Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Obama’s vacuum doctrine

Ian Bremmer
Sep 25, 2013 14:43 UTC

In President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, he made the case for sustained American engagement in the Middle East:

“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it.”

When we look at Obama’s speech, the two biggest trends in American foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. First, while Obama describes the need for sustained American engagement in the Middle East, the opposite is already on full display today — and Obama has contributed to this disengagement at almost every turn. In the 2012 election, only 5 percent of voters dubbed foreign policy as their priority. You needn’t look further than Obama’s decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support. The failed G20 summit in St. Petersburg made it painfully clear that “a vacuum of leadership” is already the reality in our G-Zero world. The United States’ ability and leverage to drive outcomes in the Middle East is increasingly limited.

Second, the United States’ interest in redirecting that leverage from the Middle East towards Asia was nowhere to be found in the speech. Obama’s address was completely at odds with broader U.S. foreign policy as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term. The Hillary Doctrine involved a pivot to Asia, with an emphasis on engagement with China and its neighbors, as well as a push for economic statecraft: the utilization of economic policy to drive political outcomes. At the U.N., all of this was swept under the rug. Obama issued a clarion call for the global community to engage on the deepest Middle East security issues, discussing Iran at length (25 mentions), as well as Syria and its civil war (20) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine (15 and 11, respectively). Meanwhile, China was only mentioned once — and that was with regard to Iran — and no other East Asian nation was mentioned at all.

For as long as Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, her Asia-oriented doctrine filled the vacuum of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama adopting her doctrine was the closest he has yet come to establishing one of his own.

Putin is winning on Snowden, Syria and Sochi… but so what?

Ian Bremmer
Sep 19, 2013 15:01 UTC

Vladimir Putin’s having a hell of a summer. Before writing the most talked-about New York Times op-ed in months, he embarrassed his chief rival, the United States, by harboring its most high-profile dissident, Edward Snowden. He then came out ahead on negotiations over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people. The general consensus is that Putin and Russia are winning.

But what, exactly, are they winning? Russia’s prize for conquering the summer isn’t power — it’s constriction. In defending Assad, harboring Snowden, and preparing for the Sochi Olympics, Putin is actually just inviting more complications. This has been a summer of shallow wins for Putin as he puts his ego and personal quest for international legitimacy over his country’s best interests.

On Syria, it’s certainly true that Putin has made Barack Obama look bad. Russia has taken the lead on negotiations, minimized America’s military motivation, and undermined Obama’s foreign policy standing. All that’s great if you’re looking at it through the lens of a power ranking of the global elite. After all, I firmly believe that nobody has consolidated more power than Vladimir Putin.

The vote on Syria hardly matters

Ian Bremmer
Sep 10, 2013 21:30 UTC

The details of American involvement in Syria seem to change every minute. First the Obama administration was going to launch a “limited, narrow” attack, with international backing, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a punitive response to chemical weapons use. Then the administration was going to do it more or less alone. A week and a half ago, Obama punted on the issue, asking for congressional backing (but all the while stressing he could strike without Congress’ permission). And now, thanks to gaffe diplomacy, it’s possible that America won’t strike Syria at all, as the administration is willing to delay a vote in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution — like Russia’s proposal that Syria hands over its chemical weapons to the international community. That Russia’s plan is likely aimed more at scuttling strikes than at actually rounding up Assad’s chemical arsenal seems beside the point.

For more than a week, the prospect of a strike has dominated headlines, with a vote billed as the all-important variable. Here’s what all that hype is missing: While Obama’s decision to punt to Congress had far-reaching implications, at this point whether the U.S. actually strikes hardly matters. Whether the vote goes through, goes down, or never happens, it doesn’t have a huge impact on Obama, Syria, or America’s underlying priority in the region — Iran.

If the decision to strike Syria mattered overwhelmingly to President Obama, he wouldn’t have gone to Congress in the first place. Obama knows that, in this decade, elections are not won and lost on foreign policy. Only 5 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election said their top issue was foreign policy. By punting to Congress, Obama made clear that he values the political cover it provides more than the actual issue at hand — to strike or not to strike. If the strike gets voted down, the defeat would only have limited domestic impact for Obama, as most of the damage is already done. And if the vote is delayed indefinitely — as a result of exploring Russia’s proposal, for example — then the fallout for Obama is even less severe.

Iran is America’s real Middle East priority

Ian Bremmer
Sep 6, 2013 19:18 UTC

While we’ve been distracted by a flurry of intelligence releases on Syria’s chemical weapons strikes — and the ongoing saga over the United States’ response — many have overlooked another intelligence report pertaining to weapons of mass destruction with severe implications for America’s red lines and credibility in the Middle East.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, reported that “Iran plans to test about 1,000 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges it has completed installing.” As Iran’s enrichment capabilities increase, its breakout time — how long Iran would need to rapidly amass enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — is dropping considerably. In the next year or two, Iran’s breakout time could drop to about 10 days: too short of a window for the United States to reliably respond before Iran could secure enough material for a bomb.

America’s next step in Syria is inextricably linked to the situation in Iran. The U.S. government’s biggest national security concern in the region is an Iranian regime with potential access to nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the region, shock oil prices, and threaten U.S. allies. Longer term, it’s harder to map out the implications, but they aren’t pretty. A nuclear Iran could trigger a domino effect among Middle Eastern countries; should another Arab Spring occur, a failed state with a nuclear weapons cache is a frightening prospect.

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 27, 2013 21:44 UTC

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

On Syria, it’s time for Obama to decide

Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2013 18:46 UTC

Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions. 

But the status quo in Syria is breaking down, and Obama’s worst option is to kick the can as the United States inexorably gets dragged deeper into the conflict. It may be politically painful, but it’s time to make a choice: Go all in with a no fly zone — or avoid anything more than diplomatic intervention and humanitarian/non-lethal aid. Here’s why.

Until recently, Obama’s strategy of hesitance and risk aversion was commendable and well executed. As the situation worsened, the United States took minimal, reactionary steps. First, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put together a formal — and reasonably liberal — Syrian political opposition, but it quickly fragmented because it had no workable ties to the actual rebels doing the actual fighting. Then the United States turned to non-lethal aid for the rebels (including defensive military equipment) as well as supporting Qatar and other countries through intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, in August 2012, Obama drew a “red line” at “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the regime. At the time, it seemed unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

The global vacuum of power is expanding

Ian Bremmer
May 3, 2013 12:04 UTC

How do you solve a problem like Korea? Or Syria? Or the euro zone? Or climate change?

Don’t look to Washington. The United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for years to come, but the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers are now focused on debt, immigration, guns and growth. A war-weary, under-employed American public wants results at home, leaving U.S. officials to look for allies willing to share costs and risks abroad.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to build and sustain alliances in a world where America can’t afford its traditional share of the heavy lifting. No wonder then that the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy successes haven’t depended on such alliances. Withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t require consensus among the world’s powers. President Barack Obama’s single indisputable foreign policy triumph, the killing of Osama bin Laden, needed buy-in only from the members of Seal Team 6.

In Syria, a rare Chinese foray into foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Nov 20, 2012 15:14 UTC

This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbor. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.

This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasize into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.

And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects.

Four Debate Questions for Obama and Romney

Ian Bremmer
Oct 22, 2012 01:22 UTC

There will always be a wide gap between what candidates promise and what they deliver once elected, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. After all, this is an area where U.S. presidents have less control than either candidate will ever admit near a microphone. But this year, there are contradictions that cut straight to the heart of debates over American power and how it should be used. With that in mind, here are the questions I would like to see each candidate answer.

THE CHINA CONUNDRUM

    President Obama, given how much money the United States borrows from China each day, how can your administration expect to persuade the Chinese government to do anything it wouldn’t otherwise do? Governor Romney, you have pledged that, if elected, you will formally label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of your presidency. This decision would surely provoke a sharp response from China. Are you risking a trade war, and how could the United States win a trade war with China?

China-bashing has figured into many a U.S. presidential campaign. As China’s economy and geopolitical importance has grown — and as U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved from U.S. swing states to China and other foreign countries — both sides have tried to score points by promising to “get tough” with Beijing. Given the economic interdependence of the two countries and continued Chinese willingness to loan money to the United States, voters are right to wonder how seriously they should take all this anti-Chinese rhetoric.

SYRIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST

    President Obama, does the United States have a moral responsibility to protect Syrians from their government? Governor Romney, if we were to see large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, similar to those we saw last year in Cairo, would your administration side with the Saudi citizens demanding democracy? Or would you side with their government, a key U.S. ally?

President Obama cited moral concerns for the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya. Syria is a much more politically and logistically complicated problem for outsiders contemplating involvement, but the moral imperative — protecting citizens who are being killed by their government — appears the same. Where is the line in U.S. foreign policy between pragmatism and moral concerns?

In a G-Zero world, Syria’s civil war will drag on and on

Ian Bremmer
Jul 27, 2012 17:55 UTC

“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:

1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes

The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.

Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.

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