Shadow Government

Obama’s Concession on Iraq Might Be a Turning Point for His Foreign Policy

In ordering the air strikes against the Islamic State (formerly called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), President Barack Obama made a painful concession that he tried mightily to avoid.

I do not mean the implicit concession that he was wrong that the "tides of war are receding" or that "ending" U.S. involvement in Iraq is unlikely to be the great foreign policy success he claimed it would be during the 2012 campaign -- painful though those concessions must be.

Rather I refer to another concession that may ultimately prove to be the more important one. And, paradoxically, if Obama internalizes the lesson from it, it could be a turning point that helps salvage some positive elements for his foreign policy legacy.

In authorizing new combat action in Iraq when he did, Obama conceded that his approach of doing less as a way to make others do more was not working -- at least not with respect to Iraq.

The Obama team came into office believing that Bush's approach to allies and partners created perverse incentives for the allies to free ride on U.S. power. The Bush administration was internally divided on this question. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, viewed the matter very much the way the Obama team did -- and to a very great extent, greater than either would want to admit, the Obama approach was the Rumsfeld approach. But President Bush himself had come to believe that the way to get allies to do more was to do more yourself -- to lead from the front -- and to reassure those allies and partners that you would not abandon them.

Obama, in contrast, believed that if you convinced the allies and partners you would not abandon them, they would take you for granted, and never make the painful but necessary steps of reform upon which ultimate success depended.

The difference between these two theories of how to incentivize allies helps explain some of the most consequential strategic choices the Obama administration made: the decision to downgrade the relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the decision to set arbitrary timelines on the Afghan surge; the promise to leave Afghanistan regardless of conditions on the ground; and the decision to delay the confrontation with the Islamic State even as it destroyed moderate potential partners in Syria and established an extensive foothold in Iraq.

While the president may have been surprised at how fast the Islamic State advanced into Iraq, he has known for months that it posed a grave threat to U.S. interests there. Yet Obama refused to act. The reason was his embrace of his theory about how to incentivize our Iraqi partners.

President Obama rightly recognized that there was no long-term solution in Iraq until the Iraqi polity picked a less sectarian successor to Maliki. More controversially, Obama rejected multiple appeals for help from the Iraqis (and from our Kurdish partners) earlier in the crisis in the hopes that withholding aid would drive the Iraqis to dump Maliki in a desperate effort to secure American assistance.

Obama stuck with this strategy even after it received setback after setback, and even as the Islamic State grew stronger and stronger. As the crisis mounted, the Obama team doubled down on the approach, offering tantalizing visions of the help that might come, but only if Iraqis dumped Maliki first.

Finally, when Obama was staring at a potential catastrophe in Erbil in the Kurdish region that might eclipse the disaster in Benghazi, he decided he could wait no longer and ordered U.S. forces into combat -- despite the failure of Iraqis to meet the hitherto stated conditions for U.S. assistance.

Shortly after Obama acted, the Iraqis finally acted themselves, nominating a (hopefully more inclusive) replacement to Maliki.

In other words, the Iraqis themselves may have been waiting to see if they could trust Obama's offers of help. Perhaps it was Obama's initiative that catalyzed the Iraqi's action, rather than vice-versa, as Obama had intended. That, at least, is how the Bush administration would have interpreted the strategic dynamic.

Obama's preferred approach has sometimes worked -- incentivizing the French to act in Mali is probably the greatest success of Obama's lead-from-behind strategy -- but mostly it has yielded unsatisfying results. Indeed, if the rhetoric coming out of the administration about the threat posed by the Islamic State is correct, one senses that the delay in confronting it may be one of the most consequential and disastrous decisions President Obama has made.

Perhaps Obama learned from this experience the lesson that sometimes the way a great power like the United States gets allies to step up is to first step up itself. If so, that may be a consequential development, too.

President Obama is boasting about what the air strikes achieved on the ground in Iraq. And there is no question that helping the refugees escape the deathtrap on that mountain is a tactical success worth celebrating. But what the air strikes tell us about whether the president can escape his own rhetorical and conceptual traps may be the more consequential development in the long run.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Should America Fear a New Sino-Russian Alliance?

Is the new alignment between Russia and China a threat to the United States? Aimed at further hamstringing the U.S.-led neoliberal order, the emerging relationship appears to have factored into the current entropy in U.S. foreign policy -- Moscow and Beijing have not been this close in half a century.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping's "New Model of Great Power Relations" there are two great powers: the United States and Russia. Chinese strategy documents indicate the intention is to "manage" the United States and "ally" with Russia. The two countries, after all, share significant interests. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a common opposition to colored revolutions (coordinated advice for authoritarian Eurasian regimes began in 2004 through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). They also both deploy an ethnic nationalist discourse, glorifying the Rossiya (the Russian people) and Han Chinese civilizational themes, respectively. In May at the Shanghai meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Xi Jinping made the most direct verbal assault on the U.S.-led San Francisco Treaty system in Asia since Gorbachev's 1985 Vladivostok speech, echoing the same themes of peaceful coexistence, multilateralism, and opposition to alliances and blocs in Asia. Putin signed on to Xi's theme of a new Eurasian-centered concept of security clearly aimed to counter the maritime alliances of the United States. The $400 billion Sino-Russian gas deal in May demonstrated China's utility to Moscow as the West tries to isolate Russia over Ukraine.

The two leaders have promised to increase "coordination" on policy, and could do a number of things in concert that would complicate U.S. security policy. The operational tempo of Russian forces in the Far East has picked up recently, putting new pressure on U.S. and Japanese forces up North at a time when Japanese forces are being stretched around the Senkakus, responding to China's layered coercion of fishing boats, coast guard ships, and over-the-horizon PLA Navy surface action groups. Russian arms sales to China -- mostly naval but also including jet engines for fighters and bombers -- have returned to the levels of the 1990s after a 15-year dip. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Snowden affair was a joint operation between Russian and Chinese intelligence services -- at least after the fact, since somebody (probably the Russians) knew how to direct Snowden, and somebody (certainly the Chinese) knew exactly what he was doing in Hong Kong and ensured he could get out. Given attribution challenges and the use of hacker militia by both countries, cyber also seems a possible area of unhelpful cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

However, the new Sino-Russian alignment is unlikely to be so significant that the West needs to change its fundamental approach to both the Western Pacific and Ukraine. China is a rising power with revisionist aims in the Pacific, but continuing dependence on the U.S. economy and global economic institutions. Russia is a declining power with revisionist aims in Central Europe, and far less dependence on global economic institutions. While China has its own corruption abyss, Xi's rule depends more fundamentally on meeting the Chinese peoples' expectations of rising living standards, while Putin needs to keep a smaller corrupt kleptocracy satisfied. Thus while resisting the United States is the animating theme in Putinism, there is still enough Dengism in Xi's worldview that a stable U.S.-China relationship matters. Meanwhile, China has little motivation to empower Russia in Asia, while Russia has much to fear from a natural resource hungry giant of 1.3 billion people alongside its 7 million -- and declining -- population in the Far East. A closer Sino-Russian alignment will always have less coherence than America's treaty alliance system in the Pacific, unless we lose our own focus on allies.

Nevertheless, the Xi-Putin bromance should serve as a reminder to the White House that our Russia policy cannot just be trans-Atlantic. It is critical that as we deal with Putin we expand our definition of "the West" beyond Europe. This is what Reagan did at the 1983 G7 summit in Williamsburg, Va., when he made Yasuhiro Nakasone and Japan a full partner in the defense of liberty and containment of Soviet adventurism. In the end, the Cold War was not just won in Europe -- it was won with the help of key powers in South Asia and the Pacific. In addition to Japan, India is the best stick in the Sino-Russia mud the United States could ask for -- Russia sells three times more arms to India than China and the Sino-Indian strategic rivalry will crimp Moscow's ability to work too closely with Beijing. Despite lackluster attention in Washington, the United States still has a better geostrategic relationship with Delhi than either Moscow or Beijing and the administration needs to redouble its investment in relations with the new Modi government to keep up that advantage.

The White House also has to remember that our response to Russian coercion against Ukraine and Article V treaty allies in the Baltic will be watched with an eagle eye by our Asian allies, who are already flustered by the administration's weak hand and inconsistency on Syria. There is a deficit of global trust in American willpower these days that needs to inform U.S. thinking about the consequences of Putin's strategy. At the same time, if the United States is seeking to avoid a new Cold War and to find off ramps from the current Ukraine crisis, it may well find that Asia is where it, Japan, and others can eventually work best with Russia as Chinese hard power begins to look a lot more important to Moscow than Putin's ideological confrontation with the West. Finally, the Obama administration must reinforce the overall momentum of the neoliberal order by getting serious about the domestic U.S. politics of both the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade deals (TPP and TTIP). We can and must reinforce the pillars of the neoliberal order even as we respond to challenges at its frontier.

The new Sino-Russian alignment should not shake the United States from its basic opposition to Putin in Ukraine, but it might just help cure it of its myopia and force it to think globally as it acts locally.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images