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The Obama Method: Combine Threats With Accommodation

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Posted on Feb 25, 2014

By William Pfaff

White House/Pete Souza

The Obama government has taken a Cold War stand on the crisis in Ukraine. The White House has warned Russia not to intervene, which they have not threatened, and has ordered U.S. military precautions. This seems unnecessary, since the Europeans seem to have matters in hand. Moreover, events last week were the second effort in a decade to bring the Ukraine into the Western camp, wrenching it away from its historical ties to Russia, a provocative and risky project.

The initial American effort to get Ukraine into NATO, following the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and its turbulent aftermath, broke assurances given Mikhail Gorbachev when the Berlin Wall came down, and amounted to an effort to detach a part of historical Russia, with strong and lasting cultural and linguistic ties to that country, and place it under American military command. This was foolhardy, and disastrous to U.S.-Russian relations.

From the start it has been difficult to interpret foreign policy as Barack Obama envisages it. The reason, so far as I can see, is that he has always been a man of American domestic affairs and of law, his profession. He has in both his first term, and as much as we have seen of the second, surrounded himself with both liberal and conservative advisors, both anti-war and interventionist, with contradictions even within the two camps, all of which has blocked consistent policy.

Following his 2008 victory, he wanted a “reset” in Russian-American relations, but has followed policies of his predecessor, notably continuing to develop an anti-missile shield supposed to save Russia as well as the United States from an absurdly improbable nuclear attack by Iran, but also facilitating an American first strike on Russia—as Moscow has noted.

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He also has allowed the Neo-Conservatives to persist in the effort to detach Ukraine from Russia and attach it to NATO. On the precedent of the earlier failure President Obama should have fired the Neo-Conservatives still present in his administration, such as Victoria Nuland—Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. Instead, Ms. Nuland remained, to be heard in the midst of this month’s crisis, during a famous tapped phone call, blurting out to the American Ambassador to Ukraine details of what apparently was a planned coup d’etat.

A new fraternal alignment of Ukraine with the European Union (a relationship more prudent than outright membership) is essential. The Europeans’ present diplomatic conduct is responsible for the present calm in a fragile Ukraine and the constructive decisions that have been taken with respect to new elections.

Mr. Obama’s disposition to combine threat with accommodation has been evident in previous instances. Among Mr. Obama’s liberal policy appointments are National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Samantha Power, Ambassador to the U.N. and a prominent defender of military intervention to deal with humanitarian outrages. Both seem to have advocated the bombardment of Syria in 2013, when the Bashar el-Assad government was accused, on unconfirmed evidence, to have used chemical weapons against the rebels. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin intervened, to the Obama government’s dismay, to impose a peaceful solution.

The President’s advisors include people who support the drone war on Islamic militants, a new means of war of which the administration is enamored because it kills at long distance and at no risk to the operator, other than moral. This is a high-technology sniper’s weapon system, dropping its targets with an anonymous shot. The infantry sniper kills an individual in a war in which it is presumed that those deployed on the enemy side are legitimate targets.

The identity of the drone target and of the group accompanying him, who are destroyed with him (or her), are not the operator’s responsibility. Too often the target turns out to be a family at dinner or asleep, or a clan meeting or a wedding. Such has been the unfortunate experience. The drone is like the roadside bomb or the mine, or fragmentation weapon. The President has taken upon himself the responsibility of picking targets.

President Obama has also supported the American army’s demands in the cases of withdrawal both from Iraq and the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan to keep certain combat troops in the country after the official withdrawal of American forces. These would continue training local forces, pursue “anti-terrorist” missions, and in Afghanistan, conduct the drone war against the Taliban. This proposal was rejected (thus far, in the Afghan case) by the obstinate refusal of both Iraqi and Afghan leaders to give the soldiers conducting these stay-on missions immunity from national law, depriving the host countries of full sovereignty. What kind of withdrawal is this?

This passive/aggressive disposition has also been apparent in Mr. Obama’s announcement of a “pivot” to Asia, an act that could only be interpreted as a provocation to China, meaningless unless China is understood in Washington as likely to attack its neighbors (among them two formal allies of the United States, South Korea and Japan).

Surely the administration might have grasped that China’s leaders, while responsible for stirring trouble with Japan and their southerly island neighbors in the Yellow and South China Seas, would have understood the significance of a reinforcement of American forces in the western Pacific—without a slap in the face. The Chinese are reputed a subtle people.


Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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