The most obvious is that military force is not as effective as its proponents would have Americans believe. Had the United States bombed Syria or hit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it would almost certainly not have been as successful as the nonmilitary approaches used.
Obama’s Understated Foreign Policy Gains
By MICHAEL A. COHEN
It’s been a pretty good couple of weeks for American foreign policy. No, seriously.
On June 23, the last of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile
was loaded onto a Danish freighter to be destroyed. The following day, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia asked his Parliament to rescind the permission that it had given him to send troops into Ukraine. Meanwhile, there is still cautious optimism that a nuclear deal with Iran is within reach.
What do these have in common? They were achieved without a single American bomb being dropped and they relied on a combination of diplomacy, economic sanctions and the coercive threat of military force. As policy makers and pundits remain focused on Iraq and the perennial but distracting discussion about the use of force, these modest but significant achievements have, perhaps predictably, been ignored. Yet they hold important lessons for how American power can be most effectively deployed today.
Nine months ago,
President Obama eschewed military means to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons and instead negotiated an agreement to remove them. Critics like Senator John McCain blasted it as a “loser” deal that would never work. By refusing to back up a stated “red line” with military force, Mr. Obama had supposedly weakened American credibility.
In Damascus, however, the threat of military engagement by the United States was taken more seriously. And when given the choice between American bombing or giving up his chemical weapons, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria chose the latter.
Four months ago, some pundits confidently declared that Mr. Putin had “won” in Crimea and would ignore a Western response of toothless sanctions. But Russia has paid a serious price for its actions in Ukraine: diplomatic isolation and an economic downturn spurred by capital outflows, declining foreign investment and international opprobrium.
Mr. Putin’s recent effort to tamp down tensions appears to be a response, in part, to the threat of further sanctions. In trying to operate outside the global system, Mr. Putin found that resistance to international norms came at an unacceptable cost.
While it is far too early to declare success on the nuclear talks in Vienna, that the United States and Iran are sitting down at the negotiating table is a historic diplomatic achievement. When Mr. Obama
spoke during the 2008 election campaign of his willingness to talk with Iran’s leaders, it led to criticisms that he was naïve about global politics. But his efforts as president to extend an olive branch, even as Iran continued to pursue its nuclear ambitions, enabled America to build support for the multilateral economic sanctions that helped make the current negotiations possible.
While one should be careful in drawing expansive judgments from disparate examples like these, there are noteworthy commonalities. The most obvious is that military force is not as effective as its proponents would have Americans believe. Had the United States bombed Syria or hit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it would almost certainly not have been as successful as the nonmilitary approaches used.
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Yet, at the outset of practically every international crisis, to bomb or not to bomb becomes the entire focus of debate. That false choice disregards the many other tools at America’s disposal. It doesn’t mean that force should never be considered, but that it should be the option of last resort. Force is a blunt instrument that produces unpredictable outcomes (for evidence, look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya).
What did work in these three situations was the patient diplomatic effort of building a global consensus. The success of international sanctions against Iran and Russia respectively relied on the support of both allies and rivals. Acting alone, the United States would never have achieved the same results.
It wasn’t just Americans who were outraged by the seizure of Crimea — so, too, were nations that had few interests in the region. The reason is simple: When countries invade their neighbors with impunity, it puts every country at risk. A similar global consensus against chemical and nuclear proliferation, backed by international treaties, also served as the foundation for American diplomacy toward Iran and Syria.
Critics will fairly argue that these outcomes hardly justify great celebration. Mr. Assad has relinquished his chemical weapons, but the bloody civil war in Syria continues. Mr. Putin has backed off in eastern Ukraine, but he’s keeping Crimea. Iran may agree to a nuclear deal, but it will remain a destabilizing power with the potential to upgrade its nuclear capacity.
This speaks to the limitations of American power. The United States cannot stop every conflict or change every nefarious regime. Any foreign policy predicated on such ambitions will consistently fail.
What the United States can do is set modest and realistic goals: upholding global norms and rules, limiting conflicts and seeking achievable diplomatic outcomes. With China flexing its muscles in the Far East, these lessons are more important than ever.
But they are not transferable to every international crisis. Sanctions don’t mean much, for example, to radical nonstate actors like the jihadists of the Islamic State. And unilateral pressure from the United States cannot, for example, bring about the political reforms in Iraq that are needed to stabilize the country. Sometimes, America has no good answer for disruptive events like these.
All too often, though, our foreign policy debates are defined by simplistic ideas: that force is a problem-solver, that America can go its own way and that mere application of American leadership brings positive results. But the results with Syria, Russia and Iran remind us that when American foreign policy is led by painstaking diplomacy, seeks multilateral consensus and acts with an understanding of its own limitations, it can produce positive results. More often than not, boring is better.