President Barack Obama has faced new scrutiny over his foreign policy ambitions lately, with the crisis in Ukraine emboldening those who say he hasn’t been forceful enough in his dealings with America’s adversaries.
These critics have referenced past foreign-policy steps — the reluctance to strike Syria after it crossed his “red line” last year, the nuclear-weapons deal with Iran — as examples that have left Russian President Vladimir Putin and others unafraid of facing consequences when they take action the U.S. opposes.
In an extensive, and blunt interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg published Sunday that focused on his policies in the Middle East, Obama pushed back against arguments he hasn’t asserted himself enough on the foreign policy front. Obama cited the example of the Syrian “red line” as clear evidence his strategies are working.
“Let’s be very clear about what happened. I threatened kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons. When I made that threat, Syria denied even having chemical weapons. In the span of 10 days to two weeks, you had their patrons, the Iranians and the Russians, force or persuade Assad to come clean on his chemical weapons, inventory them for the international community, and commit to a timeline to get rid of them,” Obama said.
“And the process has moved more slowly than we would like, but it has actually moved. … That would not have happened had the Iranians said, ‘Obama’s bluffing, he’s not actually really willing to take a strike.’ If the Russians had said, ‘Ehh, don’t worry about it, all those submarines that are floating around your coastline, that’s all just for show.’ Of course they took it seriously! That’s why they engaged in the policy they did.”
Syria’s pledges on destroying chemical weapons, however, have been “fraying” in recent weeks. The New York Times reported about two weeks ago that the Syrian government is seeking another delay for a looming deadline in the agreed upon timeline for the elimination of its chemical weapons stockpile. At this point, the original June 30 deadline for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons — mandated by a United Nations Security Council resolution — looks almost impossible.
It is unclear whether the U.N. and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would approve of any extension, and how that would recalibrate the Obama administration’s calculus. The administration has continued to assert that “all options are on the table” — including military action — with respect to Syria.
With Ukraine, too, the White House has argued that Obama is operating from a position of strength. On Sunday, it contrasted his position with that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who it said had been forced to resort to “hard power” in Ukraine.
“This chapter has proven decisively that when it comes to soft power, the power of attraction, Vladimir Putin has no game,” a senior Obama administration official said during a background briefing with reporters Sunday night. “So he’s left with hard power. And it’s a very dangerous game to play in Ukraine because the Ukrainian people are not going to stand for it, and nor is the international community.”
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