Among the many interpretations of President Obama’s goal to “fundamentally transform” the United States that his opponents have leveled against him is the objective to reduce her standing and influence around the globe. Liberals, progressives, so the critics charge, believe that the world will be a better place with a humbled America, a no-longer 1% nation meddling in the affairs of 99%.
That is a claim that I don’t wish to consider here. However, if that is one of the president’s goals, he is doing an excellent job of it. If not, he is, as other critics argue, profoundly out of his depth in the area of statecraft – hardly a stretch, considering his thin resume.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia provides a prime example of our waning influence in the world relative to that of other nations.
A leader with clearly superior capabilities as a national leader, Putin has taken every opportunity stemming from Obama’s dithering, half-interested foreign policy to increase Russian influence in not only its own region of the world, but elsewhere.
Some defenders of the president’s lack of involvement globally argue that we are not as strong at home as we ought to be before venturing into other parts of the world. That may be true. Weaknesses at home are not holding back Putin, however.
Russia’s economy is almost entirely built around oil exports – up from two-thirds of exports in 1980 to three quarters today. Almost half of Russian economic consumption is of imports. Her labor force hasn’t grown in 6 years. (Sound familiar?) These structural weaknesses may end up making extensions of power unsustainable, but Putin also believes that it is necessary to provide an inspirational goal of returning to Russia’s former greatness.
Here are four examples in which Putin has run an end around on Obama.
1. Syria’s chemical weapon “red line”
President Obama famously declared the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Assad regime on its own citizens as a “red line,” which would not be crossed without international intervention that he and America would presumably lead. That red line came and went, and despite growing evidence of tens of thousands of victims, the president put off action until the public became unavoidably aware of what was happening. By this point, he had little credibility with which to persuade the non-interventionist crowd, and little credibility with the hawk crowd, which had been calling for action for some time.
Obama settled for a midway policy of limited bombing that was inexplicable to everyone but him. As in numerous other areas of foreign policy, he gave it a halfway effort, resulting in little respect from fellow American policymakers.
Enter Putin, whose Russia has long been a supporter of the Assad regime and a provider of weapons and supplies. With a “step aside and let me handle this attitude,” he offered to help negotiate an end of the utilization of the chemical weapons to be followed by their gradual dismantling. Insult was thus added to Obama’s political injury and Putin looked very statesman-like by comparison.
2. Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden, for all of his arguably good intentions, was a dupe, whose actions have resulted in almost no change in policy and have served merely to make America look bad – all while egregiously endangering many good Americans in the field. (While I would like to see many substantive changes to NSA policy myself, I don’t believe that Snowden went about things in the right way at all.)
Some have argued that the circumstantial evidence suggests that Snowden was taken or assisted willingly by the Russians. Garry Kasparov wrote the following in The Daily Beast:
The idea that an individual could carry out this mission and then flee to China and take refuge in Russia without any involvement by the KGB is hard to believe. Combine these logical suspicions with his asylum claim and the aforementioned false equivalency between dictatorships and democracies and Snowden is hardly cut out to be a sympathetic figure among those who respect the universal nature of human rights.
Congressman Mike Rogers believes that Russia is behind not only receiving Russian assistance following his leaks, but that the leaks themselves are literally a Russian plot of which Snowden is a party. (I find this argument dubious.)
Whatever the case, while Obama has offered “reforms” to NSA that are satisfying to practically no one, Putin will exploit the false equivalency between the KGB and the NSA, using the latter’s excesses to distract from his own country’s abuses. He is likely to use the Olympic games in Sochi for just the same kind of distraction.
Those abuses are spreading, including into neighboring Ukraine. From The Economist:
[The uprising was] triggered by the passage of a series of repressive laws imposing tight controls on the media and criminalising the protests of the past two months. One law copied almost verbatim a Russian example, including stigmatising charities and human-rights groups financed from abroad as “foreign agents”.
The article goes on to point out the following:
[Ukraine] is linguistically, culturally and politically split between a Russian-speaking east and a nationalist, pro-European west, joined by Kiev, where Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions commands little respect or authority. It also has a pluralistic media controlled by a diverse group of powerful magnates who have no interest in splitting the country or in seeing Mr Yanukovych strengthen his economic grip.
If the country is split or becomes dominated by the Russian-leaning east, it will result in an extension of Russian influence into traditionally American-influenced Europe. Further, it means an expansion of civil rights violations.
President Obama has issued a stern condemnation of the Ukrainian government’s crackdowns – though not quite as stern as his condemnation of Republicans who have not put his agenda on his desk in the form of bills to be signed – and may threaten economic sanctions, which he apparently considers so effective that he wants to remove them from Iran.
4. Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel
I must tip my hat to James Lewis of The American Thinker for these examples.
The Saudis are rich and scared of a potentially nuclear Iran. The Obama administration has proven that it doesn’t take the Iranian threat seriously. The only option for Saudi Arabia may prove to be a turn to Russia for help. Why? Because Putin is the only leader willing to appear as a threat to Iran.
In Iran, “they never chant “Death to Russia!” because under Tsar Vladimir Putin, they are afraid to do so. Putin can a very nasty enemy, with far more power than the mullahs have.”
He has even paid a friendly visit to Israel.
Putin clearly sees a Middle East still in turmoil that is ripe for outside influence and guidance to negotiate all of its varying conflicts and he’s taking the opportunities.
Vladimir Putin is willing to play hardball politics and he’s used to it. A retreating United States lead by a weak and indifferent president creates the perfect vacuum into which Russia can expand its influence. Barack Obama may not believe in realism, but realism definitely believes in him.