World

Crimea: World’s crisis, Obama’s nightmare

By J Brooks Spector 28 March 2014

As the newest polls show, Americans are less convinced than before of their president’s foreign policy positions. J. BROOKS SPECTOR considers the possible effects of this uneasiness on Barack Obama’s approach to the Crimea crisis.

There is the story of the French general sitting at a sidewalk café with some friends, quaffing a glass of Pernod, an absinthe maybe, or perhaps a snifter of cognac. He looks across the street and he sees a large crowd rushing past, waving banners and placards, chanting furiously. The good general then turns to his friends and he says, “Excuse me, mes amis, there go my followers. I must take my leave from you and hurry over to them so that I may lead them.”

In essence, that challenge faces virtually every elected leader. It is dangerous to be too far out in front of one’s supporters, of course, but, similarly, it does no good to be so far removed from them that they move on without you. Every new leader comes into office because a majority of voters have come to believe this new man (or woman) seems capable of leading a nation out of a morass, or on to a new promised land of peace, security, prosperity, milk and honey – and all the rest.

Soon enough, however, reality comes crashing down around the leader as things never quite work out as hoped for or planned. Some wag once explained that running for (and winning) high office is like declaiming poetry; while, by contrast, actually governing is rather more like reading the tax code aloud to small, fretful children. The problems and challenges mount up, things occur that are unanticipated or out of one’s control – and, soon enough, inevitably, the number of voters who have now lost faith with a leader who had once been hailed as “The One” grows and grows.

And so it has been for President Barack Obama in his relationship with many Americans. For many he still has the touch of that rhetorical magic but, increasingly, Obama has had difficulties in holding onto the support of a majority of the nation on a growing range of domestic policies. This has been true even though, for most of his time as president, opinion polls have continued to indicate a majority of respondents continued to feel favourably disposed to him personally; they have felt he understood the problems of “people like me”; and they have believed he was working hard for the benefit of the country.

It can be argued that much of his difficulty has come in holding onto the support of people over several domestic and economic policies – such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the bitter battles over its implementation, along with the fumbles in its implementation afterwards. Of course, a good share of this has been connected to an unrelenting onslaught from congressional Republicans, as well as a blizzard of often-misleading communications via conservative media like Fox TV News, as well as the barrage of messages from a web of communications-savvy policy advocacy groups. The latter have frequently been bankrolled by archconservative business figures like gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson and those energy pipeline tycoons, the Koch brothers, among others. But those are now the rules of the game of politics – like or dislike them.

Nevertheless, until recently, foreign policy had seemed to be a fairly safe reservoir for the president in terms of his support base. Ending the American role in Iraq and drawing down the commitment in Afghanistan were popular – with virtually no politician pushing for any kind of reverse in those withdrawals of US military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, the president drew wide support for the death of Osama bin Laden and the clear lack of any substantive terror attacks in the US during the Obama presidency, save for that fatal incident at the Boston Marathon.

But a significant leaching away in support for the president in foreign policy matters has become increasingly apparent in recent months. The president had gained good marks for seeming to be able to balance the possibility of threats from external actors such as China, even as there was also the need to build relationships with potential adversaries to advance efforts to limit Iranian nuclear adventures. But more recent events have now driven his support downward.

The president’s apparent inability to pull together a coherent (domestic and international) coalition to deal with the Syrian civil war and Syrian chemical weapons without the intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t help his ratings much at all. Then, most recently, what appeared to many to be confusion within the Obama administration over dealing with the on-going turmoil in Ukraine – and then the sudden Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula – has highlighted difficulties the Obama team has had in identifying and carrying out policies to deal effectively with a seemingly surefooted Vladimir Putin.

Two public opinion polls, both released the week of 24 March, have now defined how support for Obama’s foreign policies have dropped, although there has been one important qualifier. According to the new Associated Press-GfK poll, despite falling support more generally, Obama’s primary tactic of imposing economic sanctions on key Russians has gained strong backing.

On this policy initiative in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, nearly 9 out of 10 Americans said they supported sanctions as a response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Around half say US sanctions at this point are about right, while the other half actually wants to see them strengthened further.

On political party terms, most Democrats say the current sanctions are about right, while a majority of Republicans polled offered their endorsement of even harsher economic measures. Notably, there was no support for military engagement with the Russians in any manner.

Nevertheless, overall disapproval of the job Obama is doing – across the board on all issues (foreign and domestic) – has risen to 59%. While this is well below the 72% disapproval level George W Bush managed to achieve in October 2008, Obama’s 41% approval rating is a distressing question mark for Democrats running in this November’s House of Representatives and Senate elections, pointing to the electoral dangers that may well await them, come Election Day.

According to the AP-GfK poll, Obama received his weakest levels of support for how he has dealt with the federal budget, immigration reform and efforts to revitalise the national economy. Even with the president’s education policies, support has now fallen to below 50%.

Moreover, while Obama had generally been able to count on the support from at least half the electorate on foreign policy issues, the newest poll gave him only a 40% approval rating in this area. Specifically, 57% said they disliked how he has dealt with the Ukraine situation (despite their approval of limited financial sanctions) and 54% have unflattering opinions about the way he has managed the US-Russian relationship more broadly.

It is not an entirely negative report, however. As noted above, nearly half of those surveyed say they are in favour of still tougher sanctions if Russia advances further in Ukraine, and only 14% disagreed. Such numbers would actually seem to give the president some stick for his (and the other western nations’) threats to target Russia’s economy more thoroughly via stiffer damaging sanctions, if Putin makes further inroads into Ukraine.

Still, around a third of those surveyed also said they disagreed with the idea of giving any monetary aid to nations targeted by Russia, with only about 20% saying they approved of such measures. These results come even as the IMF is moving forward on a major monetary support package for Ukraine’s rickety economy and the US Congress is considering a $1 billion worth of loan guarantees as well.

Not surprisingly, the idea that the US would even consider provided any form of military support to Ukraine is extremely unpopular with those surveyed. The president has, of course, already said there are no administration plans to use military force to dislodge Russia from the Crimean Peninsula and surveys like this one will certainly do nothing to move him towards military support for Ukraine.

(As a methodological note, the AP-GfK Poll interviewed 1,012 adults on line and, given its survey modelling, the pollsters say the results have a sampling error of +/- 3.4%. Those interviewed were initially selected by phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. Interviewees who did not have Internet access themselves were provided it gratis for the purposes of carrying out this survey.)

Meanwhile, according to CBS News, their poll, also released this week, said, “While a majority of Americans (56 percent) support U.S. sanctions against Russia, they are less pleased with President Obama’s handling of the situation between Russia and Ukraine overall. Forty-six percent disapprove of how Mr. Obama is handling these events, while fewer – 38 percent – approve. Looking more broadly at the president and the United States’ image in the world, more Americans now say the image of the U.S. has grown worse (43 percent) since Mr. Obama became president, rather than better (32 percent). One in five thinks his presidency has had no effect.”

The CBS News explained further that “This represents a significant reversal from the early years of the Obama presidency. In 2009, when the president enjoyed higher approval ratings, 60 percent said the United States’ image in the world had improved.” According to this poll, while the percentages have slipped, not surprisingly, a majority of those who identified themselves as Democrats still believe that the American image abroad has improved.

In speaking of the president’s capabilities, according to CBS, 53% still have at least some confidence in the president’s ability to handle an international crisis, although only 28% have a great deal of confidence in his abilities. Nearly two years ago, back in the autumn of 2012, 40% of those surveyed said they had a great deal a lot of confidence in the president in this area.

Nevertheless, Americans continue to believe Obama is a strong leader: some 53% think he is one, compared to some 45% who disagree. In short, an appreciation for the president’s intentions still seems to be more favourable than any regard for the actual outcomes of his policies. As a result, the president’s overall approval rating now stands at 43% in this CBS poll, about the same as it was the month previously, while half of those surveyed disapprove of his actions.

In the CBS poll, overall, Americans would seem to be more disapproving of his handling of foreign policy than approving of it – now paralleling the negative tone of feeling towards economic policy, immigration reform issues and health care. Interestingly, fewer approve of his handling of Afghanistan than did in the previous year. On the plus side, however, the president still received a 53% approval rating for his dealing with terrorism.

Interestingly, in evaluating Secretary of State John Kerry’s performance, 44% gave him a thumbs-up while 36% disapproved – with one in five respondents having no opinion on the matter. And Michelle Obama gained a 68% positive score, with only 26% disapproving of her efforts – and 88% of Democrats were in her corner. (Maybe she should run in 2016 too?)

As far as the Ukraine/Crimea/Russia crisis is concerned, 57% thought that situation was essentially beyond the control of the US, and just 37% felt there was something the US might be able to do to affect the outcome of the crisis, according to CBS. Meanwhile, 56% of those surveyed felt sanctions were the right choice – with 55% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats voicing approval for such diplomatic measures.

Nonetheless, less than a third believed sanctions would be somewhat effective in affecting outcomes, while 58% said they would be of little use. Critically, only 26% said the US should provide military aid and equipment to Ukraine, and just under two-thirds believed the US should not attempt such measures. However, over two-thirds believed the conflict is likely to expand, and 27% said such a possibility was very likely. There was widespread bipartisan agreement that the US has no responsibility to intervene.

In fact, US public opinion about Ukraine now effectively mirrors public views about American responsibilities in other international conflicts. As CBS News explained, “Majorities of Americans did not think the U.S. had a responsibility to intervene in Syria (68 percent), in the fighting and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia (65 percent) or in the mass killings in Rwanda (51 percent). In contrast, 54 percent of Americans believed the U.S. did have a responsibility to intervene in Kosovo, a situation where the U.S. began a bombing campaign against Serbian forces in cooperation with NATO.” It would also seem that even among those who consider themselves informed about the situation, a majority believed the US does not have a responsibility to get directly involved in the Ukraine/Crimea/Russia crisis.

The crisis has, however, helped change perceptions of the US-Russian relationship. The survey noted that “Today, 42 percent of Americans think of Russia as either an ally or friendly to the U.S., down from 68 percent in 2007 and 80 percent in 2003. Fifty-one percent now see Russia as either unfriendly or an enemy, up significantly since 2003 and 2007.”

Curiously, Americans still remain rather skeptical of their nation taking a lead in addressing international conflicts more broadly. Perhaps this is still a long-running hangover from the misadventures of the Bush administration from a decade earlier. While 36% say the country should take the lead internationally, a significant majority of 58% do not agree with this proposition. And even more, 59%, say they believe the country is less powerful than it was a decade ago.

(The CBS poll was carried out by telephone with 1,097 adults. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points.)

And this, of course, takes us back to our apocryphal French general, just as he is trying to determine how, or if, he should, or will lead his putative followers. In a column in Thursday, 27 March’s Washington Post, Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan (who, interestingly, just happens to be State Department official Victoria Nuland’s spouse) argued that President Obama needs to spend a bit less time trying to measure and then parse the nuances of public and popular opinion in order so as to give the people the foreign policy they believe they want – and, instead, spend rather more time setting out where he wishes to lead them.

As Kagan wrote, “A majority of Americans may not want to intervene in Syria, do anything serious about Iran or care what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt or Ukraine. They may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems. They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.”

He went on to say, “For many decades Americans thought of their nation as special. They were the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world,” the “indispensable nation,” the No. 1 superpower. It was a source of pride. Now, pundits and prognosticators are telling them that those days are over, that it is time for the United States to seek more modest goals commensurate with its declining power. And they have a president committed to this task. He has shown little nostalgia for the days of U.S. leadership and at times seems to conceive it as his job to deal with the “reality” of decline. Perhaps this is what they want from him. But it is not something they will thank him for. To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.”

Given Kagan’s spouse’s primary task, now, of helping shape Obama’s European policy (including responses to Russia’s push against Ukraine, the Kagan – Nuland dinner table must be one heckuva debating society over the pot roast. But the larger point, of course, is precisely what Kagan has argued. Sometimes a president has to lead, regardless of whether the people are already right there with him. That is when a president’s primary task, “the power to persuade”, as presidential scholar Robert Neustadt said in his famous phrase, becomes the man’s job one.

Maybe Obama’s speech, Wednesday night in Brussels, is the start of just this effort to convince. And Thursday’s resounding UN General Assembly resolution, wagging a serious finger over Russia’s Crimea actions (albeit without directly naming Russia as the culprit) may signal another ratchet forward as well.

As The New York Times, reporting on the late Thursday vote, noted, “In the first barometer of global condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine and its Western backers persuaded a large majority of countries in the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday to dismiss the annexation as illegal, even as Russia sought to rally world support for the idea of self-determination… The resolution garnered 100 votes in favor, 11 votes against, with 58 abstentions [South Africa abstained]. The two-page text does not identify Russia by name, but describes the referendum as “having no validity” and calls on countries not to recognise the redrawing of Ukraine’s borders.”

But one thing Obama may still need to accept is that if he is to succeed in his chosen policies for this current crisis, he must still convince Americans that the path he ultimately selects will be in their country’s larger national interest, even if his nation’s citizens have yet to embrace such notions fully and completely. DM

Read more:

  • President Obama’s foreign policy paradox, a column by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post

  • Poll: Ukraine crisis hurts Obama approval ratings in the AP

  • Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of Ukraine crisis at CBS News

  • President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy, an editorial in the Washington Post

  • Will Obama rethink his global strategy? A column by Fred Hiatt in the Washington Post

  • A Tortured Policy Toward Russia, a column by Ian Bremmer in the New York Times

  • The West’s sanctions – Follow the roubles – How America and Europe hope to put pressure on Russia in the Economist

  • Concerns about Russia Rise, But Just a Quarter Call Moscow an Adversary – Public Remains Wary about U.S. Involvement in Ukraine at the Pew Research Center (another survey covering similar questions)

  • Vote by U.N. General Assembly Isolates Russia at the New York Times

  • Draft Resolution on the Territorial Integrity of Ukraine from the UN voting record

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi following their meeting at Villa Madama in Rome March 27, 2014. Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican earlier in the day. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

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