Despite President Barack Obama’s courageous decision to approve the raid three years ago that brought Osama bin Laden to American justice, by most polls and measures at home and abroad, American leadership is alleged to be missing in action. “Leading from behind” in toppling Libya’s Muramar Qaddafi and setting “red lines” to prevent Bashar al Assad from using chemical weapons in Syria were the first declared symptoms of Obama’s reluctance to take charge.
From Tel Aviv to Riyadh to Tokyo, visiting Americans are scolded about how damaging the failure of Washington to lead is to global stability. China’s muscle flexing in the various contiguous seas over specks of land is seen as a result of American lack of engagement and leadership despite the rhetorical strategic pivot to Asia. In the midst of the Ukraine crisis and Russian intervention, President Obama’s major speech was on the Affordable Health Care Act not on warning Moscow or reassuring allies in Europe and NATO.
The ongoing civil war in Syria that has claimed over 150,000 lives and displaced millions and now the annexation of Crimea are further pieces of evidence cited as why the U.S. seems AWOL in international politics. The fact is that short of military intervention in both states, options that can change events and actions either by Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin are virtually zero. Financial sanctions such as cutting off all banking relationships with Russia will hurt but take time to bite. Those that argue for arming the Syrian opposition and Ukrainian security forces unfortunately ignore the harsh realities of life.
The Syrian opposition and Ukrainian security forces are infiltrated in the latter with pro-Russian factions and Islamic radicals in the former. Even if arms could go to those who would employ them in line with interests that are compatible with bringing a modicum of peace to both conflicts, equipping and training do not occur over night.
The U.S. estimates that equipping and preparing an American Army division from scratch normally takes a minimum of a year. In Syria and Ukraine, that process will take far longer. There is no guarantee that sending arms will end the conflicts more rapidly or in line with a favorable outcome as far as the West is concerned. Even in Afghanistan, it took a decade to evict the Soviets who invaded at the end of 1979. And the emergence of the Taliban was surely in no one else’s interest.
Hamid Karzai’s stunning refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that permits U.S. and coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 is clearly a sign of contempt and disrespect for America’s huge expenditure of blood and treasure along with allies attempting to assist Kabul in bringing a measure of stability and rule of law to that ancient land. And Congress’s vote to block a visa for Iran’s ambassador-designate to the UN is not viewed by many as the mark of a real superpower and global leader but rather that of a petulant child.
Both sides of the aisle in Congress are leaping on this absence of leadership bandwagon. A bipartisan bill to threaten stricter sanctions against Iran if negotiations over its nuclear ambitions fail was barely and fortunately beaten back by the White House. If agreement is not reached by the deadline of July 20th, and with mid-term elections in November, Republicans and Democrats will have powerful political reasons to condemn this failure to lead.
In many ways, Obama’s choices are limited. There is no Obama doctrine. Nor does the White House have a viable strategic plan for dealing with this surfeit of crises. Without that foundation, no successful leadership narrative to assure allies and domestic audiences and give notice to those who are not acting in American and Western interests will be forthcoming.
President Obama’s focus is fixated on the November elections and the domestic agenda. But opportunities to deal with the charge of failing to lead exist. The Iran nuclear and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships are game changers if either can be brought to fruition. NATO is also hosting its biannual summit in September in Wales. That summit, hosted by the United Kingdom, wreaks with promise for leadership if the White House chooses to act decisively.
Leadership is needed. Obama needs to show he can re-assume that mantle. We have a NATO horse and plenty of water. But will that horse be made to drink?
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this Fall, is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today.