Second-Guessing Obama's Foreign Policy

Robert Kuttner Co-Founder and Co-Editor, The American Prospect

I've not exactly been shy about criticizing President Obama when I felt criticism was warranted. But the pile-on by Republicans and the media on his foreign policy challenges is excessive. I mean, what would you have him do that is more sensible than what he's doing?

Let's take the big issues one at a time.

Russia: There is simply no good course of action against Vladimir Putin's grab of Eastern Ukraine. This is a majority-Russian region, and Putin has been both ruthless and deft at using thuggish locals as cats' paws for an eventual takeover.

Obama is pursuing economic sanctions and threatening more sanctions, despite being undercut by our European allies. The US is pursuing Containment II to try to isolate Russia that is not all that dependent on global trade, and the original Containment took more than four decades. Maybe there will yet be some kind of de facto compromise, in which Eastern Ukraine becomes a Russian protectorate and Western Ukraine is able to become part of Europe.

But failing that, what would Obama's Republican critics do if they were in his place? Pour U.S. arms into Kiev? Threaten World War III?

I don't accept the argument of some of my lefty friends that Putin was set to be a docile ally but for the fact that NATO expanded eastward to protect Poland and the Baltics. Putin is one nasty guy. But the fact remains that most of present-day Ukraine, especially its eastern regions, was historically part of Russia.

It's just not believable that Putin intervened because Obama seemed weak. He intervened because the situation in Ukraine was unstable and he grasped that there was just about nothing the West could do to prevent this power-grab.

There is also the practical problem that Obama can't very well be at odds with Russia and China simultaneously. In plain balance-of-power terms, that would just drive them into the arms of each other.

Suppose John McCain, or Marco Rubio, or for that matter Dick Cheney, were president. There simply are no good options.

Which brings us to Syria. Obama blundered by drawing a red line on chemical weapons that he wasn't prepared to enforce. On the other hand, the use of chemical weapons has been drastically reduced. But, okay, you be president for a day. What exactly would you do?

The Assad regime is one of the world's most loathsome. The refugee crisis is appalling. On the other hand, the rebels include Islamist militants as well as those that the Administration wishfully calls moderates. It's anybody's guess who would come out on top, if the rebels were given heavy arms by the West.

Incremental support for the rebels hasn't worked. But not too many Americans would support full-fledged intervention. Any better ideas out there?

Then there is Israel and Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry is the latest in a long line of diligent U.S. statesmen who worked hard to broker a peace, only to fall to the unbridgeable differences of the two sides.

I believe that as long as the U.S. tolerates the building of more illegal settlements, peace will never come; and that even if settlements were to cease tomorrow morning, securing a durable two-state solution remains a long shot because too many forces on both sides prefer the status quo, as awful as it is, to a deal that requires mutual concessions.

No American president is prepared to take the kind of hard line with the Israelis that would force them to the table. So Republicans, exactly how would you proceed? Under Bush II, the policy was to encourage the Israelis to be even more intransigent.

Obama also got whacked for a Far East mission that came up way short. No trade deal, no progress on outstanding disputes with China.

I've been very critical of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is far too much the creature of America's corporate self-interests, like NAFTA, only more grandiose and insidious.

It would make more sense instead to have an Asia trade policy that pushed harder on mercantilist nations like China to have decent labor standards and to stop pretending that enterprises that benefit from state subsidies are creatures of free trade. If we wanted to play hardball with China, the US could brand Beijing the currency manipulator that it is. We should have an industrial strategy of our own that doesn't rely on outsourcing of jobs.

On the other hand, the Republicans are even more in the pockets of America's multinational corporations. And under Bush, the Administration was too busy promoting corporate deals to get tough with the Chinese government.

So while Obama has committed some blunders, honesty should compel his critics to acknowledge that history has dealt him one lousy hand. There simply are no easy answers on Russia's incursion into Ukraine, on Syria, on Israel-Palestine, or on China. And we should also credit the Administration for its courage in taking a pragmatic stand towards Iran's new moderate government, and beginning to defuse what would have been a catastrophic nuclear escalation.

Next week, I will be back to criticizing the Administration for letting Wall Street off far too easy, for not pushing harder to get corporations to treat their workers decently, for ducking leadership on the climate change calamity, and for promoting a health reform that only makes a badly flawed system even more byzantine.

These domestic policy choices were optional. Obama might have chosen otherwise.

Foreign policy is different. A crisis arises -- you have to respond. Yes, there are things that could have been done more adroitly, but anybody who says there were obvious fundamental alternatives is a posturer or a fool. Thank heaven such people are not America's commander in chief.


This has been reposted from The Huffington Post.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.