic Ukraine integrated with Europe.
Well, Vladimir Putin, who had been watching Ukraine while attending the Sochi Winter Olympics, has an altogether different assessment. He regards the protest movement’s overthrow of Yanukovych as a coup against an elected president who in December exercised his lawful right to mothball the Association Agreement he had been negotiating with the EU and to opt for a deal with Russia: a $15 billion credit line and a one-third cut in the price of Russian natural gas, which Ukraine relies on to meet its 60 percent of its needs.
Once the curtain fell on the Sochi spectacular, and the tensions between pro-Europe and pro-Russian forces flared, notably in Crimea, which has a near-60 percent Russian majority and is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Putin, no longer worried about bad publicity that would overshadow or tarnish the games, wasted no time. Russian troops stationed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol fanned out, and Putin secured parliamentary approval—no trouble there—to deploy additional forces in Ukraine, ostensibly to protect endangered ethnic Russians.
Enter the spineless-Obama, American-weakness-tempts-tyrants tropes. As the president’s critics have it, Putin, who smells weakness a mile away, would have been deterred were someone made of sterner stuff occupying the Oval Office. The problem, in short, has been a failure of American leadership. The complexities of Ukraine’s situation, none subject to Washington’s control, seem secondary. The solipsism embedded in this thesis, which is trotted out whenever its adherents see anything that they find objectionable occurring in the world, is staggering. It is a weird mix of self-flagellation and an American variant of the Middle Kingdom syndrome.
Neoconservatives are scarcely the only ones to be in its thrall. So are liberal internationalists. They embraced a providential view of America’s role in the world long beforeMadeleine Albright reduced it to bite-size proportions with her “indispensable nation” quip.
We’ll come to the latter camp in a bit, but on Ukraine it’s the neoconservatives who’ve been beating the appeasement drum the loudest. Evident in their analyses is passion and sanctimoniousness; absent is any sense of proportion or strategic acumen.
Consider the context. Ukraine lies on Russia’s doorstep, and one need not buy Putin’s worldview to understand that that country occupies an essential place in his conception of Russia’s security and standing. (Moscow was set to loan $15 billion—more if one counts the gas subsidy—and has since mobilized its troops. What have Washington and Brussels put on the table until just recently?) Ukraine, the cradle of eastern Slavic civilization, borders Russia and is the main corridor for pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe. It also has a substantial Russian, or Russophone, population, not just in Crimea but also in the Donbass.
What comparable interest does the United States have in Ukraine that would justify an armed conflict with Russia? Let’s be clear: that’s what it would take to repel any Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. Is it worth risking a major war that could turn nuclear? Of NATO’s non-American members, few, if any, would sign on for a fight with Russia. Recall that in August 2008 Europe heaved a sigh of relief that Georgia, then under attack by Russia, was not a NATO ally. As it watches the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, it’s probably doing so again. Were Washington to summon NATO to action in Ukraine, the alliance would likely split, as it did over the Iraq War, hardly an outcome that one would think folks so focused on maintaining America’s global leadership and credibility would want. Let’s not forget that George W. Bush, a Republican who boosted defense spending, was president during the Russia-Georgia war. He didn’t rush to Georgia’s rescue. Bush’s realism was no different from that of Ronald Reagan, who is lionized by the GOP for symbolizing strength but watched as communist Poland’s army crushed the Solidarity trade union.
Something else that the get-tough school overlooks in Ukraine is the danger of getting involved in a war for a cause that few Americans are likely to believe is worth the loss of troops and treasure. (It would be foolish to take the first, non-military, steps without considering the others that might be required.) It’s a safe bet that any poll that poses the relevant questions to Americans would reveal that few would want to risk war to help Ukraine, no matter their sympathies for the Maidan and their dislike of Putin. If President Obama and his foreign-policy team deserve criticism for anything related to the Ukraine crisis, it’s for issuing warnings to Russia with abandon, thereby raising false hopes among pro-Europe Ukrainians that the United States will send the cavalry if Putin’s troops invade. That’s not just dumb. It’s dangerous.
For their part, the critics from the right want action to back the rhetoric though they never explain what kind of action they envision. If something, whatever it may be—we can’t even pull our ambassador from Moscow as a gesture: we don’t have one there at the moment—short of a military response doesn’t do the trick, would they the have us exercise that option? Don’t read the critics’ columns for answers: you’ll find that they—and not just the neoconservatives among them—contain hardly any. But bluster and bromides don’t make for sound strategy, certainly not against the likes of Putin.
The same pattern prevails when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, an issue on which neoconservatives and many liberal internationalists sing from the same song sheet. Their opening line is that Iran simply cannot be allowed to build nuclear weapons. Then comes the chorus, which goes like this: Obama’s decisions to negotiate with Iran and to ease, to however small a degree, the economic pressure that’s been applied on it, have only emboldened Tehran. As a result, the refrain continues, Iran has concluded that the United States is too timid to use force, which is the only thing that the critics believe the wily mullahs understand.
What about a deal that, with extensive, intrusive verification, including the implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocols, permits Iran to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent at maximumand installs safeguards to prevent plutonium purification and development? Not enough, say the critics: nothing will do save Iran’s renunciation of a fuel cycle, i.e., any enrichment capacity whatever. Well, what if Tehran’s negotiators refuse, as they surely will? President Hassan Rouhani has said that zero enrichment is a nonstarter, and neither Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor the various hard-line groups in Iran, notably the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, would accept such a restriction even if Rouhani were to change his mind.
Bomb Iran? What about the well-known operational uncertainties involved in destroying all of its nuclear installations, particularly Fordow, the centrifuge facility burrowed into the side of a mountain, and the Arak reactor, which if bombed when it’s up and running would spew radioactive matter across a vast radius? Try anyway and hope for the best; that seems to be the critics’ answer.
What about the political fallout in the Muslim world? The response tends to be that the major Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will thank us, so terrified are they by the specter of Iran wielding nuclear weapons. In fact, they’re more likely to express gratitude over a secure phone line, given that the reaction on the Muslim street (and not just in the Arab world) will be rather different given that the United States will have struck Iran without being threatened, let alone attacked. One can imagine better ways to increase the appeal of extremism in the Islamic world, but not many.
What about dealing with the worst-case scenario by trusting to deterrence and assuming that even if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons the fear of retaliation would prevent it from attacking Israel or the United States? The critics’ rejoinder involves conjuring up images of crazy Shiites intent on venturing into Apocalypse in quest of martyrdom and eternal glory. They’re just different from “us” is the underlying assumption. So, however, were Stalin and Mao, and the latter once reportedly claimed that China, with its huge population, would survive a nuclear war. Yet the deadly logic of deterrence certainly persuaded them. Ditto Stalin’s successors, despite Cold War tracts by American strategists warning that Soviet military doctrine featured the belief that a nuclear war would be fought, and won.
This is not to say there won’t be difficult, perhaps fruitless, negotiations with Iran. But what’s absent from the hard-line Obama-is-weak-and-naïve case is any clear way forward, apart from war given the insistence on a total solution. The American public, by contrast, is less hawkish. Polls taken over the last few years do show that more Americans support striking Iran (the range typically extends from 42 to 56 percent) if there is evidence that it is building nuclear weapons than oppose such action; though a majority (70 percent) favors a diplomatic solution. A November 2013 Reuters/IPSOS survey showed that 44 percent backed Obama’s interim agreement with Tehran, while 22 percent opposed it, and that only 20 percent favored the use of force even if the negotiations collapsed.
On Syria, where the neoconservative–liberal internationalist alliance is most evident, the President is enjoined by his detractors to arm the anti-Assad insurgents. But the key question of how to ensure that only the good guys in the anti-Assad resistance end up with the weapons is never answered, never mind the bewildering array and varying ideological orientations of groups fighting in Syria. And what if Iran and Russia—the former has a lot more at stake in Syria than the US does and is supplying Assad arms and fighters—double down and the position of the resistance groups America backs faces defeat?
Air strikes? Some interventionists argue for that. Ground troops if that doesn’t work? Most oppose the latter move, but then don’t say what they’d do if air power couldn’t do the job. What of the polls in the US and Europe showing that support for military intervention in Syria has decreased even as the killing has increased, not the other way around? This seems not to matter. A recent piece by a prominent liberal internationalist, and a key supporter of the Iraq war, skates over these unknowns. But unknowns are worth contemplating. The Iraq war demolished Saddam’s odious regime only to bring forth a country that’s ravaged by civil war and suicide bombings, is an Al Qaeda bastion, and could even fall apart, creating incalculable consequences. The lessons of that venture apparently don’t matter; what does is that we do something.
Finally, let’s turn to East Asia’s island fracas. The United States maintains a substantial military presence in the North Pacific and can deter a Chinese attack on Japan and South Korea, though neither dénouement is likely, especially the second. Yet the reality is that China’s massive military purchases from Russia and its own military modernization have increased markedly the risk that the United States will have to take to impose its will on China in its neighborhood. There’s certainly a case to be made that those risks must be run given existing treaty obligations to states Washington has pledged to protect, and in any event a Chinese attack on Japan or South Korea could kill American soldiers, who are stationed there in the tens of thousands. But is there a case to risk war with China over a bunch of rocks, even if they lie athwart important sea-lanes and about fishing grounds and energy deposits? Besides, how credible would such a threat be to Beijing?
If war is not what the critics advocate as a last resort to back friends embroiled in disputes with China over outcroppings, then what do they propose? The recommendations would appear to be more American firepower in the region and tougher talk. But that won’t fix the fundamental asymmetry that will remain between risks and stakes, to say nothing of the financial challenge of boosting defense spending at a time when we have at best an anemic economic recovery.
So yes, the critics do see a common thread running through these various flashpoints, actual or potential: it’s the failure of American leadership, which has emboldened enemies and frightened friends. Leave aside the validity of their dubious claim. The bigger problem is that rather than providing alternative policies that are clear-headed, what they offer are froth-laden banalities or proposals born of impoverished thinking that could produce results worse than the ones that occasion their jeremiads.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of political science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.