In a World He Never Intended (To Make)

By Sol W. Sanders
Sunday, December 22nd, 2013 @ 12:43AM

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The Obama Administration’s foreign policy begins to look like that tightly wound ball of crocheting thread that the kitten has been playing with for several hours and is now finally completely unraveling. How innocent the kitty is may be a question in the eye of the beholder. But the disarray is so vast as to be unfathomable:


The agreement not to reach agreement on a six-months’ pact for adjusting U.S. and Western interests with Iran, which President Obama said only had a 50-50 chance, is falling apart even before it officially begins. Sources from inside the never very effective UN International Atomic Energy Agency say the agreement cannot be policed or enforced. The $10 billion in additional oil exports it permits the Mullahs in Iran will help bail them out of a crisis economic situation while they continue to hurl threats at the world and call for an end to all sanctions. The Administration, after giving Tehran relief by not instituting penalties against new violations of the existing sanctions regime, has now reserved itself. But President Obama opposes bipartisan Senate and House members pushing legislation for new sanctions if and when the short-term agreement collapses. All sides admit/claim that Iran’s search for enriched uranium and nuclear weapons and a delivery system is going forward without hindrance during the truce period.


Ignoring the fact Secretary John  Kerry’s negotiations mandate is only dealing with one of the three Palestinian elements — the PLO on the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan — new obstacles have arisen. Kerry has thrown over bitterly and long-time negotiated U.S.-Israeli guidelines for its security if a Palestinian state comes into being. So he has inadvertently manufactured a new crisis over Israel’s continued presence in the Jordan Valley. With growing threats from Iran-armed officially designated terrorists, Hezbollah in the Lebanon north and Hamas in the Gaza south, no Israeli government is going to accede to any major concessions on their eastern flank with an always fragile Jordan now facing new difficulties with millions of Syrian refugees.


Washington has had to abandon the dribble of aid to the “moderate” opposition in Syria fighting for an overthrow of the Assad regime because of a takeover of the motley anti-Assad forces by jihadists. A new and even more violent jihad group has supplanted earlier groups linked to Al Qaeda. There are no prospects for the proposed U.S.-Soviet sponsored conference to end the civil war. Not only have the mechanics for disarming Assad’s chemical weapons collapsed, but the dictator — perhaps now totally in the hands of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — is currently carrying out a bloody air war against opposition elements in the second city of Aleppo. In part because of Obama’s maybe-in, maybe-out Syrian initiatives, the Assad government has a new lease on life. But this more and more desperate use of air power and heavy weaponry against poorly armed opposition forces and civilians not only continues the humanitarian crisis, but threatens to spread the war to Syria’s neighbors, including Israel.

Saudis and Gulf States

The U.S. has lost all credibility with its longtime allies, the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdoms, because of its failure to formulate an effective Syrian policy and its hostility to the new military-sponsored government in Egypt (below). Reports of Saudi overtures to both the Soviets and Iran are probably propaganda, but the Saudis — always pragmatic — are now apparently thinking of trying to compromise their differences with the Shia mullahs given the seemingly inevitable approach of a nuclear-capable Tehran. Intelligence cooperation between the Israelis and the Saudis, given their mutual hostility to Washington’s flirtation with Tehran, are probably exaggerated. All this is complicated by the vulnerability of the Saudis (and the rest of OPEC) to the shale revolution in the U.S., which is turning North America into major net exporter of fossil fuels and breaking the hold over the longer term of Mideast oil. China’s appetite for increasing imports of energy is also feeding into a deteriorating presence of the U.S. in the region, ironically despite the fact that the President is surrounded by Arabists long sympathetic to the anti-Israel machinations of the Arabs.


Washington’s alliance with Cairo (along with the Egyptians’ peace treaty with the Israel and the alliance with Jerusalem) has been the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for almost four decades. It is now in tatters. The Obama Administration’s refusal to recognize the general popularity of the military coup that overthrew a growing Islamist regime of the Muslim Brotherhood has alienated the Egyptian military. And for the first time since former President Anwar Sadat threw the Soviets out of the Mideast, Cairo is letting the Russian nose back under the tent. Moscow probably cannot fulfill its promised deliveries of arms to Cairo — nor are the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdoms now footing Egypt’s deficits likely to permit it — but it has handed Russian President Vladimir Putin another bit of useful propaganda. The erosion of U.S. relations with Egypt, by far the most populous Arab state and the longtime center of Sunni culture, is a major disaster for peace and stability in the area.


With his tacit ally, Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become the arbiter of the Syrian situation, continuing to support the Assad regime against the jihadist-dominated opposition which Washington now fears to support. By going to the aid of President Viktor Yanukovych with emergency financing and discounted natural gas prices, Putin has forced the Ukrainian regime to curb its growing ties with the European Community. The hostility between the nationalist western Ukraine and the Russian-speaking eastern rust-belt threatens the unity of a very fragile new state. But Putin can, at least for the moment, quietly trumpet it as part of a growing successful plan to reassemble the old “Soviet republics” into a new Moscow sphere of influence resembling the old Communist state. Despite the refusal of the German, British and American heads of state to attend, Putin has lavished some $70 billion — and still counting — on the February Winter Olympics where he hopes to crown his and Russia’s return to superpower status. Obama’s concessions to Moscow on missile defense — embarrassing Polish and Czech allies — and other attempts at concessions for a modus operandi with Putin’s Moscow have fallen disastrously short. And while Putin’s ambitions are likely to be short-lived, he has the capacity to add additional muddle to U.S. policies in the Mideast, Europe and Asia.


While Beijing’s dependence on exports and massive overexpansion of its capital plant and infrastructure has had to be reigned in, U.S. economic policy still refuses to confront the enormous and increasing trade deficit with China that threatens the U.S. dollar. Luckily, Beijing does not have any place to go with its foreign exchange hoard — Sterling long ago defrocked as a reserve currency, the Euro in an attenuated crisis, and the Japanese refusing to permit the Yen to become a reserve currency. But the Obama Administration refuses to indict the Chinese for currency manipulation that has gutted much of U.S. manufacturing and permitted the Chinese to have pretensions for their own internationalization of the Yuan and to make significant if small overseas investments. Increasingly the U.S. is faced with a dilemma of either permitting semi-government Chinese companies to acquire American assets — with their record of mismanagement and corruption — or inhibit the play of market forces in the U.S. economy. The “pivot” to East Asia so portentously announced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — despite all denials an effort to meet an increasing aggressive “rising” China — is being inhibited by the continuing pull of the Mideast on military resources and a lack of clarity on the U.S. strategy in Asia. In riposte, the Chinese are proceeding with more and more territorial claims against their neighbors in the East and South China Seas further incurring demands on American military capacity.


The Obama Administration has failed to grasp enthusiastically the popularity and strategic clarity of the Abe Administration. In the case of the contested Senakakus Islands, it has taken an internally contradictory stand: it recognizes Japanese longtime occupation, it has repeatedly said the rocky, little, uninhabited rocky outcroppings which may or may not sit above fossil fuel deposits, are covered by the U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. But the masters of ambiguity at Foggy Bottom maintain Washington does not take sides in the dispute and does not recognize Japanese sovereignty. There must be some limit even to diplomatic “modalities”! Having initiated the Trans Pacific Partnership, an initiative to create a vast new common market — excluding China but including Japan — the Obama Administration has been allowed the project to dawdle. With Canada and Mexico having joined on, the issues are enormous for all the partners, especially for traditionally protectionist Japan with Abe staking his political life on their success. Yet it has not engaged the President in more than an occasional passing reference. And, probably correctly, it is no secret that Abe has maintained a stiff upper lip in the face of relatively little attention from his ally, and, in fact, political embarrassment with a growing suspicion in Tokyo’s elite circles that the President’s coterie is incompetent.


Seoul, succumbing to a campaign of seduction by Beijing, has steeped itself in the old arguments of the bitter half century of Japanese Occupation. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on his recent tour, shocked Tokyo and discomfited Seoul when he indicated he would be trying to mediate the growing Tokyo-Beijing tension, but then publicly refused to play conciliator to the two most important bilateral allies in the region, Japan and Korea. The Obama Administration seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that an accommodation between Japan and South Korea is the sine qua non of any multinational alliance in Northeast and Southeast Asia to meet the growing aggressive feints of the Chinese regime.

Meanwhile, coordination in a joint effort to anticipate the next unpredictable events in North Korea is less than adequate among the three allies, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Washington’s continued reliance on Chinese intervention seems to be a weak reed with the recent purges in Pyongyang, apparently, in part aimed at elements seeking to take Chinese advice and move toward liberalization of the economy. The current South Korean administration, with few illusions about North Korea, is nevertheless not in synchronization with Washington. Even military strategy, with its ultimate goal the further reduction in American forces — although the nuclear shield would remain — is not being given its due priority. The conundrum remains of a North Korea, with the example of Qadaffi’s Libya before them and its profitable technical collaboration with other rogue states such as Iran, is not likely ultimately to abandon its nuclear weapons. The Allies’ alternative is to seek regime change. But fear of the chaos of a post-Kim North Korea is preventing the formulation of alternative strategies to Pyongyang’s continued blackmail for additional aid to keep a starving if militarily advanced economy from collapsing.


Just as its predecessor Republican administrations, the Obama team has had illusions about the prospects of an alliance with New Delhi. India’s dreams of hegemony in the Indian Ocean, its largely continued reliance on Russian weapons, and the predisposition of its professional foreign service corps for a close relationship with Moscow always defeat any American effort at closer relations. With the Indian economy still hidebound by its inheritance from its socialist and colonial past, there are dwindling prospects of extensive foreign investment and transfer of technology to accomplish the kind of economic superapid progress China has made in the past two decades.

The blowup over the arrest and indictment of a member of the Indian New York City consulate-general for alleged maltreatment of an employee seems a legitimate action of the American criminal justice system. But it does seem that the State Department with its inordinate pride in its diplomatic traditions might have handled the problem more discreetly. The degree to which the episode has been exaggerated and exploited in New Delhi suggests the underlying faultlines that continue to divide the U.S.-India relationship. The Obama Administration appears to have only deepened them.

It was, of course, unavoidable that the immense and complicated structure created since 1948, with the central theme its effort to fend off Communist aggression would have had to be modified and reorganized in the post-1990 implosion of the Soviet Union. But the five years of the Obama Administration is caught in the toils of its leftwing participants’ fight against the largely post-World War II U.S. foreign policy. It has only contributed to further confusion. It remains to be seen if, in three years, another administration in Washington, whether Republican or Democratic, can rescue the still necessary role of American leadership in the world.

*A version of this column is scheduled for publication December 23, 2013 on and at

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, China, Iran, Middle East Conflicts, Syria, U.S. Policy, Ukraine

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