US foreign policy and Obama’s Hamlet moment

US foreign policy and Obama’s Hamlet moment

On the eve of the Nato leaders summit and with numerous simultaneous foreign policy crises on the boil, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates how these questions are tangled together with American domestic politics.

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished….

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

It is always a good time to quote the Bard, and Hamlet’s famous lines and this is especially the case whenever a leader seems on the verge of being swamped by a multiplicity of overlapping, concurrent problems, and one has not yet figured out a comprehensive strategy that can deal with them. By this point, surely, someone in the White House has looked up this soliloquy as well for a little solace, given the way the sea of troubles lapping at the White House’s West Wing offices keeps rising and rising without let-up.

While the problems in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and other troublesome spots are obviously not just those of Barack Obama, much of the world remains attentive to what he will say – or do – on those very questions. In short, how he will take the lead in dealing with these questions. But it does seem something of a cruel trick that they have come along to bedevil Obama, along with the inevitable domestic partisan political manoeuvring over these questions – two months ahead of America’s mid-term election.

Take the Ukrainian crisis, just for starters. While there has been some possible movement in the past 24 hours over the possibilities of a cease fire in place between Ukrainian military forces and pro-Russian separatist insurgents (but apparently without the inclusion of the actual Russian military personnel who officially are not operating inside Ukraine’s borders, per the Kremlin’s public statements, despite the evidence), the effects of this crisis have now become the core agenda items for the annual Nato leaders summit that takes place 4-5 September, at a resort in Wales.

Following decisions that have already made by the Nato partners to build up a tactical response unit of several thousand troops, and to accomplish the forward deployment of some combat air elements in the three Baltic nations, the impetus is clear for a more rigorous defence posture on the part of the alliance. Note, for example, the highly symbolic nature of Obama’s visit to Estonia just the day before that Nato summit commences to make that point clearer still.

A real irony, of course, is that this more rigorous Nato posture is almost exactly the result the Putin government had been bracing itself to oppose and denounce (and which it originally argued was a contributing cause of the current crisis in the first place – even before it happened). The fact is that it has now come about as a result of the Russian adventures in Ukraine – beginning with its annexation of the Crimea Peninsula several months earlier, its support of the pro-Russian separatists, and now its apparent launching of an armoured column into the southeastern quadrant of the country.

A result of these hostilities, of course, is the now-virtual certainty that Ukrainians, as well as the Baltic nations and probably various other former Soviet Union constituent republics have now thoroughly moved to a position to be deeply resistant to almost any version of Russian leadership of what Russia continues to call its “near abroad”. In this, it remains reluctant to admit to the fullest possible national sovereignty for these nations – remembering their previous status as portions of the old Soviet Union. In spite of these tensions and in spite of the growing sanctions regimen, however, for Americans there also remains the desire of the Obama administration to continue to engage Russian support on issues such as limiting any Iranian nuclear proliferation, in spite of the Ukrainian situation and the resulting angry words and the resulting economic and financial sanctions coming from the West.

Simultaneously, the terrible thing that is the ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State (the nomenclature keeps shifting) has taken a more directly American turn in recent days with the gruesome murders of two American journalists. Unfortunately, with regard to ISIS, Obama did himself no favours last week when he seemed to be explaining that his administration did not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS, even after the grisly death of the first journalist, James Foley, had gone viral throughout the Internet. Of course the administration obviously does have a strategy in place – there have been over 100 combat air missions against ISIS positions in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.

But the problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t seem to have defined a clear path to closure or victory. Moreover, what constitutes ‘victory’ remains less than clearly defined. Simultaneously, the Obama administration does not seem to have a definitive sense of which groups would or should be the winners following the collapse or thorough containment of ISIS. Just for starters, an ISIS defeat would benefit Bashar al-Assad’s despotic government in Syria whenever ISIS’ barbarities in Iraq against that country’s minorities are put to an end.

Meanwhile, while the Gaza ceasefire seems to be largely holding for the moment, this has not yet generated any real momentum towards more comprehensive negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, any chances for such negotiations received a real setback when word has come out that Netanyahu government was (apparently) moving to ex-appropriate some 400 hectares of land in the West Bank to be added to Israeli settlements already there. This decision generated a public rebuke from the Obama administration, but the situation remains far too unstable for anyone in the White House to enjoy.

Concurrent international crises are, of course, no new thing for a US president to wrestle with during his administration. Consider, for example, the near-simultaneous 1956 Suez and Hungarian crises faced by Eisenhower, or the repercussions of the Berlin crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing Laos/Vietnam engagements dealt with by the Kennedy administration. As a result, it is the mark of a presidential foreign policy’s “success” when enough events can be guided in a particular direction that a doctrine eventually becomes apparent to domestic partisans as well as critics – and, importantly, to international opponents and supporters as well.

The special challenge for Obama, now, however, is that all of these challenges are coming just as the US heads into a mid-term election in just two months. His Republican opponents such as Arizona senator John McCain are banging on about Obama’s lack of a transparent vision, his reluctance to engage with adversaries forcefully, and his unwillingness to lead globally with an overarching, strategic vision. Of course yet others of his Republican critics have been criticising Obama for a kind of quasi-global imperialism that would lead the country into trying to solve the problems of some of those distant places where the US has no vital interests at stake. In the meantime, senior figures in Obama’s own party such as California Senator Diane Feinstein – or his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton for that matter – have also criticised Obama for his reluctance to engage on these foreign crises forcefully enough.

Tackling ISIS is a particularly sensitive issue, given the gruesome deaths of the American journalists at the hands of that army. But making things even more complex politically, recent US polling data offers a complex, contradictory set of positions held simultaneously by the country’s citizens. On the one hand, people are telling pollsters they want a more forceful response to ISIS, given its barbarities and assaults on minority populations as well as its incendiary religious fervour. But those same people seem adamant the US should not be sending military “boots on the ground” yet again into Iraq, let alone into Syria. How these contradictory two positions can be successfully aligned remains something of mystery – and a severe challenge to a president.

And there is yet another problem for the Obama administration that rests on top of the Ukrainian and Gaza/Israel issues. In the process of creating a more comprehensive strategy vis-a-vis Islamic radicalism against non-state actors like ISIS that doesn’t further destabilise the region, he must do this in a way that doesn’t thoroughly upset voters with just two months to go; and then doesn’t’ drive away voters in several states where the senatorial elections are virtually up for grabs. Losses in one or two of those states would almost certainly lead to the Democrats’ loss of control of the Senate for the final two years of Obama’s second term. That, in turn, would make the last two years of his presidency even more difficult than the previous ones have been for the achievement of an ambitious agenda for an enduring foreign policy legacy. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama delivers a statement to provide an update on Iraq and the situation in Ferguson, Missouri in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 18 August 2014. EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL


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