Seldom has one day captured the breadth, aspirations and limitations of American foreign policy.
On Monday, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on members of officialdom in a resurgent Russia, tried his hand at an elusive Mideast peace deal and visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, a reminder of two wars ending under his watch.
Each topic deserves volumes to discuss. But the rare and coincidental confluence of events offered an all-in-one glimpse at Obama’s world view and at the evolution of U.S. foreign policy under his presidency.
The private visit with the wounded underscored the U.S. withdrawal from costly wars in Iraq and now from Afghanistan, a central goal of Obama’s when he first ran for president in 2008. His Oval Office meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas illustrated what has long been an intractable Middle East peace process that has frustrated presidents before him. And the freezing of assets of seven Russian officials over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine put on display Obama’s weapon of choice these days – economic sanctions – to confront a muscle-flexing Vladimir Putin who, Obama critics say, is exploiting a U.S. aversion to the use of force.
As Obama aides see it, U.S. foreign policy had to adjust to a post-Cold War period in the 1990s, then to a post 9/11 world dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The main point is we are exiting one period of our foreign policy and beginning a new one,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. “Now we are moving into a new chapter.”
In ending America’s long wars, Obama has put a narrower focus on counterterrorism and sought to change the way the U.S. engages with the world.
A primary motive has been to reduce the cost of conflict for a war-weary American public as represented by the two Purple Hearts he presented while visiting six soldiers, three Marines and two sailors at the military hospital Monday.
Over the last five years, the president and his advisers have argued diplomatic and economic pressure can be more effective than war in solving crisis situations from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s civil war – and at far less risk to American servicemen and the U.S. economy. Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea this month is only the latest example.
“What’s notable in some of the debate is how much U.S. engagement abroad is viewed through the prism of whether or not we’re taking military action, almost up to the point that if you’re not using the military you’re not dealing with issues,” Rhodes said.
“We’re seeking to reorient that to show that you can use diplomacy to try to resolve conflicts like we’re doing in the Middle East,” Rhodes said. “And you have other punitive measures absent military action, like economic sanctions, in an effort to broaden the tools that we use to engage around the world so that we’re not putting all of our burden on the military.”
That shift has not been easy.
Sanctions and threats against the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, have not stopped a bloody, three-year civil war. The administration credits tough oil and financial sanctions for bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program, though even Obama has put the chances for a final agreement at 50-50 or less.
The confrontation over Ukraine stands out even more with its echoes of old Cold War rivalry and Obama having to contend with the unpredictable moves of the strong-willed Putin. On Monday, the Russian leader recognized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as an independent country; Washington and its allies say a weekend referendum was illegitimate.
“This is an important leadership moment for the United states and for the West,” former Obama national security adviser Tom Donilon said Sunday on CBS. “This is a challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe, an order that we had a lot to do with in putting in place – respect for sovereignty, respect for territorial integrity.”
Obama announced that the U.S., acting in concert with Europe, would freeze the U.S. assets of seven high-ranking Russian officials, the most comprehensive sanctions against Moscow since the Cold War. Putin was not among them. White House spokesman Jay Carney did not rule out sanctions against the Russian leader, but administration officials said elected officials of a sovereign country are typically not the target of sanctions unless the Washington is seeking regime change.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the U.S. needs to mount a more significant response.
“Sanctioning only seven Russian officials is wholly inadequate at this stage,” he said. “We run the risk of signaling to Putin that he can be even more expansive in furthering his old imperial ambitions, not only in Ukraine, but also in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic countries and parts of Central Asia.”
In his Mideast diplomacy, Obama on Monday displayed a pragmatic view of what lay ahead as the U.S. seeks to broker a framework for peace talks.
“It’s very hard; it’s very challenging,” Obama said with Abbas at his side. “We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”
As reporters were ushered out of the Oval Office, a reporter observed that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with Obama two weeks ago, visited Washington in the aftermath of unusual snowstorms.
“It’s a sign,” Obama said.
Of what, the president was asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.