As the final days of the George W. Bush Administration approached, the State Department abruptly shifted gears from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bid to save the legacy of the Presidency. Just as the Bush Administration failed to solve the decades-old conflict, the Obama Administration is scrambling to cement its legacy by engaging in similar misguided policy pushes. From the Iranian Nuclear Deal to a restart of US-Cuban relations, the Obama Administration may well be setting itself up for failure by undertaking an ambitious foreign policy agenda, especially when considering all of the emerging crises throughout the world.
The foreign policy initiatives of the Obama Administration can only be successful if the parties involved want and need them to be successful. Quite frankly, the end of a Presidency is what might be called an “artificial timeline.” Forcing progress in order to meet that timeline only sets the diplomatic process up for failure while leaving any success to be reversed by the next Administration. Looking at the US-Cuban diplomatic reset, the reality that the Castro regime is dying and politically unpopular could mean quick progress opens up the island nation to accelerated political and cultural changes.
On the other hand, Myanmar, which chose to embrace the democratization process early in the Obama Administration, has faced serious political and human rights issues that have largely been left to fester. When it comes to the persecution of the Rohingya minority, it is particularly evident that the Obama Administration has not followed through with its outreach efforts. Addressing the failures of the Myanmar transition from a closed-society ruled by a military dictatorship to a progressing ill-democratic nation would help ease criticism in regards to initiatives like the US-Cuban diplomatic reset.
Furthermore, the political world needs to understand the one who is most willing and able to leave the negotiating table has the greatest leverage. In the case of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Obama Administration’s apparent desperation to make a deal empowers the Iranian government, even though international sanctions have put the Iranian government in a far more desperate situation. President Obama has repeatedly said bombing Iran will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but the same is true of the potential nuclear deal that is in the works. Both choices will only delay Iran’s progress.
It is easy to favor the former over the latter when taking into account Iran’s assistance in the war on the Islamic State. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may well be sincere in his efforts to broker peace between the West and Iran, but he only serves as the executor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime and it appears Khamenei’s only goal is to free his government of sanctions, not change how his government operates. That said, growing efforts by US allies in the Middle East, which do not look upon Iran favorably, to tackle their own regional security, are steadily turning Iran’s help into more of a political liability.
Unless Iran is willing to accept full transparency of its nuclear program, Western interests will not be served by a nuclear deal with Iran. Unless Iran is going to stop undermining its neighbors by supporting groups like Hezbollah and the Yemeni Houthis, even a nuclear deal will not be enough for the US to ignore these trespasses. Certainly, the Obama Administration should seek to keep Iran at the negotiating table in order to freeze the status quo, but rushing to sign a nuclear deal with only lead to a bad deal. It will also undermine the necessity of the Khamenei regime to behave, thereby deleveraging the Obama Administration as negotiations progress.
Unfortunately, Iran’s connection to the Putin Regime cannot be overlooked, especially since the Obama Administration is seeking to cooperate with Russia over the Iranian-backed Houthi Rebellion in Yemen and Iran. Just as China’s provocative stance in the South China Sea appears to be following the example of Russia in the Ukraine Crisis, it is wise to assume Russian-allies Iran and Syria are taking a similar underhanded approach in dealing with IS. Where Putin becomes increasingly aggressive when he feels confident he can do as he pleases and recoils when his action are confronted, Iran may well be following a similar pattern.
The real concern is how this affects the fight against the Islamic State. Recent news of the terrorist group’s advance toward Aleppo and the Turkish border was quickly followed by renewed accusations by pro-Western rebels who believe the Assad regime is cooperating with the Islamic State. These fears can be easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but the truth is that the Assad regime and the Islamic State would be wise to target their common enemies before engaging each other.
Fighting between the Islamic State and the Assad regime, however, would be beneficial to Western interests and the Middle Eastern rivals of Iran as it would weaken all of their enemies. Given the Assad regime is an ally of Iran and Russia, this perverse counter strategy would serve to advance Russian interests while making the West more dependent on Russia and Iran. Similarly, stoking conflict between US-Asian allies like Japan and South Korea would help to further Chinese and Russian interests in subduing American power.
There are those who go so far as to blame the Obama Administration for all of the crises around world, because he has not been “strong enough” or willing to fight. The United States spent more than a decade in Iraq fighting an unsuccessful, easily reversed ground war against militant insurgents. Launching a ground war against the highly skilled Islamic State will do little except weaken the US in the face of escalating Russian and Chinese aggression. Unfortunately, the irrational, unrelenting the criticism the President hears on a daily basis pressures him to quickly accomplish big things, which pushes him to set himself up for failure.
In truth, the big accomplishments of most Presidents have unraveled as history tests their faults. With all of the crises in the world and all that must be done by a US President, it is shortsighted to believe big successes always define the legacy of a US President. It is the President’s ability to cope and properly address issues that matters. Going back to the South China Sea, China has always sought to maintain stability and balance while China has more to lose in a conflict with the US and its neighbors. Consequently, China is where President Obama must focus his diplomatic efforts in order to confront and resolve the issues driving emerging crises.
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