Dan Simpson: Obama's inept foreign policy

There’s hardly a part of the world where the U.S. isn’t messing up

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A long time ago a foreign affairs analyst named Robert Conquest stated the following law on how to figure out what organizations are up to in devising their policies: “To anticipate the behavior of an organization, assume it to be controlled by a secret cabal of enemies determined to discredit it.”

Unfortunately for Americans, the suspicion grows that that is exactly what is occurring within the Obama administration as its pile of mistakes around the world continues to grow. Some of these errors are likely to put the United States into trouble that will last long after President Barack Obama has retired, either to write books in a sumptuous, donor-financed presidential library or to traipse around the world stacking up cash the way Bill Clinton has.

The two worst errors — with him needlessly provoking two formidable adversaries, Russia and China— are over Ukraine and rocks in the East and South China seas.

In Ukraine, he and Vice President Joe Biden, who should be caged and muted and who recently was running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in Kiev, signed us up to support a government that replaced an appalling but elected president and which was installed by demonstrations, giving it no legitimacy.

That president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, with his associates stole an estimated $70 billion from Ukraine, the amount the new, presumably temporary government is begging from the United States, European Union and International Monetary Fund to save it from default on its debts or to spend on a fruitless war against Russia, as opposed to negotiations.

The second most catastrophic aspect of Mr. Obama’s policy toward Ukraine — aside from risking armed conflict with Russia, which America avoided for 55 years of Cold War — is that it risks trashing U.S. relations with Western Europe. NATO has no taste for conflict in Ukraine or Eastern Europe in general.

First, its countries’ military resources, like America’s, have been gravely diminished by some members’ involvement in America’s most recent out-of-Europe adventures in the Middle East, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Second, no NATO members are keen to spend resources, particularly at a time of still-reigning U.S.-caused recession in Europe, on a NATO military effort against Russia.

Even our also-benighted economic sanctions approach to Russia and Ukraine, although better than war, bites into the Europeans much more sharply than it does Americans. U.S. annual trade with Russia runs about $27 billion; Europe’s is more than 10 times as much, not to mention Europe’s dependence on Russia for a third of its energy from natural gas.

It might be better to pass over in silence the fact that Britain has agreed to Scotland’s voting on its independence Sept. 18 while politicians in London join Washington’s in waxing indignant about the iniquity of Crimea’s having voted to leave Ukraine because of its abominable government and join Russia. We don’t suppose London is afraid that an independent Scotland might seek to join the Russian Federation.

The other major error in Mr. Obama’s policy is his misguided attempt to block off China. He gave Japan during his just-completed visit a military guarantee that the United States would defend its claim to the rocks sticking out of the East China Sea, called by the Japanese the Senkaku and the Chinese, who also claim them, the Diaoyu. Mr. Obama didn’t even get in return Japanese agreement to join his Trans-Pacific Partnership, guaranteed in any case not to pass the gridlocked U.S. Senate. He made an equally unnecessary pledge to the Philippines to defend their claim against the Chinese to the Scarborough Shoal, again, rocks sticking out in the South China Sea that the Chinese also claim.

Why he had to insert the United States into these regional issues, of no interest to Americans, escapes me. All I can see is a desire to appease the American military and its industrial cohort, who are in search of enemies post-Iraq and Afghanistan to continue to justify their huge bite out of the budget in spite of the obvious, glaring needs at home to deal with major shortfalls in education and infrastructure. Can’t Mr. Obama see that? Or has he completely sold out to the military and their commercial supporters and campaign donors?

Other glaring errors include the sale of military helicopters to the coup-installed government of Egypt, led by Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, now reflagged as a civilian to run for president, who is seeking to end any possibility of democracy, initiated by the Arab Spring, growing in Egypt. The Sisi regime has continued to receive American aid to buy peace with Israel and so that American contractors can continue getting paid by Egypt even though it overthrew a democratically elected president.

Somehow, also, the administration, no doubt frustrated by the failure of Mr. Obama’s confident prediction that Syrian President Bashar Assad was finished, is now furnishing lethal military aid to the Syrian rebels, who continue to number among their heroic ranks groups and fighters clearly affiliated to al-Qaida. That means America now only need await the evolution of the Syrian rebel al-Nusra Front into the Syrian version of the Taliban, continuing to be backed by al-Qaida, so that we at home only need await another 9/​11 down the road, perhaps even attacked by our own, U.S.-supplied weapons.

Mention should be made of South Sudan, whose independence the United States worked for, now torn by tribal war between the Dinkas and Nuers. America has poured millions into the place. Uganda, a U.S. darling in the region, has put its troops in support of one side in the civil war.

All in all, it is basically catastrophic policy. Is there in the White House, as Mr. Conquest suggests, a cabal seeking to destroy the United States? It is worth asking the question.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).


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