Does the Crimea crisis have anything to do with President Obama’s foreign policy? The president’s defenders find this idea absurd; some (correctly) observe that Russia intervened in Georgia during the Bush presidency, and conservatives weren’t quick to blame the Bush administration for Russia’s transborder aggression. The truth is that there’s no way to definitively answer this question. Much depends on whether or not you believe that states look to U.S. behavior in one set of international crises to to get a sense of how the U.S. will behave in some other instance.
One theory of the Obama administration’s approach to the wider world (and everything that follows is very much speculation on my part) is that it is profoundly shaped by the fact that Barack Obama vaulted to political prominence in no small part due to his early (and articulate) opposition to the Iraq War. In a 2002 address, Obama argued that to oppose the Iraq War was not to be “anti-war” as such, but rather to be opposed to “a dumb war … a rash war.” And in a crowded Democratic Senate primary in 2004, Obama drew on the infrastructure of the Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, which derived much of its strength from the former Vermont governor’s anti-war conviction, to win an unlikely victory. This has informed his reluctance to get too deeply involved in foreign entanglements, a reluctance that manifested itself in, for example, his reluctance to invest nearly as much time in building a relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as his predecessor. The president thinks of himself as a realist in the vein of President George H.W. Bush, who is mindful of the importance of U.S. power in undergirding global stability, yet who is also cognizant of the importance of husbanding U.S. power. As a general rule, he is more invested in his domestic policy initiatives than he is in foreign policy, a bias reflected in his desire to trim military expenditures. He does, however, see value in setting a new tone for America’s role in the world: he prefers a collaborative spirit to one rooted in nationalist self-assertion, and he is a firm believer that U.S. allies ought to share in the burdens of global leadership.
Having opposed the Iraq War, he was also eager to extricate the U.S. from its involvement in the new Iraqi state; and though he backed a “surge” in Afghanistan (less than enthusiastically), he was also keen to put a firm time limit on the presence of U.S. military forces. The president did support an armed intervention during the Libya crisis, but he did so in a kind of reverse-Suez scenario; because the British and the French had intervened, he felt compelled to follow their lead, hence “leading from behind.” It’s not at all obvious that the Obama administration would have intervened quite so forcefully in the absence of European pressure. The Syria crisis is another interesting case. Critics claim that the president’s failure to invest more resources in Syria during the earliest stages of its civil war meant that the U.S. didn’t have the intelligence assets it needed to make informed decisions as the conflict escalated. Though the president came out in favor of an armed intervention after (contested) allegations of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against opposition forces, he seemed ambivalent about the idea, and he abandoned it relatively quickly. This ambivalence is in keeping with the notion that President Obama’s gut instinct is to avoid a “land war in Asia.” Similarly, the president is very taken with the idea of a rapprochement with Iran, and he has been willing to negotiate directly with the Iranian government without actively consulting U.S. allies in the Arabian Gulf — a decision that has alienated the Gulf states in varying degrees.
So what’s the problem here? And what does this have to do with the Crimea crisis? Consider the Obama years through the lens of a state that chafes under America’s benevolent global hegemony. When the Venezuelan government weighs whether or not to engage in violent repression, it considers the likelihood of a forceful U.S. response. The Iranian government is a complex animal that involves an elected component and an unelected deep state, and it a settlement that unfreezes Iranian assets and that effaces the interests of the Arabian Gulf states might give the deep state room to much-needed maneuver. This is despite the fact that the expansion of tight oil and gas development in the U.S. has put the Iranian government under intense fiscal strain, which is to say the U.S. government has more leverage rather than less vis a vis Iran. One might get the impression that the U.S. is eager to offer concessions without expecting much in return. The U.S. decision to disengage from Iraq has arguably empowered sectarian elements to persecute minority communities, and some claim that it has encouraged deeper cooperation between the new Iraqi state and Iran. Libya remains chaotic in the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, and one gets the impression that the Obama administration has been keen to limit its involvement in the wake of the Benghazi attacks.
If you’re Vladimir Putin, what do you make of this landscape? Does it make you think that the Obama administration will make military adventurism costly for you? Or do you sense that the potential domestic political and long-term strategic benefits (see Leon Neyfakh’s Boston Globe report on Putin’s Eurasian Union) will outweigh the costs associated with U.S. opposition?