What a start for the Obama administration’s final year. In the course of a few days, Russia declares the U.S. a threat to its security taking relations to a perilous new low, and Iran announces it will escalate a new missile program in explicit defiance of U.S. policy.
Messiest of all is the ever more evident failure of Obama’s Mideast strategy. On Sunday, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran boiled over when Riyadh abruptly cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in response to protests prompted by the Saudi kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Three very big foreign policy crises beset the administration with little sign that the White House or State has much idea how to respond to any of them.
All of these crises meet at the horizon, oddly, but let’s look at them one at a time.
Relations with Moscow. Russia experts have advised the Obama administration to face up to its not-inconsequential role in provoking the Ukraine crisis, cease the eastward advance of NATO, and recognize the vast range of interests it shares with Russia. Nothing doing. Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have done precisely the opposite, with Secretaru of State John Kerry playing a faintly mitigating role from time to time.
Moscow’s designation of NATO and the U.S. as threats to Russia, along with a charge that Washington pursues a neo-containment policy toward the Russian Federation, are unprecedented. They came in a national security assessment President Putin signed on New Year’s Eve.
This is a grave, deeply undesirable turn. Not only are flashpoint relations with Moscow needlessly dangerous; Americans also miss opportunities for cooperative action with Russia on everything from terror to global warming.
The crackup Obama has made of ties with Moscow will stand as the single worst feature of his foreign policy legacy.
The Mideast and Syria crises. It has long been plain that Obama’s obsession with ousting the Assad government in Damascus has been a miscalculation. In the current London Review of Books, Seymour Hersh quotes top U.S. generals describing repeated efforts to persuade the White House to stop backing nonexistent “moderates” as far back as 2013.
“The assessment was bleak,” Hersh writes of a classified document the Pentagon gave the White House two years ago. “There was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the U.S. was arming extremists.”
Adding to bad strategy are bad allies. The Erdoğan government in Turkey has taken the cooperation pact signed with Washington in August as license to mount something close to all-out war against Kurds, who are genuine U.S. allies, in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
Turkey recently sent troops across the Iraqi border and now ignores Baghdad’s demand they be withdrawn. For good measure, Erdoğan just favorably invoked Hitler to justify upending Turkey’s political structure and concentrating sweeping powers in the presidency.
The Saudi King Salman’s young, more assertive regime in Riyadh is supposedly part of the coalition formed to defeat ISIS, except that its extremist version of Sunni Islam nourishes ISIS.
Like Turkey, Saudi Arabia is in the game to advance its own sectarian agenda—as evidenced by the provocative beheading Saturday of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric critical of the regime.
It’s time to take the gloves off and ask what the Obama administration is doing in these perverse alliances. The confrontation with Russia could be more consequential, but the Syria crisis is by far the fouler swamp.
The Iran deal at risk. The Obama administration fought a long and politically unpopular battle to secure a deal with Iran that would stem that country’s development of nuclear weapons. But is the administration prepared to field the pact’s consequences? It now looks as if the answer’s no.
Iran unveiled a new ballistic missile, the Fateh 313, barely a month after the agreement was made final, and the message was clear: We’re pleased to open a new door to the West, Tehran as much as said, but we have no intention of abdicating any of our rights under international law to keep it in place.
Iran tested the Fateh in October, and the Obama administration subsequently threatened to impose new sanctions. On New Year’s Day, President Rouhani responded by calling any such sanctions illegal, ordering the missile program to be expanded and accelerated.
Rouhani is a reformist, and suddenly the nuclear deal he masterminded may be under threat. This is deep water, and one is not confident Obama’s people are up to navigating it.
Washington charges that missile tests contravene Security Council Resolution 1929 issued in June 2010 because it states, “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”
That’s clear enough, but the story doesn’t end there. The resolution also states that the U.N. “shall suspend the implementation of measures if and for so long as Iran suspends all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”
Related: Obama Reneges Again: Fails to Hold Iran Accountable for Ballistic Missile Tests
Everyone acknowledges that Iran is doing this. Its centrifuges are deactivated and its uranium stockpile was recently shipped to Russia, per the agreement’s blueprint. “I would expect the Iranians to complete the work necessary to move forward with implementation [of the accord] in the coming weeks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said over the weekend.
Does Iran remain bound by 1929? That’s at least an open question, especially given Tehran’s legitimate concerns about the hostility of neighbors such as Saudi Arabia.
At this point the Obama administration holds two positions that simply cannot be reconciled: (1) It is developing new sanctions because Iran has tested a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, and (2) It is ready to remove more extensive sanctions because Iran is credibly dismantling any capacity it may have to weaponize its nuclear program.
I’m not confident Obama, Kerry, or Rhodes is dexterous enough to untie this knot. If this proves so, the White House could upend what many people count its signature foreign policy accomplishment.