In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; On Foreign Policy They Want to See Real Success

In his State of the Union Address, US President Barack Obama painted a picture of the US with a better standing in the world after seven years of his leadership. In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Yet, triumphalism does not equate to triumph. There is a continuous threat from terrorist groups. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and China remain in fierce competition with the US. They may seek to establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened.

In a January 12, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears in State of the Union Speech,” it was reported US President Barack Obama painted a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership with a better standing in the world. Concerning foreign policy and national security, Obama defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) describing it as a dangerous threat to the US that must be dealt with but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of US ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Obama highlighted his work in forging a nuclear deal with Iran, opening a new era of relations with Cuba, pressing for a global accord reached in Paris to combat climate change and efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. He also explained the US is uniquely positioned to rally other countries to solve global problems.

In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Loyal Obama supporters and fans and other Democrats will be at every venue, a flutter at every word he utters about his presidency. Doyens of the political realm in the US will make glowing public orations, descants and publish paeans in honor of the president, celebrating his administration’s accomplishments. Having twice vanquished all opposition to Obama in national elections, and after completing nearly eight years of work, some measure of triumphalism is expected to be heard from him, his senior officials, and his staff. It would be expected even more of an administration marked particularly by its obsession over the president’s legacy. The final year of his last term is the ideal time to set the record straight and control the narrative. Iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum. (Pleasant is the memory of past troubles.)

Still, triumphalism, highlighting the administration’s perceived achievements on foreign policy, does not equate to triumph. Real success cannot be determined by levels of applause from fans. Doubts have been expressed even among Democrats over many of the administration’s foreign policy efforts. The forces of tyranny and darkness still hold a prominent place on the international stage. Whether signature efforts by the administration have created real change or will be sustainable remains uncertain. The renowned wit and retired late night US television talk show host, David Letterman, once joked, “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: Operation Hillary’s Problem.”   Whether Letterman engaged in a successful dalliance as a visionary regarding former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s election as the next US president remains to be seen. Still, his main point was clear. The Obama administration has not successfully acted against ISIS and was seemingly passing on that problem, and other important ones, to the next US administration. However, sitting on issues in order to hand them over to a new administration is not a wise choice. In addition to the continuous threat of terrorism from ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other groups worldwide, countries such as Russia, Iran, and China while interacting with the US still remain in fierce competition with it strategically, ideologically. They may now hope to exploit perceived advantages and establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened. Approaches exist to prevent that from occurring or at least minimize any negative results. They may not allow the administration to declare triumph, but may allow it to honestly claim it left a satisfactory foreign policy legacy.

Creating a Foreign Policy Legacy

During Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Presidential Election, he was recognized as a man of vision, a seeker, filled with smart words, no less than the breath of life. His speeches were indeed balanced, teeming with inspiration. In photos, videos and in his writings and speeches during that first presidential campaign and during the initial stages of his first term, it was clear that Obama was very passionate, a man seemingly haunted by his vision of an even brighter future for the US. Yet, having is not the same as wanting. As time passed, there were some successes, but there were also failures. Mistakes were also made, particularly in the area of foreign policy. They came to office believing the policy issues have been misunderstood and solutions are only temporarily hidden. In decision making, spirit and vision would be given primacy over vested interests, realism. That was the case of the US response toward countries in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and to the opposition movements in Ukraine. The administration’s foreign policy seemed driven by a self-neglectful virtue that would allegedly melt all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that the US believes gives hope to those it perceives as helpless. The administration wished to become no less than an anathema to tyrants, pointing always to the hallmark of their oppressive regimes which is a lack of respect for the dignity of others. The administration would contest how those regimes would typically act upon citizens: not with constitutional authority, but with raw power. Yet, the Obama administration also in no way wanted to be associated with the policies of the previous administration of US President George W. Bush which was perceived as willing to lash out without delay at its adversaries. Instead of projecting authentic US strength globally, the administration proffered the idea that the US could rely upon multilateral solutions. That would allow it to minimize US intervention on the ground, but require joint action from allies and partners who were undertaking dramatic military cuts and were facing economic difficulties. Those countries were also very aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric, not set piece engagements to win quickly. No Western European country with real military capabilities would commit requisite or robust forces to take on risks globally, especially if its political leaders felt that the issue at hand did not fall within their interests. Countries possessing far less capabilities than the US in regions where there were urgent and important crises brewing, were also hesitant to act unless matters fell directly in their interests. Obama repeatedly presented his notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama spoke, and regular breakdowns in the administration’s foreign policy initiatives that were being implemented. When the administration thought efforts under this multilateral concept coalesced as an outcome of initial success in Libya, things soured resulting in multiple failures from the controversial loss of US diplomatic and military personnel to the development of struggle between competing factions and Islamic militants aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Obama administration did not invent the US Government. The government that the administration took control of has always been viewed as stable, solid, reassuring. It has been the source of so much hope not only of foreign capitals but individuals worldwide. Now, the image has grown of the US in retreat, perhaps wounded by its ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no longer seen by all as a champion of right but as a cold calculator. Its leaders know the price of everything but not the value of relationships the US once held close. Seeing the failed results of its approach, exasperated European leaders have not responded with mockery, sarcasm, or insolence; at least not publicly. Leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom have tried to give courage, to fortify the administration. Viciousness has done much harm in history. Still, the worst crimes, the worst disasters in history have been the work of the timid, the mediocre. For years, many will feel the Obama administration stood passively in the face of evil.

As an authentic military superpower, the US has a clear upper hand over all of its likely opponents. Any assessment otherwise would not be genuine. The administration has been reluctant to use US military power. Adversaries, upon recognizing this, seemingly downplayed concerns over US capabilities to impose its will and simply considered how to impose their own will, regionally and globally. Soon their narrative exposed a defective perspective that the US lacked the ability to deliver a knockout blow. Subtly, opponents worked tirelessly on the US, enjoying the freedom to act in the world, knowing that beyond the diplomatic table, using economic weapons such as sanctions, and revoking membership in collective economic groups, little else would occur. Possible limitations on what could be done would only be set by the Obama administration’s time in office. It is already clear that the dynamic between the US and many countries has changed. It remains to be seen whether US opponents will attempt to administer some type of coup de grace in the administration’s final months, ensuring that it will not have a positive foreign policy legacy. The following are some possibilities, “stripped to the bone”.

Above is a photo of a deep underground military base in Iran. The Obama administration hopes to be known for attempting to create better relations with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. However, results of its efforts may very well prove that the administration was acting on a charming fantasy. It approached those countries unlike previous administrations. In Tehran, the Obama administration has no friend. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit the administration or betray it.

Iran

Certainly, the Obama administration will be known for attempting to create union with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. Its approach to those countries was unlike that of previous administrations. In past cases, the US projected that strength, and US diplomacy was supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. Indeed, the previous US administration emphasized to Iran that the US had the intention and capability to impose its will on them and it had no ability to impose its will on the US.   Leaders in Tehran rejected that approach. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. To facilitate the establishment of talks with the P5+1 (the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany), the Obama administration did not impose its will on Iran using strength, rather it negotiated with Iran under the fiction that all parties to the talks were equals. US strength was negated. Having managed to arrange the environment to maximize their ability to achieve success, Iranian negotiators came to the talks confident in their positions. The Iranians flatly denied they wanted to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting Iran’s program is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, and the Iranian negotiating team were under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements in Iran, to secure an agreement that recognized Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium and held the line on that issue. As Zarif told the ISNA news agency in November 2014, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’, because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”

Close contact with US negotiators for months allowed the Iranians a real chance to look into their thinking of US negotiators. The Iranians discerned they were witnessing the impact of the Obama administration’s “legacy quest.” White House officials and US political pundits spoke and wrote about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. US negotiators were pushing for a deal in order to claim an historic foreign policy success. So strong was the sense that the US might be willing to make risky concessions, that Zarif stated in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” The Iranians became more tenacious than ever in the talks. There was also a discernible change in Obama’s discussion of taking military action against Iran as the talks progressed. Threats vanished. The administration went as far as to say there was nothing effectively could be done militarily to halt Iran’s program. The narrative of the US changed.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed on July 14, 2015. With safeguards, the administration believes the framework agreement will cut down Iran’s breakout time capacity to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be set up to help discourage Iran from violating the agreement. The hope is noncompliance by Iran at declared or potential undeclared sites would be detected through enhanced monitoring by the international community and promptly disrupted. The consequence of noncompliance would likely be limited to economic sanctions which may not be enough to restrain hardliners driven to build a weapon. The results of the administration’s efforts may prove that it was acting on a charming fantasy.

Reportedly, Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the Iran deal. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea to develop a weapon. Alleged evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

There have been reports that Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the JCPOA. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. (During the Cold War, the US encouraged joint work by its allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and South Africa, on the development of nuclear capabiltites.) The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. On September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft and special operations forces attacked and destroyed them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other facilities exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, one may be underground, west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran. The Obama administration has no friend in the regime in Tehran. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit it or betray it. Equo ne credite! (Do not trust the horse! [Referring to the Trojan Horse.])

European governments and large European firms now seek to renew economic ties and develop business with Iran. As those linkages are established, the chance that the US could pull allies away from potential profits due to a “potential threat” a nuclear Iran might pose is lessened. The argument would be made that economic ties would serve to lessen hostilities between Iran and their countries. Threats to use force against Iran would have little meaning at that point as too many statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made. At best, the Obama administration could increase sanctions on North Korea over nuclear weapons tests showing Pyongyang that it would be impractical to support any possible Iranian covert Iranian overseas nuclear program. It could also make it publicly known that the US is still developing greater capabilities to destroy deep underground military bases as those in Iran. If Iran is trying to cross the line or has crossed the line, at least the next administration would be better able to back diplomacy with force.

ISIS on parade in Mosul. When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began in June 2014, the Obama administration’s response included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama refused to give the Iraqis military aid unless they tried to bridge their divisions. Maliki stepped down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government reflecting Iraq’s ethno-religious diversity and gain the trust of disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it.

Iraq

When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was designed as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. ISIS was able to capture large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces during their offensive because Sunni residents threw their support to it after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had previously helped fight ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama insisted that no US military help would be provided unless Iraqis tried to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to make headway with Maliki. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops prepared the Iraqi Army for its fight to retake Ramadi. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for 2016. Iran would hardly tolerate any loss of control or surrender its interests in Iraq due to the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing the representative government that the US sought for Iraq could not be easily created, Iran’s leaders likely assumed the US would not succeed. Tehran went ahead and expressed reserved support for Abadi. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. Causality for his change in perspective was likely a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, and Iran’s battlefield efforts. Abadi may have also questioned the Obama administration’s will to engage in long-term fight with ISIS. His rebellious attitude was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Iran has heavily committed itself to Iraq.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran has placed itself in a better position to shape Iraq politically and economically. How Iran would ameliorate Iraq’s sectarian struggle is uncertain.

To support Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. While the US was hesitant to help Iraqi Security Forces as ISIS marched toward Baghdad, Abadi observed that Iran was swift to provide assistance. Having established greater control over the Shi’a community and increased its influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran is now in a better position to shape Iraq politically, economically, and perhaps socially, with effort.

The road Iran is creating for Abadi may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representative government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern it, the Obama administration should consider how it can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. That does not mean pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish things. Baghdad should have positive ties with its neighbor, Iran. Yet, the US can improve its relationship with Iraq. Surely, it could further enable Iraq’s fight against ISIS, and help stem the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Even more, it could further advance Iraq’s position on the world stage by helping it generate significant business and economic ties worldwide, beyond the oil and gas industry, even while Baghdad copes with ISIS and sectarian issues. Clarior e tenebris! ([I shine] out of the darkness more brightly!)

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Now with Russia in the mix, they are well out of their depth. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy against Assad’s regime.

Syria

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Rebel fighters found themselves in trouble early on and now with Russia in the mix, they recognize that they are well out of their depth. Just keeping the Opposition together politically has been difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down via negotiations. Obama expressed that view on CBS NEWS “60 Minutes”, saying: “. . . I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate Opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL [ISIS]? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL [ISIS]? He went on to state: “. . . There is no doubt it did not work.” A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been created by the Opposition at the civil war’s start and cannot be created by it now. The Opposition could fight on against the Assad regime minus support, but it would lose, especially with ISIS present. Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare. (Anyone can err, but only a fool persists in his fault.)

ISIS and Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria have reached a considerable size and strength. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those of the Opposition. While mainstream Opposition forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic State on Syrian territory. At one point, the Obama administration seemed willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers, and allowing Assad to remain in power. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. It could have been surmised that the Assad regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, would not survive in the long-run. It seems the Obama administration assumed Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran would grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancing their cause. US military action in Syria has been limited to airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That tack left the door open for others to operate freely in Syria to impose their will. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and has fought alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Moreover, Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate and cooperate well on the battlefield. Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack on Qusayr and took on the mop-up operations there. Syrian and Iranian troops took on rebels in Homs and other points in Homs province. Russia more recently intervened militarily in Syria, it has targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Since October 2015, command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck, limiting ISIS’ ability to direct its fighters. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS in front of Russian allies have been degraded with close air support and heavy strikes by Russia. Presumably they will provide close air support for an offensive by their allies.

US military action in Syria has primarily been airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That has left the door open for other countries to impose their will on the ground. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces, and fight alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” In Syria, Russia has targeted ISIS’ command, control, and communications centers. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, the US might need to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran.

New talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might get their act together for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to keep Assad in power. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, despite UN Talks, the US may be given little choice but to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable, secure peace in their country would be the best outcome.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements heard from the Obama administration on why US military power should be withheld have been made to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders.

Russia

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin wants to change the narrative which has Russia coming in a distant second to the US. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin and his closest advisers share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Little was done to build a relationship with Putin who was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister and was the real power in Moscow. Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012. Based on positive signals from Medvedev on nuclear arms reductions, administration officials got the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. When Putin expressed disinterest, administration officials insisted that he agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.   Apparently retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. Relations were so bad in 2013 that Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.” He further stated, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”

There was no easy way to repair the relationship. In our media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any political leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel is only signaling insecurity. This was the case at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013. When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.” By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US and EU worsened. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace, Russian warships in NATO waters, and Russian claims made on the Arctic. Putin had already shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics. Examples include his actions in Georgia and Ukraine and his proposal for a “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. By taking action in Syria, Putin showed he is also ready to secure Russia’s interests abroad.

The leaders of Germany (despite some controversial energy sector matters) and the United Kingdom are not fans of Putin and have encouraged Obama to stand firm in his dealings with him. Yet, some other European allies fear facing greater problems from Putin. Coping with his abrasive side can be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could try to do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama.

Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements have been made by the Obama administration, on why US military power should be withheld, to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. The administration will have diplomatic contact and telephone communications with Putin, but keeping a brave face on while coping with his aggressive side will be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations such as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama. The more meetings the two can have in 2016, the better. That would be to the benefit of the people of both countries long-term. Gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo]. A water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often].

The Way Forward

Graviore manent. (Heavier things remain.) Panegyrics for Obama and his administration have already begun to make their way into the media. Still, the specter remains of unresolved policy issues with the potential to worsen and become far more intractable. Arguments can be made that an environment in which such problems could grow was allowed to exist due to the delinquency of the administration. The result of such perceived inadequacies and failures could possibly be passed on to the next administration. A decision to simply sit on problems or contain them would be wrong and likely viewed as a pitfall of fear and resignation. There are approaches the Obama administration could take to defeat or defuse problems it may face from its adversaries. A few were presented here more boiled to the marrow than stripped to the bone as originally promised.

Candidates for the presidency have expressed concern over the same issues in campaign speeches and during debates. Perhaps those who can do better will take office and actually do better during their time in office. It is impossible for deeds to be undone. The Obama administration has done what it wanted to do on foreign policy. When God gives his grace to us, he gives us what we do not deserve. When God gives his mercy to us, he does not give us what we deserve. The Obama administration may very well be able to ride out its final year reflecting publicly on things that are pleasing to remember. However, it is always best to act than react. Setting an agenda for action would be the best action to take.

Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy; After Crimea Is Firmly Under Russian Control, Perhaps He Will

Russian troops, well-trained and very capable, moved rapidly into Crimea and achieved the military objectives set for them by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

According to a March 6, 2014, NBCNews.com report entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” Russian President Vladimir Putin stuck to his position on the escalating crisis in Ukraine, saying Moscow must not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in the country.  During a lengthy call with President Barack Obama on March 6, 2014, Putin said Ukraine’s government came to power as the result of an “unconstitutional coup” and was “imposing an entirely illegitimate decision onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine.  Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly in full compliance with international law.“  Additionally, on March 6th, the parliament of the semi-autonomous and largely pro-Moscow region of Crimea decided to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, and set the date for a referendum on the subject for March 16th.   The White House earlier said that President Barack Obama had told Putin that the Russian incursion into Crimea was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and that the US and its European allies had “taken several steps in response.”  A March 6th BBC.com article entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” reported Obama told Putin there was a solution available that suited all parties, involving talks between Kiev and Moscow, international monitors in Ukraine, and Russian forces returning to their bases.  This was the second telephone call between the two leaders on Ukraine in less than a week.

In Ukraine, Putin is in the process of executing what was known during the Cold War as the “Hamburg grab.”  In Europe, the common characteristics of US assessments of a possible conflict initiated by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites was a surprise attack across the Iron Curtain with conventional weapons.  As Bernard Brodie explained in renown work on military affairs and statecraft, War and Politics (Macmillan, 1973): “The attack might be general along the line, intended to wipe out NATO and take over Western Europe to the Pyrenees, or there might be some variation in diminished form, like what became known as the ‘Hamburg grab.’  In the latter instance, the Soviet forces would slice around the important city of Hamburg and then leave it up to us to try to take it back—which without large conventional forces we obviously could not do unless we were prepared for a nuclear holocaust.”  Unlike Hamburg, Ukraine, even more, Crimea, falls within what Russia once called its “near abroad.”  However, the same as with Hamburg, trying to take Crimea back from Russia without triggering a nuclear war would likely be impossible.  Putin in his March 6th telephone call reportedly told Obama that US-Russian relations “should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.”

Obama and his advisers should have understood that they would unlikely persuade Putin to respond favorably and reverse course as a result of a couple of telephone conversations.  Putin would hardly look past all that has transpired in his interactions with Obama.  A break occurred between the leaders over a US proposal for nuclear reductions a few short months ago, which was an uncharacteristic aspect in US-Russian relations in recent history.  When Obama came to office, he had established a very positive relationship with Putin’s protégé, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  Obama had become so confident in his relations with Russia based on his successes with Medvedev that he declared a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries.  Obama made the mistake of believing his positive relationship between Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would transfer to his relationship with Putin.  Interaction between the two leaders became tense very fast.  True, there have been public displays of coordination between the US and Russia on foreign policy.  They include the formulation and implementation of a plan for Syrian chemical weapons removal; the Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition; and, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: Putin’s decision to allow NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; and ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks.  Things really soured on August 7, 2013 when Obama cancelled a Moscow summit meeting set for September.  Washington sent arms reduction proposals to Moscow seeking steep reductions in its nuclear forces, but Putin refused to consider them concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.

Putin’s rejection of the proposals, as one unidentified senior administration US official told the New York Times, ended Obama’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   An unidentified administration official also informed the New York Times that “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.”  That source went on to state, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians.  They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.”  The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades.  Yet, because they had a contentious relationship, Obama and Putin were unlikely to be the ones to resolve any nuclear issue.  There was really a personality clash between the two leaders.  Obama prefers to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, and insists on trying to convince Putin to accept his point of view based on the quality of his arguments.  Obama’s tact evinces a refusal by him to recognize that Putin sees the world differently.  Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted on August 7, 2013 in the New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”  He went on to state, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  The notion that a “legacy quest” drove the Obama administration to use the summit as a platform to push forward its political agenda and secure an historic agreement  with Russia on arms control, more than perturbed Putin.  Pushing Putin to accept proposals on nuclear force reductions in which he was not at all interested would never achieve anything positive.  Insisting the September summit be used to deal with such proposals was a doomed effort.   (See August 17, 2013, greatcharlie.com post, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”)

Obama should have understood that maintaining a constructive relationship with the Russian leader is not a personal matter; it is part of the business of being president.  During the Cold War, despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not.  Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings.  Such Cold War meetings may also have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo.  Summit talks built confidence, eliminated ambiguities about positions, and prevent and guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Talks allowed leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship.  The eventual establishment of a “red-phone” or direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin contributed greatly to maintenance of global peace and security.

One cannot help but imagine that relations between the US and Russia would be completely different if Obama had not cancelled the September 2013 summit and focused not on just proposals, but rather on establishing a better relationship with Putin.  Obama had the opportunity to use “encouragement”, through regular telephone calls, messages, and meetings, to promote even subtle change in Russia’s approach on issues. That might even have allowed for a greater chance, well in advance of the Ukraine crisis, to find ways in which Russia, working with the US, could promote its interests.  Speaking by telephone only when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is akin to a divorced couple communicating by telephone to discuss divergent opinions on important child custody issues.  If there is a very negative history, or contentious break-up, despite their best efforts, the couple will bring animus to the conversation.  That animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of tense talk and hostile comments.  The result will not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has established a constructive dialogue with Putin.   Merkel told Obama early on in the crisis, that she sensed Putin had lost touch with reality having spoken with him by telephone.  That was very troubling news.  Putin may very well be having hubristic thoughts on Russian power.  The military operation in Ukraine transpired on the heels of the successful 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi while there was still a sense of renewed national identity, national pride, and patriotism among Russians.  However, Putin seems to have gone a step further.  On the March 9, 2014 broadcast of the NBCNews program, “Meet the Press”, senior diplomatic correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that she learned from well-sourced reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian National Security Council, and economic advisers were “clueless” of Putin’s plans for Ukraine.  Putin allegedly made the decision to move into Ukraine having discussed the issue with three “old buddies” from KGB days in the 1970s and 1980s.  As events developed in Kiev, Putin understood that he still had strong cards to play, and he used one, moving into Crimea, to gain an advantage in what is a negative situation for Russia.  He seemingly annexed Crimea in return for the loss of a friendly government and Russian influence in Ukraine.  (Interestingly, when Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov responded to a US offer to assist with the Sochi Games security, he requested anti-improvised explosive device technology, although it was difficult to see why such US-tech would be needed to defeat attacks the Russian government had never faced from domestic Islamic militant groups.  Perhaps Gerasimov was actually considering the technology to defeat an insurgency his forces might face in a coming push into Ukraine!)

As the West pushes back, US and European officials have flooded the media with talk of not only sanctions but also shrill responses on the use of force.  However, there is no quick fix for Putin’s “Crimea grab.”  Sanctions may support Western goals in this crisis, but against Russia they may be double-edged given significant investments of large US and European firms there.  What is more, proposing the use of force against Russia, against Putin, may very well be akin to proposing a rush to doomsday.  Putin will respond aggressively to any threat to Russia.

While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic.  He knows that after the dust settles regarding Crimea, peace and stability must be established.  Recall that he said it was unnecessary to sacrifice US-Russian relations over an independent international issue.  this The solution to the Ukrainian crisis will unlikely to be truly satisfactory to the US and the Europeans.  Putin will not back away from Crimea and it will likely go the way of East Prussia for the Germans and North Cyprus for Greek Cypriots.  Crimea will not return to Kiev’s control in the foreseeable future. What is most important at this juncture is a reset of the conversation between the US and Russia.  Meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together of other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  However, every effective back channel should also be opened, and leaders such as Merkel, should be sought out to serve as third-party envoys for Obama and Putin if communication breaks down.  There is much to discuss about: the meaning of events in Ukraine for the US, its European partners, and Russia respectively; what comes next in Ukraine politically, economically, socially, and militarily; and, other urgent and important issues on which the US and Russia must cooperate.  Hopefully, further talks between the US and Russian officials and diplomats on Ukraine’s future will be successful, and constructive talks between Obama and Putin will occur soon on a more frequent basis.

Officials Highlight the Positive after Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program, But Reality Will Eventually Strike

According to an October 17, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Officials Highlight the Positive After Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” negotiators from Iran and the EU, in a rare joint statement, explained that talks on Iran’s nuclear program were “substantive” and “forward looking.”  They indicated that the representatives of the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council: US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran were planning to meet again in Geneva on November 7th and 8th.  While optimism was expressed following the meeting, the New York Times  article explained a number of thorny issues still needed to be resolved and would require considerable work from all sides.

Initially, the Russians were not very positive about the October talks in Geneva.  Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister who participated in the talks was more skeptical.  He told the Russian news agency Interfax that the two sides were still “kilometers apart” and that the talks here had been “difficult, at times tense, at times unpredictable.”  Yet, the reality is that Russia has been very supportive of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and quite willing to lend its support to finding a solution.  In previous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia was also supportive.  After Iran dropped a suspension agreement by enriching uranium and its negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany broke down in 2005, Russia proposed that Iran share ownership of a uranium enrichment plant in Russia and relocate its enrichment activities there.  When Western negotiators proposed that Iran agree to stockpile its enriched uranium abroad as a confidence building measure, Russia had offered in 2009 to provide a storage site on its territory.  However, unlike the past, in current negotiations, Russia is directly supporting the positions and demands of its ally, Iran; very likely to the detriment of both countries.

Russia’s support of Iran, particularly on the nuclear negotiations, is understandable given its considerable stake in its “positive” outcome.  The Russians hope an internationally accepted agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would obviate the need for the US missile defense in Europe.  With the threat of an Iranian attack eliminated by the agreement, the defense system would be dismantled.  Russia hopes to benefit from the rather substantial contracts it would receive from Iran for the maintenance and construction of an internationally approved nuclear program.  The lifting of economic sanctions on Iran would enable Tehran to pay the Russians for work on its nuclear program.  The negotiations provide Russia with one more opportunity to demonstrate to the world what stalwart ally it can be, even against the US.

However, US Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected the idea of altering the US policy on missile defenses in Europe due to any perceived thaw in the long US-Iranian enmity.  Further, although Russia has called for the removal of all economic sanctions on Iran, the US has made it clear, at least publicly, that major economic sanctions will not be lifted until all of the US demands have been met.

Russian support of Iran’s positions may be creating false hope in Tehran that they are attainable, leading Iranian negotiators to stubbornly insist on their demands, which in the end may cause the talks to fail.  By all accounts, Iranian negotiators came to the Geneva negotiations eerily confident in their positions.  They have rejected previous proposals to relocate uranium.  Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi explained on Iranian State Television, “We will negotiate regarding form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of [enriched] materials out of the country is our red line.”  In turn, the Iranians stated, just as the Russians, the West should relax economic sanctions on Tehran as a goodwill gesture.  Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is already under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and hardline political leaders and clerics to secure an agreement that recognizes Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium.

Zarif has done his best, attempting to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions through very elegant, well-considered power-point presentations, research documents, and proposals, in what nevertheless amounts to a “Das Best oder nichts” (The best or nothing) approach to the talks.  Zarif must deliver success on Tehran’s terms.  In the Iranian media, Zarif has gone as far as to claim, “There are indicators that [US Secretary of State] John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” Yet, that perspective represents a suspension of reality.

White House officials and US political pundits have spoken and written considerably about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled that the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly observed big concessions being volunteered in US proposals in order to entreat a dramatic nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia.  Putin ignored the proposal due to significant danger such huge cuts in Russia’s nuclear arsenal would pose to its national security.  That in part led to Obama dropping his summit meeting with Putin in August.  Most likely from Putin’s perspective, it was Obama’s uncertainty over how taking military action in Syria might affect his legacy that caused him to waver.  Putin welcomed the chance to intervene as a peacemaker.  Russia proposed, and brokered with the US, a solution to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Obama’s concept that US policy is “what makes America different, It’s what makes us exceptional,” presented during his televised speech on Syria on September 10, 2013, was attacked by Putin in his now infamous September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, explaining that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”

In his New York Times Op-Ed, Putin also explained “The world reacts [to US military intervention] by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.  Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.”  However, providing a rationale for nuclear proliferation publicly is counterintuitive and rather extreme.  Putin’s perceptions of Obama’s motives have very likely found their way into Russia’s interactions with Iran such as the meeting between a delegation of senior Russian military officials and Iranian military leaders on October 20, 2013, and have had an impact.  If a misplaced, underlying effort exists to foil Obama’s alleged legacy quest, it certainly will not lead to any positive results for Russia or Iran.  Rather, such behavior in the end may make the maintenance of global peace and security far more difficult.

When dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time; they concern the country. In the US, the people’s representatives are also invested in what the country does abroad.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s demands were met, it is somewhat unlikely an agreement with substantial concessions, particularly those sought by Iran, would ever be approved by Congress.  The Congress is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions.  US diplomats appeared before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.

Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama from serving a third term.  If Obama decides to accept the terms and secure the removal of sanctions, his predecessor may not choose to do the same.  She might find his agreement unacceptable.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the cessation of nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  As the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, she might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include the cessation of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Stating the US and Iran are negotiating as equals is a truly humanistic view of their dialogue.   As Putin expressed in his New York Times Op-Ed, “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals.  Despite US economic woes and political divisions, which are indeed real but more often hyped in the news media, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program, a potential mission for US armed forces, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new defense systems and military tactics.  Iran would not be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal.  Threatening to attack US interests internationally or domestically using conventional forces or clandestine operatives would serve as an even lesser deterrent.

While the US, itself, is not existentially threatened by Iran, the US seeks to negotiate a settlement to protect its overseas interests and interests of its allies. The Russians should be astute enough to know that if the US is driven into a bad settlement on Iran’s nuclear program, inevitably Russia’s interests would not be served through the negotiations, and US military might very well take action against Iran.  Over the past decade, more surprising actions have been taken by the US on the Middle East and on anti-ballistic missile defense.  If Russia truly wants to be helpful to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, it must take a more pragmatic diplomatic approach to create a sustainable agreement for its ally Iran.  Russia must supplant what amounts to an unseemly underlying “vendetta” against Obama, driven by Putin’s impressions of him, with an effort to convince Iran that its current approach to the nuclear negotiations is fraught with danger.

Despite the dazzle of Zarif’s presentations, current Iranian proposals will unlikely satisfy the US government that its demands that Iran ensure its nuclear program will not become militarized.  An agreement with considerable US concessions, if reached with the Obama administration, will not be sustainable.  Negotiating a road map that would, at the end of the day, provide certainty that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful and place Iran’s program under the full control of international nuclear monitors, is the desired and required outcome. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, worked well together to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue and brought the strength of their relationship to bear on efforts to rekindle an international peace conference on Syria, calling the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition together in Geneva to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  Perhaps before the next meetings on the Iranian nuclear issue, they could meet again to consider how to inject realism into Iran’s approach to the talks.

Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?

In an August 8, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Ties Fraying, Obama, Drops Putin Meeting,” it was reported that US President Barack Obama on August 7th, cancelled the Moscow summit meeting set for September, “ending for now his signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.  Four years after declaring a new era between the two former cold war adversaries and after his early successes with the previous Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama concluded, according to the New York Times, “the two sides had grown so far apart again that there was no longer any point in sitting down with President Vladimir V. Putin.”  The August 7th article reported that the immediate cause was Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed secret American surveillance programs.  Yet, according to an administration official who was not authorized to be identified, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.”  The source went on to leak to the New York Times, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians.  They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.”  The US and Russia were already in difficult talks on arms control, missile defense, Syria, trade and human rights.  Obama aides, according to the New York Times, said Moscow was no longer even responding to their proposals. The cancellation did not signal a complete break in US-Russia relations.  Obama reportedly will attend the annual conference of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia on September 5th and 6th, but he will not meet with Putin one-on-one, as customary.  On August 9th, two days after the summit cancellation, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The New York Times also quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.”  However, this statement caps the collection of words and actions that may indicate there is great variance between what original goals of the long-standing practice of engaging in summit meetings, which was to build stronger ties between the US and Russia, between their respective leaders, and what the Obama administration’s concept that summits served as a platform to push forward its political agenda and secure the president’s legacy concerning arms control.  Cancelling the summit may very well have damaged US-Russian relations for the remainder of Obama’s tenure.  It was a blow against the summit process.  However, it may also have adversely impacted prospects for direct talks between the US and other states, US efforts to facilitate negotiations, create a negative image of the US worldwide, and weaken global peace and security.

US-Russian Summits

One of the most important foreign and defense policy issues facing the US is it relationship with Russia.  During the Second World War as allies, throughout the Cold War as adversaries, as a member and the driving force behind the Soviet Union, and since the end of the Cold War as an independent state, Russia has been prominent in US thinking on the protection of US interest worldwide and the establishment of global peace and security.  During the Cold War, despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not.  Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings.  Such Cold War meetings may also have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo.  Truman met with Stalin.  Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy both met with Nikita Khrushchev.  Lyndon Johnson met Aleksei Kosygin.  Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter met with Leonid Brezhnev.  Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev.  George H.W. Bush met with both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.  It was recognized by both states that the direct talks between leaders were critical to avoiding nuclear war.  The leaders of both the US and Russia have a primary responsibility to meet their citizens’ aspiration to live in peace, free from the threat of devastating nuclear war.  That requires the Obama and Putin to take every step necessary, within the interests of their states, to ensure that peace is maintained.  While they may be at odds personally, making a meeting between leaders an unpleasant undertaking, they still must still talk.  As Aleksei Pushkov, Chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee explained to the New York Times, “The bilateral relationship has come to an impasse.  It makes it all the more necessary for the two presidents to meet and to try to work out a new agenda for the relations.”

Summit talks allowed US and Russian leaders to move from mutual suspicion toward mutual trust in their states relations.  Talks built confidence, eliminated ambiguities about positions, and prevent and guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Talks also allowed leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship.  The willingness of both US and Russian leaders to maintain the practice of meeting at the highest level of government, and the eventual establishment of a “red-phone” or direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin, contributed greatly to maintenance of global peace and security.  Close contact between leaders gave each a chance to look into the others thinking and sense one another’s feelings.  Everything the other said or how the other reacted to statements was important to know.  Every inflexion, tone, and change in the others voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind.  Only in that way, could US and Russian leaders even begin to trust one another.  In June 2001, President George W. Bush declared after meeting Putin, to the relief of some fearing a new Cold War, that he had “looked Putin in the eye and was able to get a sense of his soul.”  Even if a leader determined his counterpart was as not being forthright or simply being deceptive, it was, and remains, important to have the opportunity to confirm this through talks.  Negative perceptions are as important to gather as positive ones and must be factored appropriately in the effort to identify and create real opportunities for compromise.

During a crisis, it was very important for the leaders to have a good understanding of as many aspects their counterparts as possible.  During the Cold War, there was always the potential for a crisis to arise.  In fact there were a few. Those crises more often studied in colleges and universities include: the Berlin Airlift (1946), the Korean Peninsula (1950), Hungarian Revolution (1956), the U-2 Spy Plane Incident (1958), the Berlin Crisis (1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Czechoslovakia Uprising (1968), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Gdansk Shipyard Uprising (1980), the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1980), and Korean Airlines Flight 007 Shoot-Down (1983).  Unforeseen circumstances, placing the US and Russia on the verge of confrontation and conflict could lead to serious crises as well today.  (Potential issues could include: the accidental shoot down of a Russian MiG-29 by a US F-16 over Syria, a collision between US and Russian warships in the Mediterranean, or the killing of Russian personnel as a result of kinetic strikes on targets in Syria, etc.)  It is far too dangerous to allow any misperceptions to exist. In a crisis, a misperception could result in a grave misstep.  The understanding that US and Russian leaders have of the others thinking at the moment of crisis, despite intelligence available and meetings at the ministerial level, will greatly inform the chief executive’s own assessment and eventual response to the crisis.  The most recent meeting would be prominent in the minds of both leaders.  Frequent meetings between the two leaders would allow them time to develop a “fresh” understanding of each other, and enhances prospects for fence mending.  As a result of Obama’s decision to cancel his September meeting with Putin, the last occasion during which the two leaders could interact was June 17, 2013, in Northern Ireland.  That meeting went poorly.  As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in the August 7th, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”

Obama, Putin and Divergent Thinking

In preparation for an initial summit talk, leaders must learn as much about one another as possible as well as any urgent and important issues before them.  What the leaders initially discover is learned in the abstract from reports.  After initial summit talks, it would make little sense to continue to set policy goals and approaches based primarily on information developed in the abstract rather than an understanding of leaders, to include his views on issues and his intentions.  Doing so would defeat the purpose of direct talks, and a dangerously limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking could result. Adjustments in thinking must occur.  If after summit talks, policy goals and approaches developed are not reached or fail, then it is apparent that an understanding of one’s’ counterpart was not correctly developed.

It appears that despite different backgrounds, experiences, and variety of cultural and other factors, Obama’s advisers reached the erroneous conclusion that Putin’s thinking paralleled his own.  Further, it should not have been expected that a positive relationship between Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would transfer to a direct relationship between Obama and Putin.  It should not have been assumed that the relationship that US President George W, Bush had with Putin, could mean Obama also would have a positive relationship with the Russian leader.  Mutual respect, understanding, and friendship needed to be acquired through interactions.   The reasoning behind the Obama administration’s decision to send Putin proposals on a variety of issues, some of which he had already in which he had expressed no interest, and after observing his demeanor in Northern Ireland, is difficult to understand.  It is unclear how Obama administration advisers assessed Putin would suddenly be convinced to accept what he already rejected.  The leaders did not have any occasion to improve their own relationship.  Now, it is unlikely that much will be achieved between the two leaders.

Acting upon what is discovered in the abstract can adversely impact summit talks, themselves.  Presenting proposals or even taking steps on an issue of mutual interest, having reached an incorrect conclusions on a counterparts most likely response, based on reports and other data, will likely illicit a negative response.  As a courtesy, and in an effort to avoid such difficulties, it would be best to delay any large steps relevant to the relationship until after there has been some dialogue and an understanding of goals and interest between the leaders is established.  Any planned steps could even be discussed at the meeting.  That builds confidence.  It is uncertain as to how Putin regarded Obama’s decision to bring his family to the Moscow for his first summit meeting with Medvedev in 2009.  It should have been made completely clear to Medvedev, Putin and their advisers that meeting was the paramount objective of the visit.  Obama may have felt that bringing his family to Moscow displayed and openness and degree of trust he had for the Russians.  Yet, from the mind’s eye of the Putin, a former KGB (Soviet Security Service) operative, who was actually the real power in the Russian Government as Prime Minister, that choice may have been viewed as a distraction, or attempt, almost as form of tradecraft, to lull Medvedev and himself into a false sense of security.  (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.)  Putin and his advisers could have concluded Obama was using his own family in an obvious effort at manipulation.  That most certainly would have displeased Putin, and starting his thinking on Obama off on the wrong foot.  Other steps by Obama may also have drawn suspicion from Putin.  This type of thinking by Putin was evident at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013.  When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.”  However, instead of playing along, Putin sternly retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Mutual Respect and Public Statements

When US and Russian leaders meet, there should not be the thought to report more than necessary about what was said during the meeting, particularly if it creates a very negative impression of the other.  This is counterproductive and could destroy the summit method for the two leaders to talk.  The word “summit refers to meeting as if the leaders where high up on the summit of a mountain, where no one could hear them talk.  During an August 9, 2013 White House Press Conference, according to a transcript published on that date by the Washington Post, Obama explained that there were “a number of emerging differences that we’ve seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where, you know, its probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship.”  Obama stated that “our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden, it had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved.”   On Putin directly, Obama commented, “When we have conversations, they’re candid.  They’re blunt.  Oftentimes they’re constructive.  I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.  But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes its very constructive.”  Later on NBC News “Meet the Press,” on August 11, 2013, journalist, David Brooks of the New York Times, referred to Obama’s cancellation of the summit meeting as a “smack down of Putin.” 

Describing the other leader in unflattering terms, despite any disappointment or dissatisfaction is an error.  Summit meetings represent a remarkable opportunity for US and Russian leaders to prove themselves as reliable global partners, but courtesy, mutual respect, and peace must be maintained.  The fact that meeting in Northern Ireland was established and attended by Putin was evidence enough of his willingness to talk.  Apologists for Putin might explain that the body language he displayed, through his posture, indicating his impressions, was not deliberate.  It was a genuine expression of his feelings at an inopportune time.  Interestingly, when leaders express, themselves, before advisers in their governments, as a technique, and perhaps as a habit, they often communicate likes and dislikes through body language.  Nevertheless, there was no cause to disparage Putin regarding it.  Criticizing Putin publicly, by evaluating his contribution to summit discussions and by making denigrating statements about his appearance, can only further damage the US-Russian relationship, and most certainly, Obama’s relationship with Putin.  Taking such giant steps backward in developing trust will make moving forward on talks with that Putin extremely difficult, if not impossible.  What was driving Putin to display such disapproval should be at issue.  It should be addressed by the two leaders and overcome.

Attempts at shaping public perceptions of the relationship between the two leaders may not always yield the desired result.  While the Obama administration is certain of its decision, other states and other leaders may not view the cancellation as an appropriate step.  This effort may create two “public relations blocs” of states, one supportive of the Obama and the other in support of Putin.  (When Putin meets with Rouhani during an announced meeting in September, undoubtedly he will provide Rouhani with a “complete” picture of what occurred from the inside.)   Obama, as well as Putin, must show restraint.  In the US, as of late, even the most sensitive information, from covert operations, cyber attacks, and classified names, places, and activities of operations undertaken in previous administrations are anonymously leaked to the press almost routinely.  Putin has not made any comments about Obama’s August 9th press conference.

The Cancellation’s Impact on Other Negotiations and Direct Talks

Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Putin also has the potential to greatly harm the global dialogue among states.  Obama’s decision sets a precedent.  The cancellation will likely have an educational effect on other leaders reluctant to engage in talks on their respective counterparts on difficult issues.  The world could witness leaders more frequently choosing action rather dialogue to resolve issues.  Both Obama and Putin, in many ways, serve as “role models” for leaders of other states and non-state actors in negotiations.   Previously, in situations where parties are unwilling to come to the table, US and Russian negotiators could always point to own talks between their leaders as an example of how even great adversaries eventually can come to table and reach some agreement on issues.  At the moment, for the US at least, that is no longer the case.  Issues over which leaders states in opposition needed to meet, may now have a far less chance of being resolved.  As role models for other world leaders it is essential that Obama and Putin act in a manner to facilitate dialogue, even if issues are difficult to resolve just their predecessors had during the Cold War.

On both Syria and on Israel-Palestine, it would be difficult for the US claim moral authority to challenge any refusal either side to talk.  Indeed, there would be little the US could say without appear hypocritical, if parties to either negotiation were to cancel a meeting.  It could represent and new and unusual situation where the US may no longer be viewed as a genuine facilitator of negotiations.  Secretary of State Kerry has invested considerable time and effort on both issues, and it has been difficult for the US to bring parties to the table for negotiations.  Kerry’s job may have been made a lot harder as a result of Obama decision not to meet Putin.  US efforts to establish better relations and a dialogue between other states may have been compromised.

North Korean and Iranian leaders might find it far more difficult to reach out to the US for direct talks.  Undoubtedly, crossing the divide, to open negotiations with the US, was already a very difficult and potentially politically destructive undertaking for leaders of those states.  Any attempts at establishing direct talks now would reasonably be discouraged by Obama’s decision.  For Secretary Kerry, it would be difficult enough to get serious talks started with North Korea and Iran, and create some compromise with those states.  It was thought by some that the involvement of Obama in the process would jump start efforts and he would bring fresh thinking with him.  On North Korea, experts have indicated Kim Jong-Un seeks a serious dialogue with the US and wants to be convinced the US intends him and his country no harm.  However, given Obama’s cancellation of his meeting with Putin, there is assurance Obama will follow-through with the negotiation process.  In Iran, the new president, Hassan Rouhani has indicated a desire to have direct talks with the US.  He has done so in the face of opposition from conservative and hard-line political leaders.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stated, “The Americans are unreliable and illogical, and are not honest in their approach.”  By cancelling the meeting with Putin, evidence was provided in support of the most negative views expressed in Iran of US intentions, and Rouhani’s position on direct talks invariably has been weakened.  It would be counterintuitive for a state to negotiate with a leader who has the potential to simply cancel or withdraw from talks if the leader opposite him is not to his liking, regardless of the issues at hand.  The behavior is simply destructive.  Without assurances that Obama could serve as a reliable party to negotiations, it would be difficult to believe any state would seek to have the leader in the process or reach a settlement during his tenure as president.  This situation should also be closely monitored to discern responses as they may relate to the summit cancellation.

Assessment

While it appears somewhat difficult for Obama to accept just how great the difference between  Putin’s thinking and his own.  Being unable to reach a compromise and agreement on the nuclear issue, as well as others should neither be the cause to cease all talks.  Reacting in frustration is never the right answer.  Obama and Putin arrived to power from to completely different paths, having two very different backgrounds.  For Putin, nuclear weapons are not simply a policy issue.  Nuclear weapons are viewed as a means of survival for Russia.  Reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level, determined through the bean-counting of nuclear forces by US analysts, would never be acceptable.  He is concerned with his nuclear forces’ capabilities, real and emerging threats, and human nature.  The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades.  Being in a contentious relationship, Obama and Putin were unlikely to be the ones to resolve the nuclear issue.  Pushing Putin to accept proposals in which he was not interested would never achieve anything positive.  Insisting the September summit be used to deal with such proposals was a doomed effort.

By inviting Obama to Moscow for summit talks, Putin indicated a desire to engage in dialogue.  US-Russian summit should not have become opportunities to take for granted.  Putin left the door open for Obama to cancel, perhaps not thinking that he would.  Putin could have cancelled the meeting himself.  He, too, was part of the difficult meeting between the two leaders in Northern Ireland in June and was aware that communications between his advisers and Obama’s had stalled, and Russia was not responding to proposals being sent from the US.  However, Putin did not cancel.  Frank and tough talk can have its place, but at this point, genuine communication about concerns and goals is required.  Over the years, that has been the essence of summitry.  From the first summit meeting during the Cold War to the most recent in June, building the relationship between US and Russian leaders, building confidence, and establishing mutual trust remains a primary goal of the meeting.  Business can be done during talks.  However, with the summit meetings being so few, and so intense, and relations between Obama and Putin being strained, using summit talks as a platform to push a unilateral political agenda, was a terrible mistake.

Perhaps there could be a return to the original concept of summitry.  Obama and Putin need to improve their relationship.  The rest of the world is watching, and other leaders will very likely follow their example.  They could meet again, not to score political points, complete some political agenda, or establish anyone’s legacy, but in the name of their citizens and in the name of global peace and security.  According to the New York Times, Yuri Yushakov, an adviser to Putin, explained.  “The United States is not ready to build relations on an equal basis.”  This point may be the very basis on which to start a new, and more productive, conversation.