by Robert E. Hunter
President Barack Obama has 22 weeks left in office. But in practice, his useful mandate will expire on November 9, the day after the presidential election. That does not mean he will be unable to exercise his duties as commander-in-chief for the 72 days remaining in his term. However, given his inclination not to do “stupid stuff,” he is unlikely to leave any poisoned chalices for his successor. That has happened before. In 1961 the outgoing Eisenhower administration and especially the CIA confronted the young and untested President John F. Kennedy with a plan to invade Cuba and rid it of the upstart Fidel Castro, and we all know how well that played out. At least it enabled Kennedy, early in his presidency, to become more skeptical of some of the advice he was being fed (though not skeptical enough to prevent sliding into the Vietnam morass). More recently, following the 1992 election, the outgoing George H.W. Bush administration decided to intervene in Somalia. As only the president-elect, there was not much Bill Clinton could do about that, and he inherited a mess that, with his own inexperience helping it along, led to the tragedy commemorated by Hollywood as Blackhawk Down. That chalice was indeed poisoned.
By contrast, Obama is in a position to help his successor. There are special reasons for his doing so. One is that foreign policy and national security issues are more discussed in this year’s presidential campaign than at any time since perhaps 1968, although on that occasion, the candidate who hinted that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War was elected but kept the war going several more years.
This is not to say that either Hillary Clinton (the odds-on favorite to win this year) or Donald Trump would, as president, actually do what they have been talking about or experiment with US national security without first taking a deep breath, absorbing the intelligence briefings, and thinking things through. Former Secretary of State Clinton has said that she would ramp-up US military engagement in Syria and has repeatedly taken a tough line on at least two other key matters, relations with Russia and Iran. For his part, Donald Trump has said a lot of things which, if taken seriously, should give everyone pause, like his attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons, immigration especially from south of the border and the Muslim world, and commitments to NATO. Some of his verbal excursions might be what he has later said they were—sarcasm. But even so they have been enough to give many observers the heebie-jeebies.
Historically, the American ship of state tends to right itself come election day. Also more often than not, new presidents don’t start off by looking around for buttons to push. Nevertheless, as he thinks both about his legacy and perhaps helping his successor get off to a good start on behalf of the nation abroad, Obama and his key people should do a few things in the time in office left to him.
Iran and Middle East Geopolitics
There’s been pressure from some quarters in the United States to abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which effectively closed off any prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb for the indefinite future. Yet neither Clinton nor Trump is likely to do so, even though the latter has given some indications of toying with the idea. Moving forward with other efforts to effect change in Iran and usher it into the international community, however, is unlikely under either prospective president. Even if they were to make such an attempt, domestic opposition to improved relations with Iran will be intense. Obama resisted these pressures and gained a major achievement benefitting the security of the United States, its allies, and everyone in the Middle East. But neither Clinton nor Trump so far is inclined to do so.
Responsibility for change, of course, rests with both sides. For Washington’s part, Obama must demand an end to the foot-dragging within the US government on providing relief to Iran from sanctions, as provided for in JCPOA. This foot-dragging includes the maintenance of controls on Iranian access to the international banking system (and stimulation of fears among foreign bankers about potentially falling afoul of US regulations). This is already having a negative impact both on US relations with European allies and on possibilities across the region, beyond the internal debates in Iran. A negative development that does not auger well is that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who courted considerable risks in working for the nuclear agreement with US Secretary of State John Kerry, is increasingly isolated at home.
To preserve what it has already achieved with the nuclear agreement, the Obama administration needs to act both quickly and decisively. Otherwise, much of what has been achieved will become at best a “one-off,” and it will become even more difficult to work constructively on the rest of the necessary agenda in the Middle East. Further, the United States will increasingly incur the displeasure of European allies who want this festering problem over and done with.
The United States must also develop a coherent, strategically integrated approach to the entire region, which has been lacking for years. For instance, Washington must make clear to Saudi Arabia and others that they have to cease support for the export of Wahhabism and associated terrorism. The United States must also get out from the middle of the continuing Sunni-Shia civil war and regional geopolitical competitions. And the U.S. government needs to leave off calling for the departure from office of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, before figuring out a viable means for protecting the interests of all parts of Syrian society. There is virtual consensus in the US about the need to counter the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), though debate continues about the best means of doing so, and meanwhile the rest of the Middle East agenda must also be tackled. Given the late date, however, the Obama administration will not likely be able to make up for lost time or do the serious strategic thinking that has so far been lacking.
A New Approach to Russia.
The United States must restart the most important geopolitical effort of the post-Cold War period, enunciated by President George H. W. Bush, to pursue a “Europe whole and free.” That can more easily be done now than under a new, untested, and initiative-averse president. Unfortunately, the last two administrations neglected this grand strategy. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused most of the problems in relations between Washington and Moscow, the US has not been an innocent bystander. In particular, we have taken a number of steps that, predictably, did precisely what Bush tried to avoid: to give the Russian people a legitimate grievance that they were being “dissed” by the West after the end of the Cold War, as happened with Germany with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Maybe it would not have been possible to forestall Putin’s seizure of Crimea and aggression elsewhere in Ukraine, plus pressures on NATO allies in Central Europe. But the US certainly didn’t give Russia incentives to behave differently.
Putin has also now become engaged in the Middle East, for a variety of reasons. He wants to show that Russia can be a player, and project influence despite being under Western-imposed economic sanctions. Putin is pursuing that goal in part by aligning himself with Syria’s Assad. At the same time, ironically, the Russian president is making common cause with the United States and others in opposing IS (given Russia’s own vulnerability to Islamist terrorism). The United States has been willing, in its own interests, to accept this alliance of convenience. Yet Putin has also shown he can take advantage of US unwillingness to seek better relations with Iran and steal a march on us in Teheran. Both Iran and Russia find it in their interests to have Russian bombers operate from Iranian bases. Washington, preoccupied with opposition to doing anything positive with Iran from Israel, most of the Gulf Arab states, and their supporters in the United States, has been outflanked.
In sum, US policies on the two main fronts of relations with Russia, in Central Europe and in the Middle East, “don’t compute.” But there is no apparent effort to reconcile the two or to figure out whether there can be trade-offs that work for us. Worse, some people, even those who should know better, have exaggerated the risk of a “new Cold War.” Yet, there will be pressures in that direction in the new administration, whoever wins. This administration needs to start lighting a backfire against it.
Ending the disjunction in US policies toward Russia and developing a viable framework for dealing effectively with Russia across the board will likely become even more difficult in the new administration. Clinton has consistently taken a tougher, more hawkish line than President Obama toward Russia. Trump has been open to trying to deal with Russia, though whether that is realistic would have to be tested. He has no experience with such complex diplomacy, and anyway he is unlikely to get the chance.
Obama can take some steps now. First, the US government should start putting together the elements of a long-range deal regarding Russia, even if, for now, it is kept in pectore for risk of injecting a complex and controversial factor into the election campaign. The Obama administration could then hand such a plan to the new president, who could use it to challenge Putin’s argument that the United States wants to “surround” Russia and “humiliate” it. This shouldn’t be a US propaganda tool but the basis of a positive framework and relationship for the future. The ball would then be in Putin’s court. Most of our European allies would welcome our leadership here.
Leadership in Europe and on Diplomacy
Regarding transatlantic relations, the Obama administration has, naturally, done a lot of self-congratulating, which happens near the end of every administration. Save for steps to reassure Central European states against Russian inroads, however, this administration has continued its predecessor’s slide in focus on transatlantic relations. The United States needs to make a far-reaching effort to promote NATO-EU relations and break down the counter-productive barriers between the two institutions. These steps need to go beyond the almost symbolic agreement taken at July’s NATO summit in Warsaw. Although the EU’s formal leadership was involved, no one had the good sense of include any of the European political heavyweights.
In particular, Washington needs better to integrate politics, economics, and security (writ large), with both public and private sectors, as was true in the 1940s and immediately after the end of the Cold War. Here, despite administration claims to the contrary, US leadership has been mostly absent.
Either Obama or Kerry should also give a major speech on a new Atlantic compact that would draw on the above arguments in articulating a political framework as well as parcel out tasks to different existing institutions, such as NATO and the European Union. President Obama has said that anything we want to do usefully in the world in our own interests we’d be better off doing with our North Atlantic allies and partners. His instinct is right; the overarching strategy now needs to be presented and the details filled in.
Finally, the administration should identify practical steps to invigorate the role of diplomacy and the Foreign Service. This should include, in the president’s final budget guidelines, a more-than-token shift of resources from military to non-military spending on foreign policy and national security. The Pentagon budget continues to be top-heavy and limits the capacity of the United States to exercise influence in the world. For example, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has written about the centrality of diplomacy in The New York Review of Books but proposes no useful way forward. The secretary of state should also propose recreating the United States Information Agency, which was dismantled during the Clinton administration but is needed now more than ever as a vehicle for promoting abroad what is best about our country.
These three suggestions all have instrumental value. The president of the United States can also do them on his own. Further, they can all help the new president have a greater chance of “getting things right” than is vouchsafed to many administrations when they start out. The question is whether the outgoing president and his team will take these, or perhaps other, ideas seriously and see the virtues of acting in the time left before the changing of the guard in Washington.