Obama’s Last Chance to Save His Presidency

October 22, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyThe Presidency Region: United States

Obama’s Last Chance to Save His Presidency

A presidency that began with lofty expectations has devolved into steadily defining them down. But now Obama can restore his fortunes by acting decisively abroad. 

The only worry—and this is serious—is that Tehran will use the deal to open up economic doors now closed and then restart all its nuclear programs. Iran is right to reckon that once open to the world, it will be hard to isolate again. It would be mistaken, however, to simply assume that it could get away with renuclearization without some real penalties and restrictions from most of the world. While a deal might forfeit a good chunk of American economic leverage, American economic power will never be too far from Iran’s mind.

Under the best of circumstances, Obama will face long odds in gaining congressional approval for a final nuclear deal. If he signs a treaty with Tehran, it will be almost impossible to get sixty-seven votes in the Senate, particularly if the GOP wins a majority in that chamber in the November election. If he signs an executive agreement, the Republican-controlled House will certainly reject it. Israel’s friends will go all-out to oppose the deal. In the face of this resistance, Obama should still conclude the pact with Iran and sell it as hard as he can in America and abroad. His case will be quite strong. One of his strongest selling points will be that almost all of the world will approve of the agreement with Tehran and gain its benefits thereby. For all the strategic benefits for America, this opening with Iran is worth fighting for even if Obama loses.


WHETHER OR not the president dares the Herculean task of reconciliation with Iran, it is well within his scope and powers to undertake some much-needed steps in relations with Russia and the Asia-Pacific region. The first step involves yanking relations with Russia out of the present rut and putting them on a more promising path. The second is to move clearly and decisively to establish a stronger American position in East Asia by actually making the famed “pivot” rather than just allowing matters to hang in limbo for two more years.

President Vladimir Putin deserves the lion’s share of blame for the ongoing troubles in Ukraine. He thought he could make gains in traditional Russian territories by muscling the Ukrainians, and that he could get away with it at little or no cost. But what he got instead was a sustained and unwanted crisis. It would be a dangerous mistake, however, for Westerners to continue to think that the blame was solely his, and that they did nothing to precipitate the conflict.

The majority of Ukrainians wanted further integration into Europe, and Europe indulged them with an association agreement, apparently indifferent or oblivious to the reaction this would generate in Moscow. It was not an offer of admission into the EU, and in fact its principal short-term effect was simply to forestall Ukraine’s inclusion into a Russian-backed trade alliance. The United States was remarkably quiescent about the whole matter, but might have done well to point out that we have all seen this movie before.

In the early 2000s, democratic revolutions brought Western-leaning presidents to power in both Georgia and Ukraine. To reward their anti-Russian turn and to consolidate a security foothold in Russia’s traditional “near abroad,” the Bush administration sought to grant both countries a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). This was to be an interim step on the way to full NATO accession. The effective result would be NATO encirclement of Russia’s western flank.

While other Russo-skeptic nations like Poland firmly backed the MAP scheme, France and Germany staunchly opposed it. They knew that the provocation against Russia would be dangerous and might even invite an unwelcome test of NATO’s commitment to its Article 5 collective-defense obligations. The matter came to a head at NATO’s Budapest summit in April 2008, where a compromise was struck that denied MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia, but instead offered a promise of NATO accession sometime in the unspecified future.

This vague promise was intended both as a polite “no” and as a face-saving gesture for the United States, but it did little to assuage Russian concerns that its periphery was drifting west. The Budapest deal was one of many tit-for-tat provocations that led to the war in Georgia later that year, but the big picture was as clear for Georgia as it is for Ukraine today. When the West tries to pry off bits of the “near abroad,” it is playing with fire, and it must remember that Russia can and will go to great lengths to preserve its regional hegemony.

The current crisis in Ukraine centers, of course, on the EU rather than NATO, but in Putin’s mind these entities are interlinked. As he stated in his March 18 address announcing the annexation of Crimea, Russian forces will not “travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.” Russia has demonstrated repeatedly that it will use everything from clandestine asymmetrical tactics to all-out war to preserve its sphere of influence.

Georgians and Ukrainians who wish to live more free and prosperous lives as “Europeans” are done a tremendous disservice by the West when their security is imperiled by half promises, whether about the EU or NATO, that the West has no intention of keeping. They may not like having Russia as a bullying neighbor, but they ignore this fact of life at their peril.

The way out of the crisis in Ukraine is to put on the table some diplomatic understandings. Most importantly: Russia stands down its military role in Ukraine (save in Crimea, where its power is fully consolidated), and Ukraine does not join NATO or the EU. Greater regional autonomy for Ukraine’s Southeast will likely be part of that solution too, but the devil will be in the details, as Kiev rightly fears that too much decentralization will retard growth and open the door to further Russian interference in its domestic affairs. Then, on that basis, we can and should work jointly with Moscow on righting Ukraine’s limping economy. Ukraine can’t get back to any degree of normalcy unless we take these steps. While the country is on a war footing, it will never be able to sustain the focus required to address its own domestic problems.

Speaking openly and honestly about Ukraine’s geopolitical options is not the same as giving up on its European dream. As a practical matter, the West is going to play a greater and greater role there unless Russia strengthens itself economically, which its kleptocracy seems incapable of doing. Radical attempts to pull Kiev to the West, however, will inevitably be undone by a Kremlin that despises and fears revolution, is anxious about its standing in the world and has no qualms about terrorizing its neighbors. If and only if Russia can be made to believe that neither Ukraine nor Georgia poses an existential security risk will the fight for democracy and economic opportunity within these countries have a chance at succeeding.


FINALLY, THERE is Asia. The pivot to Asia ain’t what it used to be, because Asia didn’t turn out to be what it was supposed to be. Over the last twenty years or so, it became a mantra in the West that Asia would become the center of the economic universe, but by 2010 unprecedented growth in China and the rest of Asia had slowed considerably. Asia has come back to economic and political reality; it is a region much better off than it used to be, but far from a new paradise. That said, it still outstrips Europe and Latin America and is second only to North America economically. Trade and investment will continue to find their way to this part of the world.

Asia will also attract unprecedented attention for another reason—the growing geopolitical competition among its principal powers. In the last five to ten years, tensions have increased between the following pairs of states: China and India, China and Malaysia, China and Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, China and the Philippines, and Japan and China. The last pair is perhaps the most worrisome. China is arming itself at an alarming pace, boosting its military spending by more than 10 percent each year. Japan has also been increasing its military spending. Even with its traditional cap of 1 percent of GDP, it has managed to amass the most technologically sophisticated navy and air force in the region.

The United States needs to strengthen its military presence in the region. The purpose is not to threaten China; it is to reassure all parties that differences (and there are substantial differences on many issues) are not going to be settled by military force. U.S. power should be deployed to convey a calming effect and to reassure the region that no state is going to be intimidated into subservience. This will be a delicate task, advanced as much by rhetoric and diplomacy as by naval maneuvers. Obama would do well not to delay it. And though Asia did not turn out to be an economic gold mine, it is at the very least a silver mine that will command the attention of the world for decades to come.