WASHINGTON: Seldom has one day captured the breadth, aspirations and limitations of American foreign policy. President Barack Obama Monday imposed sanctions on officials in a resurgent Russia, tried his hand at an elusive Middle East peace deal and visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital, a reminder of two wars ending under his watch.
Each topic deserves volumes of discussion, but the rare and coincidental confluence of events offered a succinct glimpse of the evolution of U.S. foreign policy under Obama’s presidency.
The private visit with the wounded underscored the U.S. withdrawal from costly wars in Iraq and now from Afghanistan, a central goal of Obama’s when he first ran for president in 2008. His White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was the latest episode in what has long been an intractable Middle East peace process that has frustrated presidents before him. And the freezing of assets of seven Russian officials over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine displayed Obama’s current weapon of choice – economic sanctions – in confronting a muscle-flexing Vladimir Putin, who Obama’s critics claim is exploiting a U.S. aversion to the use of force.
As Obama aides see it, U.S. foreign policy had to adjust to the post-Cold War period in the 1990s, then to the post Sept. 11 world of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The main point is we are exiting one period of our foreign policy and beginning a new one,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
In ending America’s long wars, Obama has put a narrower focus on counterterrorism and sought to change the way the U.S. engages with the world.
A primary motive has been to reduce the cost of conflict for a war-weary American public, as represented by the two Purple Heart medals he presented while visiting six soldiers, three Marines and two sailors at the military hospital.
Over the past five years, the president and his advisers have argued that diplomatic and economic pressure can be more effective than war in solving crisis situations ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s civil war – and at far less risk to American servicemen and the U.S. economy. Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea this month is only the latest example.
“What’s notable in some of the debate is how much U.S. engagement abroad is viewed through the prism of whether or not we’re taking military action, almost up to the point that if you’re not using the military you’re not dealing with issues,” Rhodes said.
“We’re seeking to reorient that to show that you can use diplomacy to try to resolve conflicts like we’re doing in the Middle East,” Rhodes said. “And you have other punitive measures absent military action, like economic sanctions, in an effort to broaden the tools that we use to engage around the world so that we’re not putting all of our burden on the military.”
That shift has not been easy. Sanctions and threats against the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, have not stopped a bloody, 3-year-old civil war. The administration credits tough oil and financial sanctions for bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program, though Obama himself has put the chances for a final agreement at 50-50 or less.
The confrontation over Ukraine stands out even more, with its echoes of the old Cold War rivalry and the imperative for Obama to contend with the unpredictable moves of a strong-willed Putin.
The Russian leader recognized the Crimean Peninsula’s declared independence from Ukraine Monday, but Washington and its allies say a the referendum on independence was illegitimate.
“This is an important leadership moment for the United States and for the West,” former Obama national security adviser Tom Donilon said Sunday on CBS. “This is a challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe, an order that we had a lot to do with in putting in place – respect for sovereignty, respect for territorial integrity.”
Obama announced that the U.S., acting with Europe, would freeze the U.S. assets of seven high-ranking Russian officials, the most comprehensive sanctions against Moscow since the Cold War. Putin was not among the sanctioned officials. White House Spokesman Jay Carney did not rule out sanctions against the Russian leader, but administration officials said elected officials of a sovereign country are typically not the target of sanctions unless Washington was seeking regime change.
Republican Senator John McCain said the U.S. needed to mount a more significant response.
“Sanctioning only seven Russian officials is wholly inadequate at this stage,” he said. “We run the risk of signaling to Putin that he can be even more expansive in furthering his old imperial ambitions, not only in Ukraine, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic countries and parts of Central Asia.”
In his Middle East diplomacy, Obama Monday displayed a pragmatic view of what lay ahead as the U.S. seeks to broker a framework for peace talks.
“It’s very challenging,” Obama said with Abbas at his side. “We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”
As reporters were ushered out of the Oval Office, a reporter observed that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Obama two weeks ago, visited Washington in the aftermath of unusual snowstorms.
“It’s a sign,” Obama said. When asked what it might be a sign of, the president replied: “I don’t know.”