It should not be surprising that a President who prides himself on refusing to negotiate with elected representatives has so little patience with some of his fellow national leaders. Or that regime change has become a leading characteristic of the President’s foreign policy.
One outcome of that policy was on display last Sunday when an Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Libya released video of the group decapitating 21 Egyptian Christians.
It was a bitter and chilling reminder of the President’s first and most violent foray into regime change – the overthrow of former Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. The U.S. bombardment of Libya toppled Qaddafi and produced what Jon Lee Anderson, writing in the New Yorker, calls “the tyranny of a dangerous and pervasive instability.” Last Sunday’s beheadings powerfully reminded us of the depravity this instability has produced.
Our strategy in Libya eerily parallels our current campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We conducted airstrikes from a safe distance in support of unsavory factions on the ground, each exploiting our offensives to its own ends. And as in our present war against IS, we had no plan for picking up the pieces in Libya once hostilities ceased. Our efforts produced chaos and bloodshed, for which the Administration is predictably unrepentant.
“We were keen for the Libyans to take the lead,” White House Deputy National Security Council Adviser Ben Rhodes told Anderson. “Everyone knows the dangers of a completely U.S.-owned postwar environment. We might have used a heavier hand, but there’s no guarantee it would have made a difference.”
Once Qaddafi was gone, the U.S. made no difference at all. A year after his fall, Libyan terrorists associated with an al Qaeda offshoot attacked our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, killing four Americans. By last summer, we had evacuated our diplomatic personnel. Libya has become what one military contractor called “scumbag Woodstock,” drawing Islamic extremists from across the region to its gruesome festival. It is no surprise that IS affiliates have found their way to this twisted Yasgur’s farm.
Perhaps we will return to Libya one day. As improbable as it seems, the President has us back at war in Iraq, an intervention that we undertook only once Baghdad had met our demand for regime change. The President conditioned escalating military intervention against the IS on their dumping Nouri al-Maliki, whose Dawa party finished first in last April’s election. The Iraqis obliged. The new government in Baghdad, meanwhile, is no better than the one we insisted be replaced. Sectarian divisions have persisted and grown more violent, Shiite militias continue to fill in for an incompetent army, and the new government of Haider al-Abadi is no less corrupt than Maliki’s.
Our dabbling in regime change isn’t always accompanied military intervention. Part of our exit strategy for Afghanistan was to install a leader we could deal with once our troops departed. The Administration went all in behind Abdullah Abdullah, whom they regarded as a sure thing to win last year’s elections. But the redundantly named candidate threatened to start a civil war once it became clear he’d lost. Only extensive diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry managed to turn what might have been a disaster into a mere ominous turn of events. Afghanistan’s fractious and unstable government seeks to hang on as the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal nears.
Sometimes the President has a hard time deciding whether or not he wants regime change. He called for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and in August 2013 threatened airstrikes to facilitate his ouster. But the night before Congress was to vote on whether to authorize the military action, the President delivered a national address announcing that he’d changed his mind. Today we are bombing some of Assad’s opponents while preparing to train and equip rebels that we’ve “vetted.” It’s not clear whether we’re trying to get rid of Assad or keep him in power.
But while the President can’t seem to make up his mind about Assad, he has been a rock of consistency on wanting Benjamin Netanyahu shunted aside. The President can barely conceal his contempt for the Israeli prime minister and no longer even tries. In 2011 he was inadvertently caught on a microphone complaining that he was “tired” of Netanyahu and of having to “deal with him every day.”
And while House Speaker John Boehner’s [R-OH] decision to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress next month has been widely criticized, the more telling development was the President’s decision to snub the Israeli leader during his scheduled visit to Washington for next month’s AIPAC convention. The official White House explanation – that Obama doesn’t want to influence the Israeli elections – is an implausible evasion. Obama wants nothing more than to influence the elections and rid himself of Netanyahu, though it is perhaps a mere coincidence that one of his former political operatives is providing campaign advice to an Israeli opposition party.
The President may well get his wish on Netanyahu, who is embroiled in a scandal over alleged financial malfeasance. Whatever the outcome, Israel is a durable democracy committed to the rule of law that will tolerate a change of leaders without turmoil or unrest.
The same can’t be said for the country on which the President inflicted his most damaging foray into regime change: Ukraine. A little more than a year ago, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and a parade of American diplomatic officials publicly backed protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square who were calling for the ouster of Ukraine’s elected president Viktor Yanukovych. Her boss John Kerry issued a statement assuring demonstrators that “the United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”
The Ukrainians would learn soon enough that the U.S. had no intention of making good on Kerry’s pledge. On February 21, Yanukovych signed an agreement with the Maidan protest leaders allowing him to remain in office until elections later in the year. The Russians and the EU witnessed the agreement, which seemed to have brought the months-long standoff to a peaceful conclusion.
But instead of dispersing, the protestors on the following day seized control of government buildings, ousted Yanukovych and declared a new government. The U.S. recognized the newly-proclaimed regime as Ukraine’s legitimate rulers.
Putin was momentarily unable to respond, as the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were winding down. But Russian officials denounced the protesters’ actions as a coup. The U.S. and EU continue to reject this characterization.
What is remarkable about this action is that the White House either did not anticipate Putin’s reaction to the ouster of Ukraine’s elected leader or didn’t care about the consequences. It still has no plan to reverse the seizure of Crimea that occurred just a few days after the Sochi closing ceremonies or the fighting that has left pro-Russian rebels in control of portions of eastern Ukraine.
We actively encouraged regime change in Ukraine without counting the cost, then stood aside as Putin systematically dismembered a European country without military consequence. And though we have no solution for the misery that grips Ukraine, the President may well hope that he has a solution to one of the sources of that misery: Vladimir Putin.
Even the President must know that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia won’t deter Putin from his Ukrainian adventures. It is likely that their purpose is to stir discontent with Putin among the Russian oligarchy in hopes of provoking his ouster. Alexander Motyl laid out that line of thinking in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs. Motyl argues that Putin’s days are numbered and it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is precisely what President Obama intends.
But even Motyl concedes that sacking Putin would probably not lead to a more open, democratic or pro-Western Russian government. Putin’s successor, Motyl writes, “is likely to be a hardliner.” For the President, that would likely be an acceptable outcome, so long as Putin is gone.
Putin’s ouster would perhaps be the crowning achievement of a foreign policy that lacks purpose and coherence, fails to identify ends that align with our interests, and takes action without thinking through the consequences. Withdrawing abruptly from Iraq, bombing Libya, misleading Ukrainian demonstrators into believing we had their backs, and attacking IS from the air while avoiding direct combat may scratch a political itch, but expedience is not a strategy. Nothing is more costly than intervention on the cheap.
Much more is required of a President who believes that America should provide leadership in an increasingly chaotic world. Let’s hope that the President who takes office in 700 days is up to the task.