Obama stirs con­flict around globe, leaves U.S. al­lies un­cer­tain

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVE BOYER

As Pres­i­dent Obama pre­pares to de­part the world stage, he is leav­ing his suc­ces­sor more con­flicts to con­front around the globe and less cer­tainty among al­lies and ad­ver­saries about U.S. in­flu­ence than ex­isted eight years ago.

From Syria to the Korean Penin­sula, Hil­lary Clin­ton or Don­ald Trump will need to grap­ple even be­fore In­au­gu­ra­tion Day with a range of com­plex in­ter­na­tional crises that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has failed to tamp down. Rus­sia and China are be­hind much of the ten­sion.

“I think the sit­u­a­tion has de­te­ri­o­rated,” said El­bridge Colby, a na­tional se­cu­rity an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity in Wash­ing­ton. “We’re talk­ing about a world that’s more un­cer­tain and more com­pet­i­tive, and in which con­flicts will be­come more likely.”

In a speech to the United Na­tions late last month, Mr. Obama cited progress against ter­ror­ism and the Ira­nian nu­clear deal among his achieve­ments. But he also ac­knowl­edged that the world is “filled with un­cer­tainty and un­ease and strife.”

“We can choose to press for­ward with a bet­ter model of co­op­er­a­tion and in­te­gra­tion,” Mr. Obama said. “Or we can re­treat into a world sharply di­vided, and ul­ti­mately in con­flict, along age-old lines of na­tion and tribe and race and re­li­gion.”

Among the most threat­en­ing emer­gen­cies world­wide, the in­tractable prob­lem of North Korea’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram has only grown more dan­ger­ous on Mr. Obama’s watch. Py­ongyang fired three bal­lis­tic mis­siles that flew more than 600 miles last month and tested a new rocket engine Sept. 20 that could be used for a long-range mis­sile.

“The most im­me­di­acy is North Korea,” said Heather Con­ley, a se­nior for­eign pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “If the North Kore­ans were able to cre­ate a mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the United States with a nu­clear war­head, that is an is­sue. We don’t have the an­swers for it, but we need to fo­cus on it.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried, with­out success, to per­suade China to put more pres­sure on North Korea to halt its weapons pro­gram. Mr. Obama has dis­cussed im­pos­ing even tighter sanc­tions on North Korea, and the U.S. is plan­ning to de­ploy a mis­sile de­fense sys­tem in South Korea de­spite ve­he­ment ob­jec­tions by the Chi­nese.

Mr. Colby said North Korea’s devel­op­ment of an in­tercon­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a nu­clear war­head would be “a game-changer.”

“It’s got to be China that changes the calculus,” he said. “The Chi­nese pre­fer to avoid push­ing the North Kore­ans hard enough. We have to put pres­sure on the Chi­nese, and they have to re­ally bear the bur­den of what the North Kore­ans are do­ing.”

Mr. Colby said U.S. in­flu­ence in Asia is al­ready on the ropes be­cause of Mr. Obama’s in­abil­ity to wrap up the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship free trade deal with 11 other Pa­cific-rim na­tions. Mrs. Clin­ton and Mr. Trump op­pose the agree­ment, as do most Democrats in Con­gress, where the deal is stalled.

“I think we’re go­ing to need to demon­strate more firm­ness and more re­solve, and work more with states in the re­gion to try to bal­ance them over time,” Mr. Colby said. “To me, the TPP seems like a no-brainer. It’s cru­cial from our per­spec­tive in Asia that we get TPP.”

In Syria, the bru­tal 4½-year-old civil war rages on, with the regime of Rus­sian­backed Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad mak­ing gains against op­po­nents sup­ported by the U.S. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­ployed lim­ited num­bers of spe­cial forces in Syria to fight Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists but be­lieves there is no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the civil war. He even sus­pended diplo­matic talks with Rus­sia af­ter the lat­est cease-fire col­lapsed.

Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry called for Rus­sia and Syria to face a war crimes in­ves­ti­ga­tion for their at­tacks on Syr­ian civil­ians, an­other ex­am­ple of the rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow.

Moscow-backed sep­a­ratists are still fight­ing for con­trol of eastern Ukraine. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is show­ing no signs of back­ing down de­spite sev­eral rounds of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions led by the U.S. The cri­sis, which be­gan in 2014, has led to in­creas­ing anx­i­ety among Poland and the Baltic states about Rus­sia’s in­ten­tions, prompt­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to take steps to bol­ster NATO forces in the re­gion.

Mr. Putin has been a pri­mary an­tag­o­nist dur­ing Mr. Obama’s term and has be­come bolder mil­i­tar­ily as the U.S. pres­i­dent ap­proaches lame-duck sta­tus.

“Rus­sia be­lieves it is a power equal to the U.S., and it wants to make sure we un­der­stand that,” Ms. Con­ley said. “That’s what makes this par­tic­u­lar pe­riod so dan­ger­ous. Rus­sia is cer­tainly will­ing to use mil­i­tary might and to im­pose its own po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives and in­ter­ests, whether it’s in the Mid­dle East or in Europe. We’ll see how much Mr. Putin is go­ing to test the next pres­i­dent. We’re al­ready see­ing a lot of push­ing and test­ing right now.”

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