“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. . .What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?”
This passage from Ulysses captures the Obama presidency in the realm of foreign policy. History, the nightmare from which the president is trying to escape, has given him a “back kick” — in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen for example — and he risks becoming a laughingstock as a result.
But there’s a twist. President Obama denies he has been kicked. His nightmare thus becomes ours.
Obama’s speech to the United Nations illustrates the problem. Elliott Abrams, describing the speech as “surreal,” writes that it “is filled with nice lines that unfortunately bear no relationship to his seven years of foreign policy — and in some cases, no relationship to reality.”
Abrams supports this claim by analyzing what Obama had to say about Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Cuba. The analysis is well worth reading.
I want to focus, though, on a portion of just one passage. Obama stated:
I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world — one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success. . . .And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences. That is true for the United States, as well.
The disdain for history is evident and, in a sense, warranted. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that history has been unpleasant that we cannot (or should not) look back at it. History, has much to teach us.
One lesson is that Obama’s claim that “we cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion” is rubbish. The world not only can “return” to them, it has (and never stopped).
Another lesson is that conflict and coercion don’t necessarily cause “all” to “suffer” bad “consequences.” Often conflict and coercion produce winners and losers. The losers suffer, but the winners, though often paying some price, thrive for decades and sometimes centuries.
The fact that we “live in an integrated world” doesn’t alter this reality. If Obama knew anything about history, he would understand that integration isn’t new. Europe and large portions of Asia were integrated by trade and migration more than two thousand years ago. In important ways, today’s world, with its religious wars and mass movement of peoples, bears more resemblance to the ancient one than to yesterday’s world of seemingly solid nation states (which was also integrated).
Obama wasn’t offering a history lesson, though. The speech was an exercise in self-justification — an attempt to demonstrate that although he looks like a loser, he isn’t really one because the old world of losers and winners has been extinguished. This farcical claim will only enhance Obama’s status as a laughingstock.
But the speech had a serious side, I think. It seems to me that Obama was sending this message to Putin: Russia will suffer if you don’t cooperate with the U.S. In fact, Obama mentioned the sanctions against Russia and their consequences (“capital flight, a contracting economy, a fallen ruble, and the emigration of more educated Russians”) in his speech.
The message isn’t implausible. Russia reportedly is starting to run short on foreign currency reserves, thanks in part to sanctions. Russia also runs the risk of military overreach if it continues to become more involved in Syria. Its dirty little war in Ukraine enjoys only mixed support at home and polls show little appetite by Russians for large scale military involvement in Syria. (Just as we had Vietnam, Russia had Afghanistan).
But Putin is a skillful operator. He doesn’t need lessons from Obama.
Taking on ISIS to a serious degree would require a level of military engagement that might erode Putin’s domestic support. But it’s unlikely that Putin is serious about doing ISIS in (though I’m pretty sure he would like to). He just dangles this prospect, as Iran does, to tantalize Obama.
Putin’s goals, it seems to me, are (1) to work with Iran to help Assad maintain control over a portion of Syria, (2) cement relations with Iran, and (3) diminish U.S. influence in the region. He may well be able to accomplish these objectives without a level of military involvement that might hurt him at home.
As for Russia’s finances, they appear to be a looming problem. Ironically, however, Obama has undercut the Russia sanctions by lifting those on Iran. The Iran deal will boost the Russian economy by enabling Russians to sell all manner of weapons to the mullahs.
These sales alone won’t solve Russia’s economic problems. It needs a strong rebound of oil prices, which may or may not be in the cards.
But history suggests that “capital flight, a contracting economy, a fallen ruble, and the emigration of more educated Russians” won’t be sufficient to dissuade an autocrat like Putin from expanding Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Obama’s options are to counteract the expansion or offer lectures while Russia gives him a “back kick.” Like so much of his conduct, Obama’s U.N. speech amounts to pasting a “kick me” sign on his backside.