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Assessing Obama's Foreign Policy After A Week Of Crises


It's been another week when crises overseas have grabbed the time and attention of President Obama. There is so much going on, in fact, from Ukraine to the Middle East, that the president called congressional leaders to the White House yesterday for consultations. To assess how the president's foreign-policy moves are playing out at home and abroad, I am joined by two journalists who keep close watch on international affairs. They are Anne Applebaum, a historian and Washington Post columnist. She lives in Warsaw. And Susan Glasser who is editor of Politico Magazine here in Washington. Welcome to both of you.


SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you for having us.

WERTHEIMER: The president's critics fault him for disengagement on the world stage. There was the comment a while ago from an aide about his desire to lead from behind on Libya. Susan Glasser, given the reflexive hostility on Capitol Hill - the extraordinary lawsuit House Republicans approved this week accusing the president of exceeding his powers - could President Obama have been more assertive on the world stage?

GLASSER: I think in many ways, the president retained enormous latitude to operate internationally and on the global stage. Congress, certainly, is inclined to criticize at the moment. But in reality, the mood, really, across both parties in the United States is one of wishing to focus on issues here at home. So it's not so much that Obama's been constrained from any particular course of action. It's his own deeply held view that now is a time for the United States to, as he put it in the last campaign, nation build here at home. I believe that that is Obama's own inclination and policy views, which are shaping a much more removed presence from the world.

WERTHEIMER: Anne Applebaum, what about the view from Europe? Let me ask you about the Ukrainian crisis. The United States and Europe finally came together this week and imposed tough sanctions on Russia. Is this what strong leadership from the president would look like, do you think?

APPLEBAUM: I think the real tragedy in Ukraine has been that the West in general - and this includes both Europe and the United States- have been reactive the whole time. The big moves in Ukraine and the big moves in Eastern Europe have been made by the Russians and by others seeking to obtain and spread influence. And our role has been to catch up, often months or years too late. The reality is that the moves that we saw this week - the much harsher sanctions - are the direct result of the Malaysian plane crash. That crash focused the European public and the European press on this crisis in a way that hadn't happened before. There also began to be, for the first time, European press commentary about the relationship of Russian money to European politics. And people began to react against that. And that was really what moved Europe rather than any particular leadership from the United States.

WERTHEIMER: Susan Glasser, there have been calls in Congress for the U.S. to do more to help Ukraine, and the Administration has hesitated. What do you think is the president's calculus here?

GLASSER: Well, I think the president's calculus, quite simply, is that while there are individual calls to do more, that in reality there is no groundswell of popular or political support for the United States to become embroiled. And I think that his analysis of the situation has actually remained pretty unchanged, which is to say we have a very we can't in terms of what we can do to change the military situation on the ground. And of course, the plane having been shot down also underscores the risks of supplying weapons to militias who might not always have them under control, which is exactly the debate we've been having about Syria.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's look at Syria. Critics faulted the president for drawing a red line against the use of chemical weapons, and then not doing anything when Bashar al-Assad used them. Do you think, Susan, that President Obama had a choice, but Congress was very reluctant to endorse a military strike?

GLASSER: Well, I think that's an important point. And, you know, clearly the votes did not seem to be there in Congress. His critics would argue that he did not lead, he did not properly set the context. There are many people who believe - even the Democratic Party, by the way - that President Obama didn't need to seek authorization of Congress to say launch airstrikes as previous presidents have, and that, in fact, he was using Congress on some level as a validator for his own ambivalence in intervening more in Syria. Regardless of that, we are where we are, which is to say that across the Middle East what you will hear from people about President Obama was that the red line was perhaps the single most damaging moment for the reputation of the United States in the region. And that there was a sense from there forward among many people in the Middle East that President Obama was signaling pretty strongly there's almost anything you can do here, and I'm not going to get involved. And that, therefore, that has undercut American power in the region.

WERTHEIMER: Libya has been in the headlines because battles are raging again between the Libyan army and militias. It's described as the worst violence since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The president never seemed to want to get involved in Libya. What do you think, Anne Applebaum?

APPLEBAUM: Yeah, I would say the irony of Libya is that in some ways, Libya was almost a perfect test case of the lead from behind idea. You know, can you intervene a little bit? Can you nudge events in one direction without making a bigger commitment and without playing a bigger role? Well, it turned out, at least in Libya, that there is no alternative to U.S. power. There was no alternative, and there was really no ideas at all, and you had a vacuum.

WERTHEIMER: You know, the place in the Middle East that Americans pay the most attention to, of course, is Israel. Secretary Kerry has invested enormous amounts of his goodwill and his time and his knowledge in trying to settle things. How do you see that?

APPLEBAUM: The oddity of Kerry's involvement - and yes, of course, I respect the amount of time and effort he seems to put into it - is that it's almost like he's trying to deal with Israel and Palestine as if this were the 1970s or the 1980s. You know, the Israel and Palestine is now the conflict around the Middle East around it - the shape of it has changed a great deal. The lines are adding up differently now. Hamas does not have support in much of the Arab world. You can't really work on Gaza and Palestine and Israel anymore as if they were a little tiny problem that, you know, it's up to the United States to solve. It feels like Kerry lacks a larger strategy and a broader way of thinking about the region.

WERTHEIMER: And then if you broaden it out just a little bit more and look at Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States is in the process of pulling out, and it begins to look like that pullout may have disastrous results in U.S. terms, at any rate.

APPLEBAUM: It's an interesting problem from the president's point of view. The pullout from Iraq was clearly popular. And it was one of the things he promised to do when he came to office. And it also, now, is fairly clear that it was a mistake to pull troops out so quickly. This is going to be a dilemma for presidents for some time to come. You know, the United States has become the last - partly thanks to the weakness of Europe and the disorganization of Europe - the United States has become the arbiter of and the sort of the last guarantor of peace in a number regions of the world, but there seems not to be the domestic support for that. And as a result, the American president - and not just this president but the next one, whoever it is - is going to be in a constant dilemma. Do you maintain America's role in world, which may mean enormous effects on millions of people's lives? Or do you follow the instinct and urge of U.S. domestic politics, which seems to be to withdraw?

WERTHEIMER: Susan Glasser, what is Barack Obama's legacy then? He came in after George W. Bush. And the wars that Mr. Bush launched were unpopular. He pulled back, and now he's very unpopular. What do you think is the legacy of all these decisions?

GLASSER: Well, I think you're right to define it as Barack Obama, having from the very beginning of his tenure in office, wanting to be designated as the un-Bush in foreign policy. That was his goal - to be the president who ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think he's determined to see that through to the best of his ability. I think Obama is looking not necessarily to have some sweeping doctrine when it comes to the world associated with his name. He is determined to guard that sentence in his legacy that says he ended the wars, and that he didn't start new ones.

WERTHEIMER: Susan Glasser is the editor of Politico Magazine and a former Washington Post Moscow correspondent. She's written a book about Vladimir Putin. Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist. And her most recent book is called "Iron Curtain: The Crushing Of Eastern Europe." Thanks to both of you.

APPLEBAUM: Thanks very much.

GLASSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.