Chaos Has Come to American Foreign Policy

We were assured in 2008 and 2012 that if we were wise enough to vote for Barack Obama as our president, we would see vast and significant benefits in the conduct and management of American foreign policy. We the voting populace fulfilled our end of the bargain–well, at least enough of us did to make Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States–and while no one surely expected the conduct and management of American foreign policy to be all sunshine and unicorns, one certainly expected (and should have expected) better than this:

AFTER AN agreement to “de-escalate tensions and restore security” in Ukraine was announced Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was very explicit about U.S. expectations. “We fully expect the Russians . . . to demonstrate their seriousness by insisting that the pro-Russian separatists who they’ve been supporting lay down their arms [and] leave the buildings” in eastern Ukraine, he said. “I made clear to Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov today that if we are not able to see progress . . . this weekend, then we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia.”

The weekend has come and gone, and far from standing down in eastern Ukraine, Russia has continued to escalate. Its operatives and those they control have not withdrawn from the government buildings they occupy. In Slovyansk, the crossroads where Russian military operatives appear to be headquartered, a shooting incident early Sunday morning has been seized on by Moscow’s crude propaganda apparatus, which is claiming — based on what looks like fabricated evidence — that a Kiev-based right-wing group was involved.

On Monday, Mr. Lavrov was back to threatening an invasion by the tens of thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, claiming that, in the words of his ministry, “Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos.”

Again Vladi­mir Putin is flagrantly disregarding the warnings and “red lines” of the Obama administration. He has reason to do so: President Obama also doesn’t observe them. Despite Mr. Kerry’s clear words, sanctions that have been prepared against cronies of Mr. Putin and companies involved in his Ukraine ad­ven­ture remain on ice at the White House, where they have languished for more than a week. When asked Monday how much longer they would be held back, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “I don’t have an end date for you.”

I have said before and will say again that from the outset, the Obama administration’s options were limited when it came to Russian aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine. But that doesn’t justify writing foreign policy checks that the American body politic can’t cash. Thanks to the administration’s predilections for issuing threats and demands that are backed up with nothing whatsoever, it has ensured that throughout this crisis, Russia will not take the United States seriously. And of course, it ought to go without saying that other adversaries will be similarly disinclined to take American foreign policy statements to the bank.

In the event that you think I am out of bad foreign policy news to share in this blog post, think again. To be sure, bringing about peace in the Middle East is an exceedingly tricky task (this sentence has now become a strong contender for Greatest Understatement in the History of Ever), but the failure to secure a trade deal that makes trade freer throughout the globe is a significant, lamentable, and entirely avoidable one. Recall that Bill Clinton was able to bring both his party and the world kicking and screaming from the dark corners of protectionism into the blessed land of free trade. We would be better off if Barack Obama had Clinton’s skill and talent on this front. Alas, he does not.

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