No, Obama Didn’t Enable Putin

President Obama on the phone with President Vladimir Putin discussing the situation in Ukraine. March 1, 2014. (The White House/Wikimedia Commons).

Even with the news consumed by stories from the 2016 presidential race, President Obama continues to be upbraided by political analysts and commentators for each and every mandate, appointment and speech—especially when it comes to his foreign policy. However, with regard to Russia’s recent aggression in Crimea, casting blame upon the current administration may just be a hasty oversight of the nuanced interplay of interests in the Middle East and the intricacies of Putin’s political calculations. Many conservative politicians and pundits have attributed Putin’s audacious military exploits in Eastern Ukraine to Obama’s projection of weakness in the face of conflict in Syria, Iraq and Crimea. But it’s not at all clear whether more aggression from the US would have intimidated or aggravated Putin. In a post-Iraq world, Obama’s softer hand appears the more rational, strategic move compared to the hawkish alternative.

The Red Line on Syria
Politicians love to enumerate examples of Obama’s weakness—it has practically become a hobby on the Hill. The first thing they point to is the administration’s “red line” with Syria back in 2013. When asked if he would deploy US military forces in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Obama stated, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is that we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Then, in a press conference with Swedish Prime Minister, when asked about using military action in Syria to maintain his credibility, Obama denied the use of military force and distanced himself from the military follow-through that many felt embedded in the “red line”, saying “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”

The President’s vague approach of non-military confrontation was reversed, however, when he sent Congress a request to authorize military strikes in Syria. An apparent political flip-flop, this policy change could have been a mere symptom of President Obama’s greatest flaw: his professorial nature. With past presidents, like George W. Bush, the country became accustomed to absolute, decisive action. When faced with an international conflict, the administration assumed a position, and pursued it vehemently—well-informed or not. Obama – on the other end of the spectrum – has consistently taken prolonged periods of time to reflect on issues, which has often been perceived as indecision and weak leadership.

Did Obama make a mistake in his Syria strategy? In the Syria Accountability Act, the treaty on chemical weapons, there is no clause that requires anything beyond sanctions in response to a country that develops chemical weapons. Military actions were never a part of the agreement. Obama’s later request for military support may have been a reaction to pressure from the public and the media. Regardless, the strategy ultimately brought Assad to the negotiating table. The resulting compromise between the US, Moscow and Syria managed to leverage much of the international community in destroying most of Assad’s chemical weapons—a tangible improvement that air strikes and collateral damage couldn’t have accomplished alone.

Though many cite the resulting plan as the epitome of Obama’s weak foreign policy, we should look at the consequences of a foreign policy decision that didn’t resort immediately to military force. As the administration’s national security agenda states, “We must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power… The use of force is not the only tool at our disposal, and it is not the principal means of U.S. engagement abroad, nor always the most effective for the challenges we face.” With soft posturing and military restraint, one of the world’s most brutal dictators came to the negotiation table, and Russia offered a degree of compliance with international laws and norms. The latter was not an easy task. Though Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov came to Geneva to discuss the question of Syria’s chemical weapons, he continued to deny Assad’s actual use of weapons on the Syrian people and threatened to leave the talks before any deal was reached. It was only after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon threatened to share the results of an investigation into Syria’s chemical weapon use with the Security Council that the Russians shifted their position. Though a permanent and often obstinate member of the UN Security Council, Russia feared becoming more of a pariah in the UN, which attests to the significant sway of the international community—something that usually finds its strength in a climate of military restraint.

The US’s military restraint accomplished several noteworthy feats: the US didn’t immediately resort to bombing Syria, nor assume the role of the world’s most unwanted policeman (again) and become accountable for the absolute mess that would have and now is ensuing in Syria. Preemptive missile strikes would have forced the US to become more involved and in turn responsible for any awry regime change. The Middle East is a foreign policy Rubik’s cube. Any and all military actions should come as a final attempt, as hastiness risks making the situation incredibly worse, and costs significant political capital.

The immediate military action and show of force that many call “American leadership and strength” wouldn’t have addressed the nuanced and complex forces at play nor attained the same results. Indeed, the end proved an imperfect reduction of conflict, not an end in itself; however, the US mitigated the levels of conflict in a way that a hawkish would have missed all together. Suggesting that Obama’s hesitancy sent Putin a signal of weakness is flawed when considering the cooperation of Russia in a campaign led by the US. Isn’t this reflective, adaptive reaction to complicated situations exactly what leadership entails?

Playing Whack-A-Mole in the Middle East
President Obama’s strategy with ISIS has also become a hallmark of the criticisms political pundits, politicians and the media use against the administration. First, it’s important to admit that the US isn’t “winning the War on Terror”, nor dealing effectively with the proliferation and spread of extremist groups throughout the Middle East. Too often however, this opinion becomes a political ploy under the guise of pseudo-analytical criticism, exploiting the public’s ignorance of the US’s capacity to incite positive change with minimal risk.

Countries like Syria actually provide a perfect example of the limitations to US policy. Fighting groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda either translates into strikes, ground support or the more ambiguous, “logistical support”. In Syria, however, this approach inevitably strengthens the Assad Regime, a brutal dictatorship killing the same innocent civilians targeted by extremists. Arming moderate rebels, however, poses issues as well. The US isn’t free to exude American strength wherever it finds contention.

The media recently inveighed against the President after he equated sending in ground troops to combat ISIS as playing whack-a-mole. The President’s current strategy is comprised of five parts, outlined in his address given on the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks:

  1. Conducting “a systematic campaign of airstrike”
  2. Increasing “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” with approximately 475 servicemen
  3. Supporting “Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment, ramp[ing]up military assistance to the Syrian opposition”
  4. Isolating ISIS politically and economically, and expanding humanitarian support by collaborating with partners

In simple terms, the US launches airstrikes that are coupled by “support” for fighters on the ground, like the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces. Any more aggressive of a strategy would entail a full-fledged war in the Middle East, and indirect conflict with allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Aside from a disruption of the broader, regional interests of the US, that war would find very little support from a war-fatigued public after Afghanistan and Iraq. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that Putin sees the President’s restraint as a sign of weakness. If anything, a lack of aggression by Obama might have clued Putin into just how tied Obama’s hands are in foreign military intervention. As conditions continue to evolve rapidly in the Middle East, however, it would prove unwise for Putin to take egregious actions presuming the President’s low level of the political flexibility.

Appeasement in Crimea
This leads to the latest display of “Obama’s weakness” abroad: Crimea. The day Putin officially declared Crimea a Russian commonwealth, major world powers displayed perhaps the most anticlimactic eruption of consternation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it an “unjustifiable and inexcusable” act that challenges “the European peace order and international laws.” David Cameron compared it to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s. French President Francois Holland immediately denounced the illegal action of Putin and called for a “strong coordinated response.” The EU, most heavily impacted by a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty, failed to execute any sort of meaningful action until pro-separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 people. Its reluctant intervention was met with parallel support by the US, which also announced new sanctions and a freezing of assets for Russian oligarchs.

The criticisms that call for more American strength offer few plausible solutions. Even Senator John McCain, who attributed the crisis to “a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength any more,” had to concede the fact that there was “no viable military action that [could have been]taken.” Other suggestions, like harsher sanctions, are ineffective without European support. While the US only trades about $40 billion a year with Russia, Europe relies on a lucrative trade relationship with its aggressive neighbor to the East, leaving them hesitant to aggravate Putin with more sanctions. With a third of Germany’s gas and oil coming from Russia, a disruption in the supply line would be devastating. What’s more, Russia provides an integral market for $48 billion worth of German products.

Other suggestions also defy European interests. Welcoming Ukraine into NATO is complicated; it’s uncertain whether any Western nations would be willing to come to Ukraine’s aid in the case of a Russian attack. Others, like Ted Cruz, have suggested stripping Putin of authority in international regimes like the Security Council and G8, which would only further antagonize Putin and exacerbate his unwillingness to compromise. Even propositions like those of Lindsey Graham to arm Ukrainian forces would mean unilateralism that upsets our key allies. Merkel responded directly to such suggestion at the Munich Security Conference, saying, “This [crisis]cannot be won militarily. That is the bitter truth. The international community must think of something else.”

Ultimately, in line with the international community, the US must trust diplomacy and collective international pressure. Moreover, the critics of Obama’s response to Ukraine shouldn’t immediately dismiss non-military options as weak. Though the US’s sanctions aren’t crippling Russia’s economy into military restraint in Eastern Ukraine, it is acting multilaterally and allowing the European community to deal with a regional issue. While this more careful approach may not exude military prowess, it does display a more impressive awareness of global complexities—one that will likely lead to more intelligent strategic initiatives than impulsive fits of defensive aggression.

Rhetoric that blames Putin’s aggression on Obama’s feckless strategy remains just that—rhetoric. Though Obama’s overall strategy might not be as effective as many would like, it’s not an expression of weakness, but rather a calculated response in a climate of limited options. The criticisms overlook the nuanced geo-political issues of these regions and the limitations of the international system. Moreover, they don’t consider Putin’s extremely hawkish foreign policy and Russia’s political culture. He’s leading a country fueled by a heightened sense of nationalism and nostalgia for a Soviet-era prominence. Just as in Georgia, the greater the lash-back of the West, the more strongly Putin seems to defy it. The Russian people demand assertive leadership to compensate for years of what many would call condescending international relations by the West. In this way, Putin and his extremely nationalistic cabinet of advisors have come to embody the frustration of their people. Given Putin’s well-known aggressive nature and willingness to take unpopular positions, often siding with other brutal dictators like Assad, it’s wrong to presume that any actions by the US would have restrained his aggressions at the Eastern Ukrainian border. This supposition also relies on the notion that Putin’s political calculations rely exclusively on the US’s foreign policy, which is arrogant at best. It seems most his decisions have been reactions to the New World Order, in which the US’s rules dominate the system and marginalize ideas that challenge the current paradigm. The US acts hypocritically by calling Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s civil war a breach of sovereignty when it constantly injects itself into the affairs of strategically important countries. Within the complex web of wars, religious and ethnic conflicts, and alliances, any military move by the US may begin a domino effect that transcends even the problems of Russia’s aggression. Therefore, the US flexing its muscle on the international stage becomes almost counter-intuitive.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Justine Breuch

Justine Breuch is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and Computer Science at the Brown University. She has interned at Generation Citizen, a non-profit that seeks to civically engage underprivileged students through education. Additionally, she spent a summer working at B Lab where she discovered her interest in social enterprises. Justine’s research interests include US foreign policy in the Middle East, women’s rights, and European diplomatic relations. After spending the summer of 2013 at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), she examined French Politics and US and Latin American affairs in independent courses–topics she hopes to investigate further at USC. On campus, Justine is the Director of Education Policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a writer and designer for the Daily Trojan, and member of Lavalab. She joined Glimpse from the Globe as a Correspondent in the fall of 2014.