I am glad that I am not Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, John Kerry, and the many other American officials that are crafting our foreign policy in this currently very complicated world. One of the biggest challenges in foreign policy is establish priorities and ranking importance in terms of time, funding and resources. None of this happens in a sterile, lab like environment, but is influenced by misinformation, biases, public pressure and legislative pressure. The American people, allies, and the legislature itself is demanding decisive action on Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Russia, etc. at the same time there is a self declared Strategic Rebalance to Asia and a self imposed austerity through sequestration.
At the moment ISIS is a clear and present threat to Middle Eastern and global stability, but the President has declared that there will be no American boots on the ground. Currently we are at war with ISIS, which is depressing considering how many times we have declared mission accomplished in Iraq and were ready to go home not too long ago. America is in an awkward moment in the Middle East where it is not clear who are friend or our enemies are, or if it is even possible to make such clear distinctions. Degrading ISIS empowers Assad and Iran, and realistically defeating ISIS without without help (whether tacit or not) from Assad and Iran is not possible. What is America’s role, beyond stopping the slaughter of Kurds and minority people and stopping Baghdad from being overrun, what is left salvaging in Iraq and Syria, and how can it be put back together without the people there wanting to put it back together as it was before- which is increasingly doubtful. We have been at Iraq in one war or another for more than half my life.
Russia- What is our strategic goals here besides standing up to Russia and letting them know what they did is not acceptable? How much stomach do our NATO allies have for anything besides sanctions, and what happens if we send weapons to Ukraine and confirm (in many people’s minds) Putin’s rhetoric about a new cold war, and what if we don’t send weapons and lose the confidence of Europe? Is there a good outcome, and what really can/should the U.S. being doing?
These two crises both touch on long and short term interests, but while they are going on, in the back ground East Asia has become the most important region in the world in terms of economic power- and at the same time is becoming more tense as Japan debates getting rid of article 9 of their pacifist constitution and China is more and more able and willing make expansive territorial claims. America has core security goals in the area, and the Rebalance policy is important to avert further instability or arms races.
These are three major strategic goals, but it is impossible to make them all the number one priority, or to address one without limiting resources available to another, all while trying to deter or reassure key audiences with different interests. The Obama administration is walking on a tightrope with only less bad choices to make that will inevitably disappoint most people.This is clear domestically when Obama was recently harshly criticized for failing to criticize radical islam harshly, ignoring that fighting ISIS relies on muslim allies, or the ongoing hawkishness towards Iran that seemingly wants the U.S. to fight all sides of the current conflict in the Middle East all at once. I wish I had some good advice for this, but for now, I just wanted to highlight the difficulties.