Whatever you may think about the way President Obama has handled foreign affairs and national security, you have to acknowledge that he has been handed a very difficult set of problems. Any plan he had to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then allow the American people to enjoy a “peace dividend” and his Administration to focus its energies on domestic issues is rapidly vanishing. In the years following the end of the Cold War, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even to an extent George W. Bush had a luxury dealing with a world in which despotism and ideological extremism were in retreat, democratic governance was the fashion and free market capitalism was expanding. Many well-respected academics and policy makers bought into the notion that this is “the end of history.”
President Obama’s challenge is not just that history hasn’t ended but that he must confront a set of leaders and states whose personal styles, domestic politics, security policies and international behaviors are not merely idiosyncratic but dysfunctional and even simply crazy. Such an international environment would challenge even the most experienced and skilled Chief Executive, much less one who has neither a background in international affairs nor seemingly much interest in the subject.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a succession of Western leaders have hoped, at times with something approaching a state of desperation, that Russia would follow a path towards political and economic liberalization, as did most of Eastern Europe. Instead, Russia like most of the former Soviet Republics, descended into authoritarianism, domestic political repression, kleptocratic economics and an ultra-nationalist and militaristic foreign policy.
Even more disturbing, Russian President Vladimir Putin shows increasing signs of what can only be described as borderline paranoid ideations. Back in 2005, he gave a public speech in which he said that “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the century.” He has accused the United States of being behind the popular uprising in Ukraine against the corrupt regime of Victor Yanukovich. Just recently, he expressed the opinion that the Internet originally was a “CIA project” and that it “is still developing as such.” When you add to these statements his regime’s gay bashing, vendetta against the Punk Rock Group Pussy Riot and war on non-governmental organizations, the term sociopathic comes to mind.
Speaking of sociopaths, there is the new “number Un” of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. It is hard to know which is crazier, the leader or his country. This is a nation that repeatedly fires artillery barrages at its southern brother, considers it a sign of self-sufficiency to allow millions of its citizens to starve to death and sinks a South Korean patrol boat as a means of getting the world to pay it some attention. But each generation of the Kim dynasty seems to exhibit behavior more bizarre than the last. The newest Kim has even taken to making war on his own family.
The Middle East has far more than its fair share of craziness. The Assad regime in Syria thinks nothing of using chemical weapons against its own citizens. Iran’s former president Ahmadinejad believes the holocaust was a Jewish plot. The Grand Ayatollah, Khamenei, announced that Iran will support any nation or group that attacks the “cancerous tumor” of Israel. The Taliban shoots young girls because they seek an education while Nigeria’s Boko Haram kidnaps hundreds of them. The Palestinian Authority is constitutionally incapable of making peace with Israel and would rather cut a deal with the terrorist group Hamas.
It is difficult to develop a coherent, much less effective, foreign and security policy for dealing with crazy states and leaders. Which actions will they perceive as weak and which as threatening? It is even more challenging when several of these states have nuclear weapons.
Like any well-schooled co-dependent, the U.S. suffers from the illusion that it can successfully manage crazy actors. In the present international environment, with a proliferation of crazy leaders, states and even groups, there are an almost infinite number of possible ways that things can go wrong. It won’t take much of a miscalculation or misperception to create the conditions for a war.
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