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