Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Guest Post: A Cold Warrior’s Foreign Policy Advice for Obama

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
August 12, 2014

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during an interview with Reuters at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels on August 11, 2014. Rasmussen said he saw a "high probability" that Russia could intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine. (Herman/Courtesy Reuters)


Harry Oppenheimer is a research associate for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The conviction of John Foster Dulles—Secretary of State under Eisenhower in the 1950s, shaper of NATO, and lead architect of Rollback—about the most effective method of maintaining global peace and stability stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s foreign policy of remaining flexible and cautious. At the center of Dulles’ strong beliefs, as he remarked in his book War or Peace, was the importance of clear intentions in international affairs. “It is the theory and hope of the proponents of the [NATO] treaty that by thus making clear in advance what we will do in the event of an attack on Western Europe, that attack will not, in fact, occur.”

Dulles believed that the main threat to global stability is miscalculation by state actors attributed to broadly-defined interests and weak signals of breaking points—where aggression becomes a cause for full-scale conflict. When interests are broad they become difficult to defend, and ambiguous intentions risk leaving the breaking point open to interpretation. Furthermore, stated policy positions must be matched by action in order to maintain credibility.

President Obama’s foreign policy is characterized by reluctance to state and defend strong positions on international issues. U.S. policy in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq share one characteristic—an ambiguous articulation of American interests. The intent is to allow flexibility and choice, and prevent being pulled into conflicts. Policymakers would be well advised to look back for a significant counterpoint and understand the potential consequences of such a strategy.

America doesn’t want its limits to be tested or foreign actors to see how far they can push; this is not only a clear goal of American foreign policy but also of the international community at large. Today, Russia is testing these limits and the costs of the United States’ ambiguous foreign policy are evident. The downing of MH17 by Russian supplied missile systems, buildup of troops along the Russia-Ukraine border, and aid convoy heading for Ukraine have significantly escalated the conflict and tested the willingness of the United States to respond to a threat of instability in Eastern Europe.  The Kremlin assumed that the risk of an international incident was outweighed by the strategic advantage that heavy weapons provided for the rebels and presence of troops along the border; this assumption is now going to be tested. Letting it get to this point is a strategic blunder of U.S. foreign policy.

No one knew exactly what the United States’ reaction would be if Russia supplied heavy weapons to the Ukrainian rebels. But in the future, for example, if the Russian military overtly invaded Ukraine, would the United States and NATO take action? What will be the reaction to Russian aid convoys? If the Malaysia Airlines flight was an American Airlines flight, would the United States have already intervened? The risks of guessing the answer to these questions are that eventually the United States will be forced to act beyond where it is comfortable, an outcome no one wants.

Already, Bashar al-Assad knows how to test the U.S. and NATO responses, and three years into the Syrian Civil War the international community still cannot define U.S. interests in the conflict. The civil war has been marred by widespread torture and killing of political prisoners opposed to Assad, and use of chemical weapons on an industrial scale against non-combatants. However, at each stage, U.S. strategy has been to avoid direct action even when clear lines have been crossed.

By keeping U.S. interests ambiguous the United States feels confident in its ability to stay out of conflict. However, every policy has a breaking point. Now, when U.S. interests are threatened the country saves face by redefining its agenda, but what happens when this becomes impossible? The risk is that, over time, it becomes very easy for other countries to miscalculate exactly where the United States draws the line, forcing it to escalate conflicts beyond where it is comfortable. Subsequently, the potential for even greater and unavoidable conflict increases.

It would be easy to dismiss Dulles’ advice as reflective only of the bipolar world order of his day, but this would be a mistake. Greater global stability and lower risk of conflict could be achieved by a more clearly articulated foreign policy that lowers the potential for other countries to miscalculate the United States’ willingness to project force abroad. As Russia evaluates the risks of an invasion of Eastern Ukraine it would be advised to look at the lessons provided by Germany before WWI and WWII. As Dulles remarked, both the Kaiser and later Hitler miscalculated the response of allies to take action when their partners were threatened in Europe. They acted without certainty of the outcome, and history demonstrates how wrong the Kaiser and Hitler were. In the end, the costs for both sides and the world at large were massive.

Today, Russian aid convoys race toward the Ukraine border and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen believes that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “likely.” The United States should make its intentions clear so that the Kremlin doesn’t make the same error as Germany in 1914 or 1941, and opposing sides don’t suffer greater consequences than necessary. This would require a shift in the way President Obama conducts foreign policy, but it is a necessary change. A first step would be a commitment to Ukraine that goes beyond political rhetoric and demonstrates the United States’ resolve in the region. Knowing precisely where the United States stands is one of the best ways to ensure that Russia never has to discover how far it was willing to go.

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  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Well and truly said. If I had to pick one statement of guiding principles for American foreign policy from among the many that have been made in recent years, this would be it. But “flexibility” is not a word I would use to describe the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign affairs. The word I would use is “inflexible”. And I would say that you are giving his administration to much credit for having formulated and followed an alternate set of principles.

    Deliberately ambiguous articulation ? The simple facts are these.

    Our President has a rigid world view that has been reinforced by events in Iraq, validating his decision to vote against our war there.

    President Obama was raised on the lessons of Vietnam. So was I. So many Americans have been. But he can not seem to move beyond them. The times demand that he do so. Events in Iraq have convinced him that he has been right all along: the United States is a serial incompetent when it comes to military adventurism abroad. It never gets anything right. Thus Barack Obama comes along and decides that we must stop, before we kill again.

    There is much validity to such sentiments. And it is easy to understand how and why the President would construct his view of a new role in the world for America around them. Indeed, it would be hard for him not to, after seeing John Kerry and Hillary Clinton vote for Bush’s war. John Kerry, his Secretary of State: the protester who said “How do you ask a man to be the last person to die for a mistake ?”.

    But the problem is, the war was fought. Barack Obama wanted to be President. He has assumed responsibility for the results, and for other problems not to his liking.

    And so, we have witnessed, not a studied ambiguity in the conduct of America’s business overseas, but merely, a steady retreat from involvement, masked by evasive position statements, characterized by posturing, and occasionally arrested by events.

    In a time of heightened tensions and troubles, the risks associated with this approach are exactly as you have stated them. And given the increasingly brittle nature of America’s relations overseas, and mounting dangers, it is good thing to recall the thinking of John Foster Dulles, and the cold war conditions he faced as the architect of American strategy. Indeed, it is good to go back even further, as you have done, to the events of his formative years, one hundred years ago.

    Yes, our President should desist from further evasions, and start trying to match his words to his actions, and his actions to his objectives. It is high time now that NATO has doubled in size and the leader of all Russia is trying to put the pieces of the Soviet Union back together again. If Dulles were alive today, he would tear his hair out.

    He would tear his hair out, specifically, to learn that NATO had admitted the Baltic States in to its membership, and thus offered its guarantee of defense to them. And he would go crazy trying to figure out how Latvia, the former home of the Russian Navy, is of any more strategic consequence to the United States than Ukraine. [?]

    This of course is also a question of interest for Vladimir Putin. And with trucks rolling towards borders in Russia, it is high time for the United States to start declaring what matters to it, and proving it by its actions.

    The clearest example of this from the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the present time, there is a clear parallel to that; but it is not to be found in eastern Europe or America. It is Syria. And the shipment of arms to Syria by Russia and Iran offers the best example anywhere to presently be found where the United States and its friends in the world could stand to benefit from a clear and more assertive defense of our mutual interests.

    For ten years, Americans have died in and for the cause of peace in the Middle East, and for an end to threats of violence, contrary to the laws of all nations, around the world. On the other hand, no Americans have ever lost their lives in the defense of Ukraine, and President Obama has stated, none ever will. The Middle East is of strategic importance to the United States. Ukraine is not. QED.

    As long as the Assad regime remains in power in Syria – a place unquestionably within the strategic domaine of NATO – conditions there will continue to go from bad to worse. Many will suffer and die. America’s interests will suffer as well. In order to put a stop to this, and to defeat a growing extremist Army that threatens to draw the entire region in to a war, the United States must have a government in Syria that it can support.

    This is now a policy imperative for America as serious as any other that has come along in the last sixty years. The Obama administration is either blind to it, or it is pretending to be, for it is has been completely abused and ignored.

    Syria is still officially at war with Israel. It supports a formidable terrorist regime that dominates neighboring Lebanon: Hezbollah. Hezbollah has, it has been reported, 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel. Israel has recently launched air strikes against Syria to prevent the delivery of more. The United States has defense commitments to Israel, the largest single recipient of US military foreign assistance.

    Meanwhile, Turkey, which guards NATO’s eastern flank, is in political turmoil and is having a hard time deciding who its friends in the world are, and which way it wishes to go. There is a constant low grade power struggle going on there. It is burdened by over a million refugees from the civil war over the border in Syria. ISIS is holding Turkish citizens, truck drivers and employees of its consulate in Mosul, Iraq, as hostages. There have been terrorist incidents in Turkey. And in reliance upon American policy statements, it finds itself over-extended in having declared its hostility toward the Assad regime. It could very well invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty in defense against both these enemies.

    This is not a healthy situation for the United States or its allies. What would the US do, if Turkey demanded action ? Continue to temporize as it has done so far regarding Syria ? To lay down more “heads I win, tails, you lose” preconditions for action ??

    At this time, Turkey is NATO’s most important member. And US policy in the Middle East is pushing Turkey towards Russia.

    Two years ago, it was reported that Russia had delivered to the Assad regime long-range “hypersonic” Yahount cruise missiles, capable to sinking ships 300 miles out to sea, and shore installations. In response to this action, the Obama administration did nothing. It pretended not to notice. Today, Russia continues to supply the Assad regime, as it does rebels in Ukraine, and it has increased its deliveries as needed.

    This action by Russia was a threat to NATO as clear as the delivery of missiles to Cuba in 1962. And given NATO’s strategic control of the Mediterranean, its rear, Russian leaders clearly also understand that it was an unforgivable transgression. It should not have been tolerated. And yet it was.

    As one retired naval intelligence officer has put it, only one question remains for Vladimir Putin: Is there any place the United States can not be pushed ??

    Here is an instance where the United States should have drawn the line. It should have stated that it regards the Mediterranean Sea as a place where NATO keeps the peace, and will not tolerate being threatened. It should have long ago declared that it will not allow dangerous arms to be delivered to hostile nations bordering the Mediterranean, by anyone.

    Having done this, it should have told the Russians to stop supplying the Assad regime. And having done that, it should have long ago formed a naval blockade of Syria and Lebanon, supported Turkish policy, and urged it to stop further Russian shipments from entering the Bosphorus.

    If the United States clearly does not defend its interests when it easily can, and where it reasonably should, i.e., the eastern Mediterranean, then it also will have little control over events anywhere else, such as in Ukraine. Its adversaries feel free to discount its importance. And the question becomes: What would the US do to defend that Baltics ? Answer: nothing. “Sanctions.”

    As we have seen, we have adversaries in the world, still. They do not behave as we would like them to. They play by different rules. They are not going along with the President’s planned retreat from the Middle East.

    Conditions there are far more dangerous than they were two years ago. You are right to point out that American’s method of dealing with these problems is at fault, to explain why, and why it could lead to greater troubles, still.

    R/s TPH

  • Posted by Alex Constantine

    John Foster Dulles was a Nazi collaborator. Google it.

  • Posted by Alan Potter

    Great post. However, I don’t know that an ultimatum of military intervention in Ukraine is the correct call for the simple reason that Russia may (correctly) believe the threat is not credible. No one believes we are willing to go into Ukraine if Russia is already there. Would a clear articulation of the economic sanctions should Russia invade work as well?

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