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Obama’s Real ISIS Strategy: Reassure a Concerned Public

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Anyone who tuned into President Obama’s address to the nation last night expecting to hear a detailed plan to defeat ISIS came away disappointed. The president spoke mostly in generalities and skirted tough questions. But laying out a detailed plan that would pass muster with experts wasn’t his primary purpose. Reassuring a public worried about the ISIS threat, and his response to it, was.

The one specific piece of news Obama announced was that 475 U.S. troops will head to Iraq to support and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces. He also said for the first time that “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria.” He didn’t, however, elaborate on what that action might look like or what circumstances might trigger it.

Obama was also specific in describing who ISIS currently threatened: people in the Middle East, not Americans. He only granted that ISIS might become a threat to the United States “if left unchecked.”

That assessment puts Obama at odds with his critics. It also puts him at odds with his own advisers. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called ISIS an imminent threat to every interest we have,” while Secretary of State John Kerry said it poses a severe threat.” But Obama’s assessment does reflect the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community.

Obama similarly disagreed with himself, not for the first time, on the powers of the presidency. As a senator he argued that presidents needed congressional authorization before using military force. In 2011 he waged war against Libya without going to Congress. A year ago he did an about face and asked Congress to authorize him to strike chemical weapons sites in Syria. Last night he only said he would “welcome congressional support” for his effort to stop ISIS. He said nothing about what he might do to encourage Congress to give him the support he says he wants.

Obama also left many obvious questions about his strategy unanswered. Why is the new Iraqi government likely to be a more effective partner than its predecessor, which allowed ISIS to conquer a third of the country? Who are the other members of the coalition America is leading and what will they do? Can the United States degrade ISIS without strengthening Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who Obama has said must go? Have U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, which the president held up as a model for attacking ISIS, been as successful as he suggests? And perhaps most important, what will success in the effort to degrade and defeat ISIS look like?

But Obama’s real audience was not the experts who are asking those questions today. It was the two out of three Americans who have come to doubt that he is up to the foreign policy challenges the United States now faces. They do not want another U.S. military intervention abroad, but they also worry that he has been too cautious in responding to a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Obama’s focus on reining in loose talk about the ISIS threat, ruling out the return of U.S. combat troops to Iraq, and stressing American leadership of a global coalition sought to quell the public’s dual fears that he is doing too little—or might do too much.

The question is whether Americans are still listening. Presidents in their sixth year seldom claim public attention in the way they did in their first. They have given too many speeches to move opinion by words alone. The public wants results.

Therein lies Obama’s fundamental problem. Good results could be hard to come by. ISIS became a threat because the very countries the United States needs to help defeat it are weak, ineffective, and (often) duplicitous. ISIS’s vulnerability to U.S. airpower won’t prevent it from using grisly spectacles like the recent beheadings of two American journalists to sow fear and mask its battlefield losses.

So as much as the president hopes to reassure Americans that he is meeting the ISIS challenge with “strength and resolve,” he could well discover, as did several of his predecessors, that events can be hard to tame, even for a leader of a superpower.

James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR). This piece first appeared at CFR’s The Water’s Edge blog here.

Image: Office of the White House. 

TopicsIslamic State RegionsUnited States

A Scary Thought: A Global Thirty Years War

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From 1618 to 1648 Europe was torn apart by a devastating and ruthless war. It was waged with fanaticism nourished by religious extremism absolving soldiers from atrocities because it was God’s will and done in God’s name. Out of this debacle came the Westphalian system giving rise to the nation-state.

Fundamentally the conflict was about who should have the right to define ethics, norms, values, and behavioral patterns in a Europe baffled after Martin Luther’s challenge of the Catholic Church’ and digesting the societal repercussions of the information revolution introduced by Gutenberg.

The current global picture resembles this picture in many ways--raising fears that we may be in for a reprise, one auguring the same degree of fanaticism with destructive effects multiplied by the sinister use of modern weaponry and technology.

Armed conflicts – observers and politicians shy away from using the word wars - no longer take place between nation-states. Instead, they are among people and within people taking no account of national borders and passports. They focus on who you are and people’s cultural identity. Since 1945 the world has grosso modo been reigned by an American value system. The international institutions projected American power and this went well because the rest of the world looked on the American model as successful and wanted to emulate it. The Americans themselves saw the model as the best one not only for them, but also for other countries and was willing to allocate a considerable share of US national income to ‘export’ the model. What is happening now is almost the opposite. A large number of people who felt neglected and slighted even degraded and ‘put in their place’ solely because they adhered to a culture out of tune with the American value system revolt in a violent and sometimes hateful way. They feel justified in administering the same bitter medicine to the US as they had to swallow – cultural revenge.     

The US and its allies react - predictably - within the existing power structure and paradigm classifying the armed conflicts as among nation-states following the age old rules for such conflicts. They do not seem to have analyzed the evolving picture and underlying reasons. Therefore it is fast becoming asymmetrical warfare. The US and its allies register some results on the ground – encouraging them to go on – but have not succeeded in rolling the decisive attacks on the American global system back; on the contrary the attacks, in some cases pinprick attacks, gather sympathy and support from more and more hitherto marginalized people around the globe.

The conflict in Ukraine is easier to read and interpret than the conflict in the Middle East. President Putin says what he means and means what he says--albeit not saying everything he means! He depicts himself as the protector or patron of all Russians inside and outside of Russia stretching out to the ethnic Russians and/or Russian speaking people living in areas that used to be republics in the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991. The argument runs like this: The ‘West’ has extended the boundaries and ‘robbed’ Russia of its rightful place among the super powers, forcing ‘Russians’ to fight for survival in other countries inside an unfriendly  system often run by the same people who the Soviet Union treated as minorities – an humiliation without precedent in Putin’s eyes.

Putin is convinced that value based behavior (culture) among ethnic Russians are congruous, forming a strong bond, and justifying violating international rules, laws, and agreements. The ‘West’ is clinging to the rule bases international system anchored in respect for borders, nation-states and commitments. These two views cannot be reconciled. This is not a conflict about power balance that fits the pattern of well-known behavior seen over decades yes centuries; it is completely different and cannot be solved by applying analyses and methods originating from power balance recipes.

The same phenomenon can be detected full blown in the Middle East. The rebels or whatever label they should be given has changed name several times. From ISLS (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) to ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) to IS (Islamic State). This is no coincidence. Originally IS may have seen itself operating inside a nation-state and maybe using the nation-state concept, but now IS are trans frontier possible seeing itself governing people from Central Asia to the Atlantic Ocean.

No attempt is made to take over nation-states like Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. The goal is to brush aside these nation-states’ political systems exploiting the vacuum to establish a state (not a nation-state) for believers, followers, and adherents.

The ‘West’ counteroffensive is rooted in military ideology and thinking going back to von Clausewitz. His philosophy died with the end of the cold war. Conflicts which we encounter now may still be ‘war is the continuation of politics with other means’, but the difference is that the West links it to nation-states’ politics while the opposing groups do not.

The decisive power parameter in today’s world is the ability to shape perceptions; define in the eyes of a large majority of people what is right or wrong, permissible or not permissible, and justified or not justified. In other words shape a value based system that attracts and appeal to a majority of people - occupy the moral high ground defined by yourself!

Military involvement in Ukraine and the Middle East is unavoidable albeit its character and size is open for debate. Military ‘progress’ is welcome, but will only bring the ‘West’ closer to victory if the population living where the fighting takes place perceive such steps as necessary and proportionate to the situation. Even more important for the final outcome is whether potential or existing followers of the rebels outside the region itself read military results as a set back or defeat for the course - the endeavor to change the value system - pursued by the rebels.

Military engagement must be linked to a value based strategy aiming at winning the world opinion and in particular Muslims inside and outside the region for a systematic roll back of IS. The organization must not be allowed to present itself as innocent victims of the mighty American military machine fighting against US abuse of its power, denigrating and defaming Islam or for that sake other religions or identities.  In the same way standing up to Russia in Ukraine only gives hope of success if the ‘West’ manages to convince the global opinion that Russia is the aggressor violating not only commitments, but also behavioral patterns without which a global system cannot survive.

An optimist would glimpse a successful counter offensive staged by the ‘West’ promising victory. A realist discovers a disturbing picture of a conflict getting out of control. A pessimist has an inkling of a value based conflict going global haunting our societies for decades – in the same way as the thirty years war (1618-1648) did; a confrontation or rather a fight literally speaking about who has the right to determine the ethics, values, and moral norms in the future. Such a conflict will be evil and brutal. Fought among people it will divide families and groups hitherto safe in the conviction of shared and common values, but discovering that this was not the case. Worst of all: A value based conflict allows persecution, cruelties, oppression, even mass murder excused by referring to the victim’s different opinions.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Obama Grasps for his Foreign Policy Strong Suit: It’s the Terrorists, Stupid!

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Barack Obama has struggled to avoid his presidency being defined by foreign policy.  Events have not been kind to this ambition.  Now, as the United States finally prepares to ramp up its military campaign against the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, last night’s speech can be understood as a calculated attempt to control the way in which the president’s entire handling of foreign policy is perceived by the American people.

Since entering the White House, President Obama has walked a tightrope between needing to address emerging threats to U.S. and global security while still appearing to keep to his campaign-era promises of curtailing America’s overseas commitments.  The truth is that Obama would like foreign policy to be kept off the political agenda altogether, preferring instead to focus on the very real challenges that face the country in terms of its domestic politics, society and economy.  Yet no president can ignore major foreign policy crises altogether.

The pervasive fear that America will be “dragged into” something resembling a rekindled war effort in Iraq—Obama’s bête noire during the 2008 campaign—has been particularly anathema to the president’s agenda of focusing on the domestic side.  The challenge posed by the Islamic State, then, has been one of selecting an appropriate response and of packaging that response for domestic consumption.  What is the correct mix of resolve and restraint?  Can ISIS be defeated without upending Obama’s six-year battle to steer the U.S. away from costly foreign entanglements.  Last night, Obama revealed his long-awaited formula for action.

Essentially, Obama’s answer is to characterize his strategy for dealing with ISIS as part and parcel of a longstanding and successful counter-terrorism effort.  This will not be a new war or even an entirely new mission.  Obama began by invoking his administration’s killing of Osama Bin Laden, the most celebrated scalp of what used to be known as the Global War on Terror.  The effort against ISIS, the president reassured his audience, will be a stable-mate of that successful campaign against America’s most hated enemy—something Americans can have faith in and get behind—and will not resemble the “dumb war” against Saddam’s Iraq that many fear a repeat of.

Obama believes that counter-terrorism is his foreign policy strong suit.  Implicitly, perhaps, the president sought to contrast his boldness at “taking the fight” to terrorists over the past six years with his predecessor’s folly in invading Iraq.  Although he has overhauled the rhetoric surrounding it, Obama has always favored prioritizing the war on terror when it comes to foreign policy.  Keeping to form, Obama last night was careful to stress the threat posed by ISIS to the U.S. homeland and trumpeted his administration’s controversial policy of using targeted airstrikes (including drone attacks) in places such as Yemen and Somalia as the sort of tactics that would be used to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.  In short, Obama offered his audience a theme of continuity and reassurance, not dramatic change or knee-jerk reaction.

The president knows that his Achilles heel would be the accusation that he is allowing the country to slide towards another major conventional war.  Being painted as pouring more U.S. troops into overseas combat zones would be fatal to Obama’s image as a president who prioritizes “national building here at home” over the kind of unpopular foreign wars that allowed him to get elected in the first place.  The president’s specific proposals for dealing with ISIS were thus laden with language aimed at neutralizing this concern: the U.S. will launch airstrikes, not ground offensives; ground troops will shrink from combat roles and will not be “dragged into” a ground war; ISIS will be deprived of oxygen through other remote mechanisms.

Still, Obama knows that any sustained military effort against ISIS—however qualified and no matter how large the international coalition—will provide fodder to his critics.  Hawks will accuse the president of “too little too late” while others will charge him with abandoning the pledge to reduce overseas commitments.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s conspicuous attempt to rally Americans’ optimism about their country’s future—both at home and on the world stage—will be enough to shield him from such flak.  His insistence that “Americans are united in confronting” the Islamic State was surely as much wishful thinking as it was a rhetorical attempt to engineer broad support for his policies.

Obama has been forced to act against ISIS against his best laid plans.  For years, he sought to limit U.S. involvement in Syria, desperate to avoid becoming embroiled in that complex and bloody conflagration.  His desire to pull out of Iraq is well worn.  With the security situation in the region reaching boiling point, however, the president has had no option but to respond.  His solution has been to grasp for what he believes to be his foreign policy strong suit—the narrative of counter-terrorism and using targeted military strikes to protect the American people from harm.

There is a difference, though, between the past six years of counter-terrorism under Obama and the impending campaign against ISIS: whereas previous actions against terrorist groups in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have tended to be covert or otherwise kept beneath the public’s radar, this new phase of warfare has been launched alongside an explicit plea for popular backing.  Should that support vanish—either now or in the future—then the whole edifice of Obama’s counter-terrorism foreign policy could be called into question.  The implications will be far-reaching, lasting well beyond the final two years of this administration.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsIslamic State RegionsUnited States

What President Obama Didn’t Say In His ISIL Speech

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President Barack Obama had a lot riding on his prime-time speech to the nation last night.  In addition to publicly revealing the anti-ISIL comprehensive counterterrorism policy that the administration has been talking about for the past week, the president needed to use his plumb spot on television to assure the American people that he understands what it will take to degrade and eventually defeat this terrorist organization.  For the political team at the White House, Obama’s address was also an opportunity to set the record straight on his previous comments (ISIL is a “manageable problem,” “we don’t have a strategy yet,” etc.), stop the bleeding in his poll numbers, and begin a counterattack to the persistent criticism that Republican lawmakers have hailed his way.

As a general matter, President Obama succeeded in most of these objectives (getting congressional Republicans to praise his policy is more than a long shot).  The four-step plan that the president outlined to the American people during his 15-minute address hit all the right notes and will most likely add some points to what has been a tumbling foreign policy approval rating. 

Expanding the scope and frequency of the U.S. air campaign against ISIL targets in Iraq; potentially engaging in airstrikes in Syria; increasing military and logistical support to the Iraqi army, the peshmerga, and the moderate Syrian opposition; stemming the flow of cash and foreign fighters to the ISIL brand; and continuing to meet the humanitarian needs of the people under ISIL’s thumb are all necessary and noble aspects of this comprehensive anti-ISIL plan.  So far, the combination of aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground with coordinated U.S airstrikes on selected ISIL targets has proved to be effective in recapturing territory, and the president is reasonable to believe that this winning formula should be employed to other areas of Iraq. 

Yet just as President Obama may have buried some of the lingering doubts that have circulated across the country about his leadership as Commander-in-Chief, his speech opened up another set of questions that will ultimately make or break his policy against ISIL.

The speech, for instance, was high on the benefits of multilateralism and on the outright necessity of forging a deep and lasting global coalition against the ISIL terrorism threat.  But beyond explaining why other nation’s needed to get involved in the effort, the president was virtually silent on the details.  He talked about the United States being “joined by a broad coalition of partners,” but neglected to tell the American people who in fact is participating in this coalition and what each of these members will be doing in order to pull their own weight.  Nor did President Obama acknowledge whether or not this essential coalition was even formed yet.  The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry is trotting around the Middle East and appealing for assistance from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf States is an indication that this “broad coalition of partners” is a work in progress.

President Obama reminded Americans that U.S. combat troops would not be redeployed back onto the battlefields of Iraq.  Yet the “combat troops” label is somewhat of a misnomer: the brave men and women of U.S. Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command will once again be tapped by the administration to retrain and salvage what has essentially become a demoralized and split Iraqi army. 

“In addition to providing weapons, ammunition and equipment,” the White House said in a fact-sheet released shortly after the president’s speech, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) will train and advise Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces, improving their ability to plan, lead and conduct operations against ISIL.”  Arming, training, and advising Iraqis however, is not as mundane as it sounds; there is a slight possibility that the training program may need to be ramped up as the operation proceeds.  U.S. personnel may also be asked to put themselves in riskier environments to ensure that the training and embedding mission is done successfully.  The president was explicit is saying that “there are risks involved,” but evaluating the degree of risk is just as important.

Finally, President Obama announced that the United States will be getting far more involved in Syria’s civil war—accelerating the U.S. train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting on two fronts (against ISIL and Bashar al-Assad) and whose capabilities pale in comparison to the Islamic State.  If Congress agrees to the president’s request, $500 million will be available for the Defense Department as seed-money to supplement the smaller training program that the Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly been running for over a year.  Yet the question must be asked: is it too late for U.S. assistance to make a difference?  The Free Syrian Army is perhaps at its most fragile point since Syria’s civil war began, and the moderates have been begging for heavy U.S. military equipment for years now.  Will $500 million be enough money, and if not, is the president willing to double down on his strategy and expend more taxpayer funds to improve its chances of success?

If it hasn’t already, the administration must answer all of these questions, both before and during the implementation of the counterterrorism strategy.  But for now, President Obama took the first big step: drawing up a blueprint for action and focusing the entire U.S. national security bureaucracy on the same objective.

Image: White House Flickr.     

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq

America's Secret Weapon: Liberalizing U.S. Oil Exports?

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What would allowing U.S. crude oil exports do to the global price of oil? Tom Friedman, in a column Sunday, reflects popular conventional wisdom when he says they’d do a lot:

“The necessary impactful thing that America should do at home now is for the president and Congress to lift our self-imposed ban on U.S. oil exports, which would significantly dent the global high price of crude oil…. If the price of oil plummets to just $75 to $85 a barrel from $100 by lifting the ban… we inevitably weaken Putin and ISIS….”

He’s wrong. Here’s why.

This chart (click here) shows market expectations for Brent and Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) oil prices. You should think of Brent as a “world” oil price and LLS as a “U.S.” oil price. The market expects Brent prices to be in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars a barrel for quite some time. It also expects LLS prices to be below Brent prices indefinitely. (The discount varies between about six and nine dollars over time.) Part of this – perhaps around three dollars – reflects the cost of transporting oil from the U.S. Gulf Coast (where LLS is priced) to northern Europe (where Brent is priced). A bit reflects the fact that LLS is higher quality than Brent. The rest of it reflects logistical and legal constraints on the ability to export oil from the United States.

Now imagine that those constraints were removed. Friedman says that oil prices could plummet by $15 to $25 dollars. Suppose for a moment that he’s correct. The Brent price would drop to $75 to $85 a barrel. The LLS price would remain a few dollars below that (mostly reflecting transportation costs) at, say, $72 to $82. Now take another look at the chart above: This would mean that U.S. oil prices would drop by between $7 and $22. The most obvious result of this would be to depress U.S. oil production relative to what it otherwise would have been.

But now stop for a moment: We are predicting a world in which oil production is lower and oil prices have also dropped. This makes zero sense: less oil production results in higher prices – not lower ones. Friedman’s claim about oil exports and oil prices quickly leads to a logical impossibility. The only possible conclusion is that Friedman is wrong.

That this is the correct conclusion can be seen by looking at what allowing oil exports would actually do to the global price of oil. As a basic rule, when you connect two markets where a commodity is selling at different prices, the common price that results is somewhere between the two. So further liberalization of oil exports should reduce Brent prices by at most a few dollars a barrel; anything more and Brent (plus transportation costs) would suddenly become cheaper than LLS. In actual practice the impact is likely to be considerably smaller, with most of the adjustment coming from higher U.S. oil prices rather than lower world ones.

There is an important caveat worth throwing in here: forward curves often are bad predictors of the future. It may well be that traders are underestimating how much constraints on U.S. oil exports will drive down LLS prices. But no one has identified plausible ways that the export ban could sustain a whopping $15 to $25 wedge between U.S. and world oil prices. Besides, even if it could, the impact of the ban would need to be entirely on U.S. prices (keeping them depressed), while the impact of lifting it would need to be entirely on world prices (reducing them to U.S. levels). That’s implausible.

Indeed if you look at estimates in a couple recent studies sponsored by the oil industry – which presumably would want to talk up the great benefits of removing the ban – you’ll see smaller numbers than Friedman’s. An ICF study sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute (API) pegs the impact on Brent oil prices at $0.05 to $1.05. An IHS reportsponsored by a group of oil companies claims a larger wedge – but even that stays below about $5 (see page IV-17 of the report for the relevant chart). (The IHS study also finds world oil prices never dropping below $95 even with free trade.) Indeed one prominent study (from a team at Resources for the Future) envisions an increase in world oil prices if oil exports are liberalized, as a more efficient refining complex boosts demand for crude oil.

I don’t know which of these figures is correct. But the one figure we can be confident is incorrect is the one that Friedman puts forward in his op-ed. Liberalizing U.S. oil exports would be a good thing to do for both economic and geopolitical reasons. But it is not a massive weapon that could fundamentally change U.S. prospects in the world – not by a longshot.

This article first appeared on CFR’s Energy, Security and Climate blog here. Levi’s book, The Power Surge, will be released next month in paperback​. 

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons License 2.0 

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

The Ukrainian Crisis is at a Point of No Return

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Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s embattled president, is looking to make a deal with the enemy. And why wouldn’t he be? In a preemptive move on the eve of the NATO summit in Wales, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, announced a plan for peace talks in Ukraine. Western leaders, breathing a sigh of relief, expressed a “cautious optimism” for the ceasefire. But the West’s quiet acquiescence to the Russian plan has left Ukrainian leaders with few options.

In the weeks leading up to the NATO summit on September 4, Russia escalated its military invasion of Ukraine.

In late August, Russian armored troops and weapons crossed Ukraine’s southeast border in what Ukrainian officials called a “stealth invasion.”  The counteroffensive pushed back the Ukrainian military’s previous gains into separatist controlled territory. Following the offensive, the newly armed and reinforced separatists gained control of a long stretch of Ukraine’s southeast border with Russia, moving the front further south toward the strategic port city of Mariupol. Taking Mariupol would give Russia direct land access to Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russian forces in March — which Russia has struggled to supply with basic goods and services. NATO estimates that “several thousand” troops and hundreds of combat vehicles are operating in Ukraine. Russia continues to deny involvement.

For their part, Western leaders, including President Barack Obama and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been unwilling to use the “I-word” — invasion — when referring to Russian action in Ukraine. The day before the NATO summit, speaking in Estonia, President Obama made it clear that the United States would not provide military support to Ukraine. Obama’s comments reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO but did little to quell growing fears of Russian aggression among the Baltic States. Formerly Soviet states, the Baltics are now the only EU and NATO members to share long borders with Russia. Estonia and Latvia’s entire eastern border is with Russia. Further south, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is strategically wedged between Lithuania and Poland. Seeing a newly awakened Russian bear hungry to restore its former glory, the Baltic States and Poland have not shied away from using the “I-word” to push for a stronger NATO and EU response on Ukraine.

The Baltic States have good reason to fear. Putin’s policy track record in Ukraine is littered with contradictions and broken promises. Putin’s seven point peace plan laid out prior to the NATO summit is no different. But with the West’s unwillingness to change the terms of the game with Russia, Poroshenko has two options: continue a losing military operation that has already claimed over 3,000 lives or negotiate with an untrustworthy enemy.

On Friday, September 5, the Ukrainian president conceded to Putin’s plan and called for a ceasefire of government forces. In a statement, Poroshenko said that his decision to stop the military operation was based on an agreement signed by Russia, separatist leaders, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). By signing the ceasefire agreement with separatist leaders, Poroshenko has opened the door to negotiations with groups that his own government has consistently referred to as terrorists.

Even this concession may not prove to be enough.  As the ceasefire went into effect on Friday morning, Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions near Mariupol with heavy artillery and missile fire. By Sunday morning, two days after the ceasefire went into effect, the Mariupol city government reported that separatists, backed by Russia, shelled checkpoints near the city in the middle of the night, killing one civilian and injuring three others. This pattern is familiar: in June, Poroshenko ended a ten day ceasefire because separatists had persisted in attacking government troops and civilians.

The West’s “cautious optimism” should have given way to a sobering realism about the ineffectiveness of Western policy toward Russia, but it has not. Rather, EU leaders agreed to institute a fourth round of economic sanctions against Russia. The new measures place modest restrictions on state-owned Russian energy and defense firms and further limit dual-use civilian and military exports but fall short of broader restriction on entire industries or the energy markets. The last and toughest round of sanctions took effect in July. Since then, Russian intervention in Ukraine shifted from a barely covert operation to an overt military campaign with Russian tanks rolling over the Ukrainian border.

If the purpose of the sanctions was to deter Russian aggression, by that measure, they have failed. If the purpose was to show Russia that there are economic consequences for military invasion, then they have failed by that measure as well. So far, the sanctions have not affected the daily lives of most Russians, and Russian public support for Putin’s policy on Ukraine remains high. There are signs that the Russian economy is weakening: the ruble has lost 10 percent of its value since the beginning of the year and the economy is stagnant. The West hopes that in the long-run, the economic pressure will weaken Putin’s resolve in Ukraine. At best, this hope will be partially fulfilled: economic pressures could still shift domestic politics against Putin. At worst, the West’s Pollyanna worldview will give Putin everything he wants: a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine and the West’s long-term complicity.

As a long-term strategy, sanctions could eventually constrain Russian action. But the Ukrainian crisis requires short- and medium-term solutions, which the West has been reluctant to explore. NATO’s plan to deploy a 4,000-strong rapid reaction force to the Baltic States is a step in the right direction, but it may come too late to influence Russian policy in Ukraine.

Western leaders squandered a key opportunity to take a strong stance against Russia after the Crimean annexation in March. If the NATO force was deployed six months ago, Putin may have thought twice about invading Ukraine. Putin has exploited this tactical mistake masterfully. As Russia continues to set the agenda on Ukraine and the West continues to implement the same ineffective strategy, Ukrainians feel increasing abandoned. The crisis has reached a point of no return, and Poroshenko is left with no options. 

Alina Polyakova, Ph.D., is a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Ukraine: New Online Resources from the Center for the National Interest

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Washington, DC – The Center for the National Interest is pleased to announce the launch of Ukraine Watch, a clearinghouse for information, resources, analysis, commentary and reporting concerning the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.  Ukraine Watch is available at

As the situation in Ukraine continues to develop, Ukraine Watch will inform researchers, journalists and the public and present competing views, including official perspectives.  It will also include Ukraine-related commentary from the Center’s award-winning foreign policy website, The National Interest.  “Though the crisis in Ukraine could define core elements of American foreign policy for years to come, there has been little debate in the United States—and even less information.  We hope that Ukraine Watch will contribute to a rich, informed and intellectually rigorous discussion of U.S. policy based on facts and on U.S. national interests,” said Center Executive Director Paul J. Saunders.

About the Center for the National Interest: The Center for the National Interest is a non-partisan public policy institution established by former President Richard Nixon.  Its current programs focus on U.S. relations with China, Japan, and Russia as well as energy security and climate change, non-proliferation and arms control, and resources and conflict.  The Center publishes the bimonthly foreign affairs magazine The National Interest, at  The Center’s supporters include a variety of foundations, corporations and individuals, including Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Could the US Fight ISIS and China with the Same Weapons?

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As President Obama struggles to find the right policy prescriptions for dealing with the growing challenge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), other parts of the world are ripe with challenges calling for Washington's attention. In the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region, the People's Republic of China, through a variety of tactics, is challenging Washington's military dominance. If America found itself in a conflict with Beijing while attempting to use the same military platforms and strategies to fight a foe like ISIS, it could find it is militarily ill-equipped and unready for the challenge.

At present, Washington is well-suited to the task of taking on ISIS. U.S. airpower aboard aircraft carriers or short-range strike aircraft at present can surge quickly almost unchallenged and strike targets at will throughout Iraq and even in Syria if needed. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can rapidly move into areas of surveillance interest, gather intelligence, and even strike targets largely without fear of reprisal. Even the most vilified of options, placing large amounts of "boots on the ground," if needed to stop, say, an ISIS march on Baghdad or Erbil, would be operationally possible as ISIS forces would be unable to stop an American or allied build-up. Indeed, one of the greatest military assets the United States has taken for granted since the 1991 Gulf War — being able to surge large amounts of military assets into a theater of combat operations — would be something Washington could very much count on against ISIS if the moment ever came. America could largely use the same types of assets and strategy it has relied on since the end of the Cold War — building forces in mass near a conflict zone, short range airpower, carriers based offshore, long-range strike aircraft (B-52, B-1 and even B-2 bombers) and cruise missiles to strike possible ISIS targets at will.

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Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Time for Congress and the President to Work Together on ISIL

The Buzz

This past Sunday, September 7, President Barack Obama sat down for an exclusive interview with the new host of NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd.  If you happened to miss the interview, it’s worth a look: despite persistent questioning by Todd on the national security threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, President Obama laid out in succinct detail what he and his administration plan to do.  The “we don’t have a strategy yet” comment that the president made last week in a late summer press conference (remember the suit?) is clearly behind him, and regardless of what some commentators and newspaper editorials continue to say, the White House does in fact have a strategy: enlist the support of key Sunni Arab states in the effort, use targeted U.S. military force against ISIL’s bases and leadership, squeeze its financing by obstructing the donations the group receives from wealthy donors in the Gulf Arab states, and ensure that Washington’s European allies (principally Great Britain, France, and Germany) are actively contributing to the campaign. 

For a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill (I’m not naming names), this strategy is far more multilateral and time-consuming than they would like.  Building an international “core coalition” of states to tackle ISIL from multiple directions is not as sexy as employing the U.S. Air Force to, as Senator Ted Cruz said recently, “bomb them [ISL] back to the stone age.”  President Obama, however, doesn’t seem to be phased by the criticism that he’s been receiving; he is scheduled to give a speech to the American people this Wednesday, September 10, to double-down on his approach to the ISIL problem while explaining to the American people precisely what the objectives are and what it will take to successfully meet them.

Yet there was one line of questioning in the interview that could potentially cause the president some trouble over the next two weeks as he rolls out the anti-ISIL strategy to the public: Obama appears to believe that it’s not necessary to come to Congress for an up-or-down vote before the first U.S. fighter-bombers and drones start striking ISIL targets in Syria. 

Asked by Todd whether he will be asking for Congress to vote on his policy during the short time the chamber is in session this month, the president implied that he has all the authority he needs his under Article II constitutional powers act kinetically.  “I’m confident that I’ve got the authorization that I need to protect the American people,” Obama said, “and I’m always going to do what’s necessary to protect the American people.”  Although President Obama remarked that it’s important for Congress to “buy-in” to his plan, he wasn’t exactly clear what “buy-in” means.

This comment will naturally rub some lawmakers the wrong way.  Inherent in the checks-and-balances system of the U.S. political system is the give-and-take between the executive and legislative branches, and this dialogue is no more important than on the eve of a new war or before the acceleration of U.S. military action in some corner of the world.  One of the most consistent talking points that the Obama administration uses during press briefings or news conferences is the “consulting with Congress” line.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest states is prone to saying that President Obama remains committed to consulting with members of Congress before big decisions are made.  The only problem, of course, is that ‘consulting’ could mean a lot of things; it’s difficult, for instance, to see how simply informing congressional leadership of what the White House plans to do is the same as lobbying for their support.

Congress has a tendency to kick tough problems down the road for later consideration, especially during a tough re-election year when everyone is trying to keep their jobs and stay in their seats.  Lawmakers are only scheduled to be in session for 12 days before they recess again for the October campaign season.  But at least on this question—the question of ISIL—some members are not using the short legislative calendar as an excuse to abdicate their responsibility on matters of war and peace.  There are currently four bills (filed by Representatives Wolf and Issa, and Senators Nelson and Inhofe) that would authorize the president to expand air operations against ISIL into Syria.  If Congress genuinely wants to become an integral part of the debate, they have legislation to work from.

Normally, the president sends a request to Congress to kick-start the entire process of crafting an AUMF (authorization to use military force).  If the White House doesn’t follow this precedent, it will be up to Congress to press the issue.  And if Congress does press the issue with a vote, the president should applaud its willingness to have a debate and act on an issue of such grave concern to U.S. national security. 

As Obama once said, “our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together.”  That remark as said on August 31, 2013, when the president asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Nothing today changes that assessment.   

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Japan and China’s Dangerous Clash: Is There a Way Out?

The Buzz

With the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in early November approaching rapidly, hopes are high for a meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. The downturn in relations between Japan and China has been a lose-lose proposition for both countries. Japanese investment in China has dropped off dramatically at a time when Beijing can ill-afford another hit to its sputtering economy, and many Japanese companies have hitched their future to China and are suffering as a result of current political tensions. Moreover, the potential for military conflict to erupt around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands remains significant. The summit, which will be held in Beijing, offers an important opportunity for President Xi and Prime Minister Abe to begin to bring their countries’ derailed relations back on track.

In advance of such a meeting, political advisors on both sides should seek inspiration from a few sources:

  1. just-released paper by Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “The Simultaneous Slide in Chinese-American and Chinese-Japanese Relations Is Not Beneficial,” has several useful insights (translation provided by Neil Silver of China Journal). Chief among them is the fact that China and Japan have had smooth relations for thousands of years and only decades of discontent. Wang quotes Zhou Enlai describing Chinese-Japanese relations as “two thousand years of friendship, fifty years of misfortune.” More profound—and undoubtedly more contentious within China’s foreign policy circles—is Wang’s argument that the United States is not at the heart of the current Sino-Japanese conflict; that “China has a lot of work to do” in order to reverse the slide in Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations; and that Beijing should not abandon its efforts at peaceful development for the mistaken idea that once China’s economic and military strength are great enough to subjugate Japan and the United States, China will be able to resolve its foreign policy problems effectively. Wang’s ideas are an important and honest challenge to the official narrative that the pivot is the source of all China’s problems in the region and that it is up to others to fix the situation. His piece, therefore, is at the top of my reading list.
  2. A short piece by Zhu Zhiqun, a Bucknell University professor, takes the next step and offers some practical advice on how to de-escalate tensions so that the two leaders can actually meet: Abe should make a public statement that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine again, and China should scale back its air and maritime patrols of the disputed islands. China’s contentious declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea can stand in name, but it will not be enforced. Zhu recognizes that it will take political courage for Xi and Abe to commit to such steps, but ultimately, the gains for both leaders and their countries would far outweigh any negative short-term political repercussions.
  3. Finally, I would recommend a terrific new detective novel, Tokyo Kill, by Barry Lancet. Tokyo Kill is above all an excellent mystery that stands on its own for great storytelling. However, Lancet, who has lived in Japan for more than twenty-five years, also offers some nuanced understandings of the China-Japan relationship that have relevance for today’s tension-filled situation. The basic understanding is that it is time for the truth to out on both sides. In a section of the book that was difficult to read at times, a Chinese doctor Wu relates in detail the horrors inflicted on him and everyone in the villages around him by the Japanese during the war. At the same time, however, he also acknowledges “We Chinese know how to eat bitterness. Our own rulers kill more of us than any foreign power ever did. We endure. We are patient.” An art dealer Takahashi serves as the wisdom-bearer for the Japanese side, “Japan has her secrets. Many are open secrets. We Japanese are aware of them, are ashamed of them, and don’t speak of them often, if ever. Our embarrassing moments remain, for the most part, confined to these shores. The language barrier and our shame constitute an effective blockade.” The protagonist Brodie has the final word: “Maybe it’s time to let those secrets out… so the skeletons, or ghosts, can finally be put to rest.”

President Xi and Prime Minister Abe would be smart to follow Zhu’s advice to get the ball rolling. Over time, however, they will need to take the more difficult step proposed by Wang and Lancet—to explore openly truths, past and present—to ensure a strong foundation for the relationship.

This article first appeared on and and is reprinted here with permission. You can read the original article here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina