| Greg Jaffe |
President Barack Obama promised on Monday that Russia would suffer consequences for its continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, but he made one thing explicitly clear – he was in no rush to push America deeper into the conflict.
Caution has been the hallmark of the president’s foreign policy for much of the past six years – Obama spent months reviewing his Afghanistan strategy in 2009 before settling on the troop surge, he went back and forth over whether to bomb Syria after the government there used chemical weapons on its own people, and in the early days of the Arab Spring he straddled the line between protesters and then-President Hosni Mubarak for weeks before deciding it was time for the dictator to go.
Obama has held his careful deliberations up as a point of pride, contrasting them with the actions of his predecessor, President George W Bush, whom he blamed for rushing the country into an unwise war in Iraq.
Amid rising calls to send weapons to Ukraine’s armed forces, Obama suggested Monday that he was still thinking about it. “What I’ve asked my team to do is look at all options – what other means can we put in place to change (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s calculus – and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined,” he said.
The president’s ambivalence regarding arms for Ukraine has separated him from many of his traditional Democratic supporters, including some who served in his government and now are questioning his priorities. Obama has often seemed reluctant to plunge too deeply into a conflict that he doesn’t view as a major threat to the US homeland or the nation’s security.
Some of the president’s hesitancy could also stem from the high priority he’s placed on reaching an agreement this year with Iran to end its nuclear programme. Putin and Russia have played an important role in keeping the pressure on Tehran during the delicate negotiations.
The conflicting priorities have left some of the president’s backers asking whether he has played down the threat posed by Putin.
“This is a serious thing,” said a former senior administration official who worked on the Ukraine issue, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the president’s policy. “There’s a sense that the president doesn’t agree.”
Obama isn’t alone in his reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine. Even the most ambitious plans to arm the Ukrainian military wouldn’t give the country the firepower it needs to resist the Russian army. Sending more arms into the country could inflame an already violent conflict and prompt Putin to mount even more aggressive attacks in support of the separatist rebels.
Those concerns have led most European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to come out against the idea of sending American arms to Ukraine.
But Obama’s reluctance to ship weapons to Ukraine is also reflective of a broader foreign policy philosophy that recognises that the United States, despite its vast power, also has limited resources and, as a result, must be disciplined in setting priorities and exercise strategic patience.
On Friday, Susan Rice, Obama’s top foreign policy adviser, introduced the president’s new National Security Strategy – his first in five years – and laid out one of the main lessons the administration has learned.
“Too often what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective,” said Rice, Obama’s national security adviser. “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.”
By the new strategy’s reckoning, most of the threats that consume Washington, such as an aggressive Russia, don’t rise to the level of dire threats to the nation. Even the Islamic State, whose fighters have taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, doesn’t pose a real danger to the American way of life.
“Yes, there’s a lot going on,” Rice said in introducing the new strategy. “While the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War.”
Instead, the president’s strategy asserts that less-traditional threats, such as climate change, global pandemics and cyberattacks, represent the most pressing long-term dangers to the nation and deserve more focus.
The strategy has put the president at odds with some of his longtime supporters in the traditional Democratic foreign policy establishment. Nowhere has the break been more apparent than on the issue of arming Ukraine. -The Washington Post