by Robert E. Hunter
With less than a year left in his presidency, Barack Obama has said he will do all he can for America at home, bypassing Congress if need be with executive orders. He can also act on his own in foreign policy and national security, at least to set the nation on a useful course beyond his own tenure.
Obama can be proud of many foreign policy achievements, but one stands out: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Debate here continues, but for the foreseeable future, a possible Iranian nuclear weapon is no longer a central worry. The next occupant of the Oval Office will be thankful to Obama for what he did. No president who values US national security would even think of abrogating the agreement. It has become a useful baseline for dealing with the Middle East.
But there remains a vast agenda that demands US leadership. Although no one outside the government can give useful advice on every jot and tittle of tactics—and thus none will be advanced here on the most vexing matter, the effort to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS)—it’s worth advancing some broader strategic directions.
Stabilizing the Middle East
In the Middle East, any foreign policy strategy must grapple with Syria’s future, whether President Bashar al-Assad leaves office in the near future or only much later. Most important, it must set forth concrete measures to ensure the safety and security of all of Syria’s confessional groups. No such realistic possibilities have yet been advanced, beyond some general parameters and a “process” taking place in Vienna. That is nowhere near good enough, and Obama and his team owe it to everyone to lead in developing a coherent set of propositions. The US must also make clear that it will stop being a pawn in the Sunni-Shia civil war.
The administration also finally needs to insist that Saudi Arabia stop fueling the flames of the Islamic State through the flow of inspiration, money, and thus arms to Wahhabi terrorists in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. For some reason, the US has refused to read the riot act to Riyadh. Because Saudi Arabia must sell its oil, it needs us more than we need it. But so long as we don’t take a firm position, there is no way to defeat IS and other Islamist terrorists.
Obama also should explore ways of developing a more positive relationship with Iran. That must start with vigorous opposition to all efforts to vitiate the JCPOA, especially when sponsored by countries that depend on us, notably Gulf Arab states and Israel. We should create regular diplomatic linkages with Tehran, not just the episodic (and valuable) efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry. That should include an attempt—provided it is matched by Iran—to reopen formal diplomatic relations.
The administration also needs to start formulating criteria for new security arrangements for the region of the Persian Gulf (and farther west). These should be based on the proposition that, even as each country continues to compete for power and influence, all can have similar interests in stabilizing arms balances, ending conflicts, and avoiding new ones where the likely outcomes are everyone’s loss.
Getting from here to there is not now possible. But criteria need to be set, conversations started, and some first steps taken. Only the US can lead. In light of some near misses in the last few weeks— notably Iran’s “catch and release” of 10 US Navy personnel—there needs to be an Incidents at Sea Agreement for the Persian Gulf, including all the nations that depend on that critical waterway. The US and the Soviet Union managed to do this in 1972, at the height of the Cold War, and that agreement is still in force (with Russia). This should have been done years ago. President Obama needs no one’s permission to get this going immediately.
In Europe, President Obama needs to reinvigorate relations with the allies. Most of them are worried that the United States cares very little about what happens in Europe. This is most notable in the major downgrading of the attention Washington pays to NATO and its unwillingness to make more than token gestures to help hard-pressed European states deal with the most massive and disruptive flow of refugees and other migrants since the end of World War II. Yet as Obama has himself said, anything useful we want to do in the world would be facilitated by having the support and cooperation of allies and partners in Europe. Every NATO nation sent troops to help in Afghanistan. But we have not reciprocated adequately to help meet Europe’s pressing needs. It will thus be much more difficult for us to enlist European help elsewhere in the world, including in the Middle East.
President Obama is going to the Hannover Messe (fair) in April to promote the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement. It is even more important for him to go to the mid-February Munich Security Conference, which for more than a half-century has been the premier forum where American leaders have demonstrated US leadership and our continuing political and security commitment to the alliance. Secretary of State John Kerry is attending. This is good. What is bad, however, is that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is not currently planning to be in Munich, even though this has been a longstanding tradition and his allied counterparts expect him to be there to point directions for the military side of the alliance.
The Security Conference also needs to be the curtain-raiser, under American tutelage, for NATO’s summit in Warsaw in early July. So far, the summit promises to do little to breathe new life into the alliance but rather will focus mainly on the important but not be-all question of Russia’s activities in Ukraine and bolstering the confidence of NATO’s Central European allies. The summit is also poorly timed: it comes near the end of this president’s mandate, when everyone will be looking toward a new administration, and just before the Republican National Convention, ensuring that the summit will get zero media attention over here. At the very least, the US should insist in Warsaw that all remaining barriers to cooperation between NATO and the EU be scrapped—ideally with a US-Canada-EU summit in parallel with NATO’s. The alliance needs: a mandate and the means for NATO to consider crises before they reach a critical point, rather than just acting in response; to bring the Middle East squarely onto the US-European security agenda; and to devise practical criteria for Russia to meet in order to revive George H.W. Bush’s historically significant grand strategy of pursuing a “European whole and free.” That is not possible now. But the US and the alliance need to be ready with well-structured ideas for the time when it could be, rather than just improvising on the spot.
Most important, this year President Obama should do what American leaders have historically done so well: to “think big and bold.” He should build on a century’s worth of creativity in US-European relations and propose a new Atlantic Charter. It should provide an overarching vision, within which to bring together political, economic, strategic, and military elements, while also melding efforts by both public and private sectors. This formula produced success in the Cold War and is just as compelling now.
In sum, without a by-your-leave from Congress, President Obama can provide leadership in many parts of the world, just as he did with Iran, Cuba, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But unless he demands that his administration provide the ideas and unless he breaks some bureaucratic crockery, this will not happen. But if it does, the next president, Republican or Democrat, will be thankful. And so will the nation.