Is U.S. Power Lost at Sea?

Obama Kayak

At no time since the end of the Cold War have so many regions faced so much turbulence. From Ukraine and Russia to Syria and Iraq to the South and East China Seas, virtually every piece on the international chessboard seems in play. This instability has emerged at a time when the Obama administration has been reducing U.S. forces deployed in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and many observers wonder who will fill the vacuums left by America’s receding roles. Some, including unsurprisingly former Vice President Dick Cheney, have suggested that the administration’s desire to limit U.S. exposure to foreign entanglements is destabilizing the international system and endangering U.S. security.

Recent developments in Iraq are a case in point. Although Presidents Bush and Obama both sought to leave a stable government based on political cooperation among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, some observers, including this writer, judged that Iraq’s sectarian civil war had not run its course and would resume following the U.S. withdrawal. Several Bush administration officials responsible for the original decision to invade Iraq now claim that the Obama administration “lost” Iraq.

Some observers, including Senator John McCain, have argued that the current offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now calling itself the Islamic State, was an inevitable consequence of the administration’s insufficient support for moderate opposition forces in the Syrian conflict. After ignoring its own “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the Obama administration hoped moderate rebels would overthrow Assad and open the way for a new, more inclusive government. But the very “moderates” on whom Washington and its Arab allies counted proved no match for Assad’s forces or the more radical Sunni militants. The administration was reluctant, in spite of pressure from Senator McCain and others, to provide serious armaments to the moderates in the fear that such arms would easily find their way into the hands of these radicals.

With ISIS sweeping toward Baghdad supported by disaffected Sunnis, capturing U.S. weapons provided to the Iraqi security forces, that concern is now moot. Al Qaeda may be “on the run,” as President Obama once proclaimed, but now it appears that the much more radical and dangerous ISIS is on the rise.

Unintended consequences of U.S. withdrawal are also evident in Afghanistan. There, the United States is counting on a new Afghan government being more cooperative than President Hamid Karzai regarding a residual U.S. and NATO presence. But across Central Asia the perception is one of U.S. withdrawal, particularly in light of the reduction of U.S. forces and closure of the U.S. air station at Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan last month. The U.S. departure from Manas is a welcome development for the Kyrgyz government, which faced considerable Russian pressure to close the facility. Moscow apparently will fill this vacuum being left by the United States, in part by replacing the rent the United States paid for using the base with its own grants and loans.

Meanwhile, further to the East, where American power and presence were to be increased as part of the “pivot” or now “rebalancing” to Asia, observers question whether the United States is perceived as any more committed or involved than it was before the policy was announced. The United States was already militarily, economically and diplomatically active in Asia before the pivot, and will remain so whether part of a “pivot” or not. China’s rising power and assertiveness suggest an expansionist agenda that could challenge U.S. interests, while North Korea remains a dangerous regional wild card. Meanwhile, the United States has to calibrate its involvement in the region to avoid threatening the many areas of cooperation and mutual dependencies with China. And tensions between key U.S. allies Japan and South Korea complicate attempts to shape a coherent U.S. approach.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in Eastern Ukraine, the United States is now scrambling to reassure NATO allies bordering Russia and provide support to the new Ukrainian government—all in an effort to counter the Kremlin’s more aggressive posture. In many ways, the result has started to look like a U.S. “return” to Europe despite the emphasis on “rebalancing” toward Asia.

In sum, the international system is forcing the United States to take on new burdens at a time when the Obama administration was actively reducing American military involvement overseas.

In response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the administration seems to have recognized that the United States may not be able to scale back its global commitments while still enjoying the necessities of a more-or-less stable international system. Instead of continuing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe, the administration moved to suspend Russia’s participation in Western economic fora like the G-8, invoked sanctions against Russian interests, and committed U.S. forces to training and other activities in NATO countries around Russia’s borders. In addition, President Obama promised a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” to help shore up defenses against future Russian challenges.

The conflict in Iraq—the civil war that never ended—has forced the administration to begin sending carefully calibrated assistance to Iraqi President Maliki’s Shiite regime while urging an intransigent Maliki to broaden the political base of his government. This renewed push to influence Maliki’s actions may be no more likely to succeed than Secretary Kerry’s attempts to stimulate movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, which looks further away today than at any time in recent history.

Perhaps the United States has little choice but to provide the international leadership that no other power can provide, in the absence of which forces antagonistic to U.S. interests might thrive. An important step in this process will be a NATO summit in Wales this coming September, where the United States will seek to build a new consensus among its European partners about how to deal with the security challenges in Europe and beyond.

However, it is hard to be optimistic that even the most skilled diplomacy will enable the United States to control or even substantively influence outcomes. The American public will be looking for constant reassurance that their country is secure even as they insist, perhaps unreasonably, that the cost of that security be reduced. The administration will be called on to produce better explanations of how it will manage U.S. involvement in the current international turbulence while strengthening the domestic political and economic foundations of American power. Whatever courses the administration takes seem unlikely to satisfy Obama’s domestic critics or provide near-term solutions to the international challenges faced. And, in spite of calls from critics for a cohesive U.S. international strategy, muddling through may be the best that this administration—or any under these circumstances—can do.


Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in international security policy for the Congressional Research Service. Since then, he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.