The Enemy We've Been Waiting For

Vladimir Putin could be the perfect gift to an American president desperately in need of a foe.

Listening to U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Brussels this week, I found myself thinking, "He's got his voice back." This thought came right around the moment when he deployed the expression "we believe" as a rhetorical device to underline the universality of faith in free expression and free markets and in "an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people." Obama is a belief-driven leader who in recent months has had very few opportunities to project his beliefs upon the world. Now, suddenly, he has a cause.

I wonder whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose strategic talents have been so favorably compared to Obama's, has not in fact given the American president an immense gift. Leaders need obstacles; better still, they need enemies. President Bill Clinton, ruling at the noontide of American power, never had an adversary against whom to show his mettle. The George Bush who came before him was fortunate to have Saddam Hussein, and the Bush who came later had Osama bin Laden. You could hardly do better. Of course, the difference between the two Bushes shows that a president can use that morally charged confrontation to unite the nation and the world, or to divide them.

The second George Bush discredited American moralism by reducing it to the cowboy slogan of "Either you're with us or against us." As a presidential candidate, Obama found his footing by declaring, in a campaign debate with Hillary Clinton, that, unlike either Bush or then-Senator Clinton, he would talk to any American rival without preconditions. Afterward, Samantha Power, then one of Obama's chief foreign-policy advisors, confided to me that he had found this unplanned exchange "orienting." That's who he was -- the dispassionate statesman who would dispense with moral posturing in order to find shared interests.

Thus was born "engagement," the dominant foreign-policy paradigm of Obama's first years in office. Over time, however, Obama discovered the limitations of finding common ground. The Iranian leadership rejected his overtures; only the ever-tightening vise of sanctions has brought Tehran to negotiate over its program of nuclear enrichment. In the Arab world, engagement foundered on its own contradictions because Obama had to choose between engaging with regimes and engaging with citizens who despised those regimes. The "reset" with Russia, which bore fruit in Obama's first two years, had flagged long before Putin unleashed the hounds in Crimea.

Engagement ran its course. What was worse was that the Arab Spring, once a source of transcendent hope, ultimately entangled Obama in portentous conflicts with no morally satisfying solution. On Syria, the White House convinced itself that it would do more harm than good by seriously supporting the insurgents, yet by withholding that support helped give birth to a Hobbesian setting that really does seem beyond rescue. Egypt, though less monstrous, is just as bewildering, for the administration supported a democratically elected Islamist government that the Egyptian people themselves turned against en masse. The same masses who bled and died to overthrow a military dictator have now embraced a new one. Against what, and with whom, is America to stand? The "pivot to Asia," the world's most overadvertised foreign-policy venture, seemed designed to leave behind this torrid and tormented zone for the cool uplands of sovereign states bent on increasing their GDP (and fending off China's rising ambitions).

Then Putin yanked the administration back to the world of aggression. Putin, it's true, has dictated the terms of the contest and made the United States and its European allies look reactive and improvisatory. Republicans are having a field day with Obama's "weakness." If Putin invades eastern Ukraine, the Cold War bitter-enders will feel thoroughly vindicated. Nevertheless, I suspect that neither Putin's gloating nor Sen. John McCain's mockery will last. Putin is the foil Obama has been waiting for.

The annexation of Crimea, as Obama declared, violated the rights of "both nations and people," thus outraging the sovereignty-minded nations of Asia as well as the liberal democracies. Putin sought to roll back history by redrawing settled borders. He sought to stifle a mass democratic uprising in Ukraine. He bullied and he lied. (Really, he's almost as satisfying a villain as Saddam.)

Perhaps this will serve as Obama's new "orienting" moment. Already, he has taken the lead in imposing sanctions on Russia, while orchestrating the global response to the annexation of Crimea. In his Brussels speech, he noted that "a coldhearted calculus" of interests in Ukraine might dictate that the United States "look the other way." Yes, that's a typical Obamian straw man -- on the order of "some say …" -- but the assertion also allowed him to reaffirm those "universal" principles that guide American foreign policy. Maybe it took Putin to remind the president of those principles. Obama has always said that he admires realists like former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, but his sense of his own destiny, and of America's, is too exalted for him to accept the coldhearted calculus that made those men so effective.

What would it mean for the Putin challenge to reorient Obama? First, it might give Obama a large and urgent sense of purpose. Secretary of State John Kerry, consumed by the sense of urgency and hyperbolic self-assurance Obama once exuded, has taken on every impossible portfolio; meanwhile, the White House has complacently waved as he disappeared over the horizon. Protecting "the West" is a fine job for a president once accused of harboring "post-European" sentiments. Only the United States can organize the military, diplomatic, and economic response to Russia's provocation. Kerry will wind up doing that too, but there must be no doubt, including in Putin's mind, that Obama himself is driving the policy.

That response must be rhetorical as well. The theme that ran through Obama's Brussels speech is that Putin has thrown down a challenge to what had seemed to be a consensual worldview and thus has committed aggression against an idea as well as against a place. That is what makes Putin so excellent a villain for Obama, a man who has a gift for propounding large ideas in the public sphere. Putinism is a bad idea that must be countered by a good one. It's all too easy to concede, as for example India has, that Russia had "legitimate interests" in Ukraine. Obama needs to drive home the principle that no nation can define its interest in a way that permits it to violate international norms.

One thing Obama believes in deeply, as anyone who has read his national security strategy would recognize, is international law and institutions. Putin has quite helpfully reminded the world of why a rule-based international order matters. Obama has the opportunity to wrap himself in that flag. If he is going to do so, however, he will have to speak to the American people as well, since the United States both upholds and at times threatens that order. Thanks to Republicans in the House, for example, the United States is now the only major country that has refused to endorse reforms in the International Monetary Fund that will increase the authority of emerging countries; conservatives refuse to accept that U.S. voting rights in that institution should modestly shrink to reflect the growing power of other states.

Come to think of it, convincing the American people of the merits of a rule-based international order would be another noble task for Obama to set for himself during the final third of his tenure. He could start more modestly by convincing citizens that the world beyond "the homeland" is a place of opportunity as well as a threat. The United States does stand for something in the world. Perhaps it has taken Vladimir Putin to remind us of that.

Image: Ed Johnson / Foreign Policy


Spies, Swaps, and Sins of Omission

Five ways to tell the Middle East peace process is in big trouble.

I am still betting that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to come up with some fix that will get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the April 29 deadline for a framework accord and into the great beyond of yet more negotiations. But I must say, the signs don't look good for meaningful progress, let alone breakthroughs.

Having been around the block on this issue more than a few times, I detect an all-too-familiar whiff of desperation in the air. And the signs of distress seem to abound, particularly as Kerry unexpectedly flew off to see Abbas in Amman, Jordan, on March 26, after having just seen him in Washington last week. Here are the top five reasons you know the peace process is in trouble:

1. Jonathan Pollard's name comes up.

This is a peace process perennial. And when it sprouts up, look out. In 1998, in an effort to reach an interim agreement between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister pushed what has become a standard request since 1985 -- release Jonathan Pollard. From Israel's point of view -- and as illogical and objectionable as it may sound to an American -- the imprisoned spy who was convicted for spying on the United States is like a soldier left on the battlefield. Israel is obligated to get him back. The presumption is that releasing him would afford this prime minister a political coup at home and make it easier to permit him to swallow some peace-related issue. At the 1998 Wye River summit, CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign when President Bill Clinton seemed inclined to consider the request. Current CIA Director John Brennan may well have the same reaction. Nothing demonstrates how far afield we've come and how shaky this peace process is when you start mixing Pollard apples with peace process oranges. It's a sure sign that the focus has shifted to the wrong set of issues driven by the wrong set of motives.

2. Releasing Palestinian prisoners becomes the key to the process.

This is another issue that has served over the years as a confidence destroyer rather than a confidence enhancer. And it demonstrates the level of mistrust and suspicion that exists between the two sides. The deal that was apparently cut nine months ago -- Israel would release 104 prisoners in phases, and the Palestinians would defer their campaign to take the statehood issue to the United Nations -- was always a devil's bargain. The Palestinians believe Israel shouldn't be imprisoning their people to begin with, while Israel believes Palestinians shouldn't be going to the U.N. in the first place. So it's not as if these deliverables are terribly meaningful confidence builders. Indeed, on the issue of prisoners they are guaranteed to raise tensions, not lower them. Every release -- accompanied as it is by jubilation on one side, grief and anger on the other -- only divides the two camps. And it places both Netanyahu and Abbas in a much tougher position. Indeed, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made clear when he was in Washington that Palestinian credibility is now on the line. If Israel doesn't go ahead with the release this week or next, how can Palestinians believe that the Israelis will make good on delivering any of the core issues? Meanwhile, Israelis insist that there was nothing automatic about the deal. Unless negotiations were progressing, they weren't obligated to release prisoners. Bottom line: If this process were working the way it should, the focus wouldn't be on prisoners or Pollard, but on the substance of a deal on borders, Jerusalem, etc.

3. Obama tells Jeffrey Goldberg what he really thinks.

The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has always been something of a soap opera. The U.S. president thinks the prime minister is a con man; the prime minister thinks the president is bloodless when it comes to really understanding Israel's fears. In a functional peace process, Barack Obama would never feel the need -- and on the eve of a meeting with his Israeli counterpart -- to vent his frustrations with Israel's policies and lay down markers of what's likely to happen to Israel if the peace process collapses. That interview, with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, really does reflect how Obama feels on matters such as settlement activity, and it strongly suggests that, if Obama had the cojones, he'd slam dunk the Israelis. But he won't or can't for any number of reasons. So the next best option is to vent indirectly. Whether or not these kinds of tactics work (and most often they don't), they reflect a serious problem in the way the president and the prime minister understand their respective needs. Indeed, the real problem isn't just the lack of trust between Bibi and Abbas; it's the absence of real confidence between Bibi and Obama. From Carter to Begin, Bush to Shamir -- to use the word of choice these days -- all had issues. But they also managed to work together and actually produce something serious.

4. Kerry's doing too much heavy lifting.

Kerry has been relentless in his pursuit of some kind of breakthrough. Is there a doubt in anyone's mind that, without him, there wouldn't even be peace process vapors? But U.S. will is necessary yet not sufficient. After almost nine months, the very real question arises: Whose peace process is this? Do Abbas and Netanyahu own it? If so, are they willing to make the hard choices on the core issues without having to be scolded or chased after by a U.S. secretary of state? If the answer to this question were yes, we wouldn't be following this particular logic chain to a potentially unhappy end. To get an agreement on Jerusalem, security, borders, refugees, and recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, you need real urgency -- and that's driven by both pain and gain. Right now there's not enough of either.

5. The missing piece isn't even being discussed.

There's only one fight worth having with Israelis and Palestinians. And that's over the terms of a final deal. Forget Pollard, prisoners, even settlements. Making that kind of effort depends on getting to a point where the gaps on the core issues are capable of being bridged or reaching the conclusion that laying out a U.S. plan on these issues would have a positive impact. Right now, neither are ready for prime time. Whether they will ever be, given the current cast of characters and their priorities -- including Obama's -- is very much an open question. So in the absence of shutting down the whole effort, the administration is trying to keep it alive.

My own view is that the chances of doing that, i.e., getting past the April deadline without a major shutdown, are pretty good. Nobody wants to be fingered with the collapse of the process; nobody wants to face the consequences of being exposed to violence, boycott, or some other calamity; and nobody in Washington wants to admit that a foreign-policy initiative that the administration had made such a priority has failed. So without much direction but full of purpose and an ennobling spirit, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Photo: Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images