Friedman: The 3 Faces of President Obama

New York TimesMarch 17, 2014 

Thomas L. Friedman

THE NEW YORK TIMES

President Barack Obama is surely the first president to be accused of acting in foreign policy like Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger in the same month.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea, conservatives have denounced Obama as a man who doesn’t appreciate what a merciless, Hobbesian world this really is. He’s a Pollyanna — always looking for people’s good side. Meanwhile, liberals have been hammering Obama for what they say is his trigger-happy drone habit, having ordered the targeted killing by air of hundreds of individuals; he’s John Wayne, seeking vigilante justice against those who have harmed, or might be planning to harm, the United States. And, just to round things out, Obama has been accused by critics on the left and right of being a Kissingerian hyperrealist who is content to watch the Syrian regime crush its people, because, as tragic as that is, American interests there are minimal.

It can’t be easy being Pollyanna, John Wayne and Henry Kissinger all at once. So who is Obama — really — on foreign policy? I’d say less Pollyanna than his critics claim, more John Wayne and Henry Kissinger than he’d admit, but still undefined when it comes to the greatest leadership challenges in foreign policy — which go beyond Crimea but lurk just over the horizon.

If Obama has been a reluctant warrior in Crimea, it’s because it’s long been part of Russia and home to a Russian naval base, with many of its people sympathetic to Russia. Obama was right to deploy the limited sanctions we have in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and try to coolly use diplomacy to prevent a wider war over Ukraine — because other forces are at play on Putin. Do not underestimate how much of a fool Putin will make of himself in Crimea— in front of the whole world — and how much this will blow back on Russia, whose currency and stock markets are getting hammered as a result of Vladimir’s Crimean adventure.

Putin organized, basically overnight, a secession referendum on Crimea’s future — without allowing any time for the opposition to campaign. It was held under Russian military occupation, in violation of Ukraine’s Constitution, with effectively two choices on the ballot: “Vote 1 if you want to become part of Russia,” or “Vote 2 if you really want to become part of Russia.” This is not the action of a strong, secure leader. It should have its own Twitter hashtag: #Putinfarce.

And if Obama has been a Kissingerian realist in his reluctance to dive into the Syrian civil war, or Ukraine, it’s because he has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that the existence of bad guys in these countries doesn’t mean that their opponents are all good guys. Too many leaders in all these countries turned out to be more interested in using their freedom to loot rather than liberate. Where authentic reformers emerge in Syria or Ukraine we should help them, but, unlike Sen. John McCain, most Americans are no longer willing to be suckers for anyone who just sings our song (see dictionary for Hamid Karzai), and they are now wary of owning the bailouts and gas bills of countries we don’t understand.

As for John Wayne Obama, “the quickest drone in the West,” every American president needs a little of that in today’s world, where you now have legions of superempowered angry people who wish America ill and who have access to rockets and live in ungoverned spaces.

So I have no problem with Obama as John Wayne or Henry Kissinger. If you want to criticize or praise him on foreign policy, the real tests fall into two categories: 1) How good is he at leading from behind on Ukraine? And 2) How good is he at leading from in front on Russia, Iran and China?

There is probably no saving Crimea from Putin in the short term, but we do not want to see him move beyond Crimea and absorb the parts of eastern Ukraine where the Russophones reside. We should be ready to offer arms to the Ukrainian government to prevent that. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the key to keeping more of Ukraine out of Russia’s paws will depend on the ability of Ukrainians to come together in a way that is inclusive of both the majority that sees its future with the European Union and the minority of Russophones who still feel some affinity for Russia.

If the Ukraine drama pits a united Ukraine — seeking a noncorrupt democracy tied to Europe — against a Putin trying to forcibly reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian empire, Putin loses. But if Ukrainians are divided, if hyper-nationalist parties there dominate and pro-Russians are alienated, Putin will discredit the Ukraine liberation movement and use the divisions to justify his own interventions. Then our help will be useless. We can’t help them if they won’t help themselves. Ukrainians have already wasted a quarter-century not getting their act together the way Poland did.

The big three issues where Obama must lead from the front are: changing the character of Russia’s government, preventing Iran from getting a nuke and preventing a war in the South China Sea between Beijing and Tokyo. I will save China and Iran for later.

But regarding Russia, I vehemently opposed NATO expansion because I held the view then, and hold it today, that there is no big geopolitical problem that we can solve without Russia’s cooperation. That requires a Russia that does not define its greatness by opposing us and recreating the Soviet empire, but by unleashing the greatness of its people. It is increasingly clear that that will never be Putin’s Russia, which stands for wholesale corruption, increasing repression and a zero-sum relationship with the West. Putin is looking for dignity for Russia now in all the wrong places — and ways. But only Russia’s people can replace Putinism.

The way the United States and European Union help, which will take time, is by forging new energy policies that will diminish Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — the mother’s milk of Putinism. But we Americans also have to work harder to make our country a compelling example of capitalism and democracy, not just the world’s cleanest dirty shirt when it comes to our economy and not just the best democracy money can buy when it comes to our politics.

The most important thing we could do to improve the prospects of democracy in the world “is to fix our democracy at home,” said Larry Diamond, a democracy specialist at Stanford University. “The narrative of American decline and democratic dysfunction damages the luster of democracy in the world and the decisions of people to feel it is a model worth emulating. That is in our power to change. If we don’t reform and repair democracy in the United States, it is going to be in trouble globally.”

Email Mr. Friedman at editorial@nytimes.com.

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