Obama’s successor to inherit international crises, world filled with ‘unease and strife’

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By Dave Boyer – The Washington Times

As President Obama prepares to depart the world stage, he is leaving his successor more conflicts to confront around the globe and less certainty among allies and adversaries about U.S. influence than existed eight years ago.

From Syria to the Korean Peninsula, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will need to grapple even before Inauguration Day with a range of complex international crises that the Obama administration has failed to tamp down. Russia and China are behind much of the tension.

“I think the situation has deteriorated,” said Elbridge Colby, a national security analyst at the Center for New American Security in Washington. “We’re talking about a world that’s more uncertain and more competitive, and in which conflicts will become more likely.”

In a speech to the United Nations late last month, Mr. Obama cited progress against terrorism and the Iranian nuclear deal among his achievements. But he also acknowledged that the world is “filled with uncertainty and unease and strife.”

“We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration,” Mr. Obama said. “Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”

Among the most threatening emergencies worldwide, the intractable problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has only grown more dangerous on Mr. Obama’s watch. Pyongyang fired three ballistic missiles that flew more than 600 miles last month and tested a new rocket engine Sept. 20 that could be used for a long-range missile.

 

“The most immediacy is North Korea,” said Heather Conley, a senior foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If the North Koreans were able to create a missile capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead, that is an issue. We don’t have the answers for it, but we need to focus on it.”

The Obama administration has tried, without success, to persuade China to put more pressure on North Korea to halt its weapons program. Mr. Obama has discussed imposing even tighter sanctions on North Korea, and the U.S. is planning to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea despite vehement objections by the Chinese.

Mr. Colby said North Korea’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead would be “a game-changer.”

“It’s got to be China that changes the calculus,” he said. “The Chinese prefer to avoid pushing the North Koreans hard enough. We have to put pressure on the Chinese, and they have to really bear the burden of what the North Koreans are doing.”

Mr. Colby said U.S. influence in Asia is already on the ropes because of Mr. Obama’s inability to wrap up the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal with 11 other Pacific-rim nations. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump oppose the agreement, as do most Democrats in Congress, where the deal is stalled.

“I think we’re going to need to demonstrate more firmness and more resolve, and work more with states in the region to try to balance them over time,” Mr. Colby said. “To me, the TPP seems like a no-brainer. It’s crucial from our perspective in Asia that we get TPP.”

In Syria, the brutal 4-year-old civil war rages on, with the regime of Russian-backed President Bashar Assad making gains against opponents supported by the U.S. The Obama administration has deployed limited numbers of special forces in Syria to fight Islamic State extremists but believes there is no military solution to the civil war. He even suspended diplomatic talks with Russia after the latest cease-fire collapsed.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Friday for Russia and Syria to face a war crimes investigation for their attacks on Syrian civilians, another example of the rapidly deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow.

Moscow-backed separatists are still fighting for control of eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of backing down despite several rounds of international sanctions led by the U.S. The crisis, which began in 2014, has led to increasing anxiety among Poland and the Baltic states about Russia’s intentions, prompting the administration to take steps to bolster NATO forces in the region.

Mr. Putin has been a primary antagonist during Mr. Obama’s term and has become bolder militarily as the U.S. president approaches lame-duck status.

Russia believes it is a power equal to the U.S., and it wants to make sure we understand that,” Ms. Conley said. “That’s what makes this particular period so dangerous. Russia is certainly willing to use military might and to impose its own political objectives and interests, whether it’s in the Middle East or in Europe. We’ll see how much Mr. Putin is going to test the next president. We’re already seeing a lot of pushing and testing right now.”

Ms. Conley said Mr. Putin showed the same behavior during the presidency of George W. Bush, who met the former KGB chief in his first year in office and said famously that he had “got a sense of his soul.” Mr. Putin reached out to the U.S. later that year after the 9/11 attacks. But by the end of Mr. Bush’s presidency in 2008, Mr. Putin was invading the republic of Georgia.

On Friday, in yet another potential provocation, the Russian Defense Ministry said Moscow was considering re-establishing its Soviet-era military bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. The White House scoffed at the development.

“In recent times, Russia has not been able to live up to the goals they’ve made, whether that’s Syria, whether that’s in Ukraine or elsewhere around the world,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

The administration also accused Mr. Putin on Friday of cyberattacks against U.S. election systems, saying Russia is trying to influence the presidential vote in November. The statement didn’t name Mr. Putin but said “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

In light of Mr. Putin’s latest military moves, Mr. Obama’s promise early in his presidency to “reset” relations with Russia seems to have been naive at best.

“American presidents seem to think they have the personal charm and charisma and policy to convince [the Russians] that this cooperation will work, and it does work for a little while, and then it absolutely falls apart,” Ms. Conley said. “Particularly over the last six years, Russia has rebuilt its military capabilities. We haven’t seen this type of military intervention, in Syria, since Afghanistan in 1979.”

The White House has lashed out at Mr. Putin, accusing him of cowardly skipping last month’s U.N. General Assembly to avoid facing international condemnation over his actions in Syria.

The Middle East is always a top national security challenge for the U.S., and the prospects for the next president are bleak. A two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is all but dead, the Syrian war has destabilized NATO ally Turkey, Yemen has been torn apart by a multisided war, Mr. Obama has deployed about 5,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to aid in the battle against the Islamic State, about 8,400 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at year’s end as advisers and counterterrorism forces, and Libya is struggling to repel Islamic State extremists.

Administration officials point out that the U.S.-led coalition has killed many of the Islamic State’s leaders and taken back much of the extremists’ territory in Iraq. Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that his nuclear deal with Iran has eased the biggest threat to the U.S. by denying Tehran the ability to develop a nuclear weapon.

Ms. Conley cited two other regions that will demand the attention of the next president: India-Pakistan, nuclear-armed neighbors whose tensions are flaring over renewed violence in disputed Kashmir, and Europe, which is grappling with the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union.

After eight years under Mr. Obama, she said, the U.S. role in enforcing international order “has now been profoundly questioned.”

“The U.S. is seen as no longer providing the same energy and leadership in that international-rules order,” she said. “Do our adversaries understand how the U.S. will respond if they in fact cross our line? All of that has become much less clear, and more confusion reins with our allies.”

 

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