Obama’s Blunders: Libya, Syria, and the South China Sea

In a Fox News interview last week Barack Obama stated that one of his biggest regrets as president was deposing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without adequately preparing for the post-Gaddafi era.  Obama admitted that the chaos currently gripping Libya is in large part the result of failed U.S., French, and British policies.  I’m sure the Libyans who now live daily with violence, economic instability, and political turmoil, and whose country Obama referred to as a “mess,” were deeply touched by the president’s honesty.

Unfortunately, during the course of the interview, the president did not acknowledge his other foreign policy mistakes, maybe because if he had it would have been obvious to television viewers, and people across the globe, that Obama’s blunders in the international arena have made the world a far more dangerous place than when he took office seven years ago.

In Syria, the administration initially backed the Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad.  But then last summer, after concluding that the rebels could not be controlled by the West, and that certain rebel groups were made up of Jihadis, Obama reversed course.  He recognized that Assad could be a stabilizing force in Syria.  In consequence, the president agreed to Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian Civil War as a means of strengthening Assad and weakening the rebels.  If you doubt this hypothesis consider this: in September 2015, the Americans allowed Putin’s Syria-bound expeditionary forces to transit through Iraqi airspace – airspace controlled by the U.S.’s ally in Baghdad.  If Obama had wanted to prevent the Russian overflights through Iraq he could have applied sufficient pressure on the Iraqis to keep the Russians out; but the president did no such thing.  As a matter of fact, the White House did nothing economically, politically, or militarily to punish the Russians for their first intervention in the Middle East since World War II.

It’s now clear Obama wanted the Russians to weaken the rebels because he had determined that the Americans couldn’t do it.  If the United States had started bombing the rebels – after initially supporting them – the U.S. would have been perceived by friend and foe alike as an unreliable ally led by a vacillating president.  Plus, Obama would have been skewered by America’s right-wing media for yet another U-turn in the Middle East.  Putin did Obama a favor in Syria – he helped the president out of a really big jam.

The president’s flip-flopping in Syria meant little to the American people because so few of them have been affected by the violence there; but it meant a lot to the Europeans, who are still struggling with an ongoing refugee crisis resulting from the five-year war, and to the Syrian people, who continue to die in the seemingly endless conflict.  So chalk up Syria as one of Obama’s major foreign policy blunders.

The South China Sea is another area where the administration has fallen short.  For years the Obama White House let it be known that the U.S. would not take sides in the disputes between China and its neighbors over control of the South China Sea.  Beijing interpreted Washington’s hands-off approach as a green light to push southward and seize strategically-important reefs in the Spratly Islands.  Later, the administration did nothing to prevent the Chinese from building facilities atop Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.  Instead, the administration continued to urge all sides to resolve their territorial claims through international legal channels.  At the same time, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force conducted infrequent freedom of navigation exercises and overflights near disputed territory.  Beijing correctly read Obama’s weak response to China’s southward thrust as a reluctance to get involved in the South China Sea.  This belief only encouraged the Chinese to militarize the region.  As recently as April 7, 2016, the Chinese deployed J-11 fighter bombers to Woody Island, signaling that Beijing has no intention of pulling out of the South China Sea short of war.

China’s expansion into the Paracels and Spratlys threatens the U.S.’s entire Western Pacific security system – a long-established system that includes military cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia, as well as military bases in northern Australia, the Philippines, Guam, and Japan.  Aware that the Chinese cannot be allowed to consolidate its positions in the South China Sea without dire consequences for the U.S. relationship with the countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia, the Obama administration has finally decided to take concrete military steps to check the Chinese.  Just this last week the U.S. and the Philippines finalized an agreement to establish a string of U.S. airbases across the archipelago.  The bases will enable the U.S. to rapidly project airpower over the South China Sea.  Not surprisingly, the announcement of the basing agreement between Washington and Manila met with a strong denunciation from Beijing.

With the world’s two great powers sliding toward a war neither side wants, the question begging an answer is whether the current crisis could have been avoided?  The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes.”  Had President Obama made it clear to Beijing years ago through word and deed that the United States would not allow the Chinese to advance deep into the South China Sea under any circumstances, Beijing and Washington would not now be on the cusp of a potentially catastrophic military confrontation.



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