Ukraine crisis key test of Obama's presidency

AS THE White House weighs the diplomatic and political options it can use to punish Russia, there is a growing sense that the administration's recent reluctance to flex its military muscle would cause it diplomatic headaches elsewhere, especially in Asia.

At the heart of the problem are doubts over President Barack Obama's credibility when dealing with either powerful or recalcitrant world leaders.

His handling of the Russian incursion of Ukraine is now being billed both as the biggest test of his presidency and as a game- changer for American national security policy.

Memories of how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime walked all over Mr Obama's "red line" on its chemical weapons were still fresh when Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly disregarded US warnings of the "costs" of invading Crimea and sent troops just hours after putting down the phone with the US leader.

In Asia, where tensions are high due to an increasingly assertive Beijing, the question being bandied about is: If the US cannot stop Syria or Russia, how much leverage does it have with China?

In a conference call with journalists yesterday (Singapore time), senior administration officials, pushed on the issue of credibility, argued that the Russian show of strength in the face of US diplomacy does not demonstrate weakness on the part of the US.

"The premise of your question is that he (Putin) is strong and the President of the United States is weak when, in fact, he is not acting from a position of strength right now," said an official.

"He is acting from a position of having lost the government that they backed in Kiev and made a play to move into Crimea, a piece of Ukraine, and being met with international condemnation...

"You're seeing the ability of the US to bring with us not just ourselves, but the rest of the G-7 countries, the rest of Nato and, frankly, the broad majority of the world."

Similar words were used by Secretary of State John Kerry as he made the rounds of Sunday morning news shows to talk about the government's Ukraine policy.

Given the White House's recent track record dealing with crises in Egypt, Libya and Syria - the administration demurred from using its military - analysts are sceptical if the government currently shares broader concerns about the ongoing power play.

Making it worse is the fact that the Ukraine crisis came just days after Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel talked about downsizing the US aircraft carrier fleet and proposed a budget that would shrink the size of the US army to pre-World War II levels.

 

 

Mr Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for South-east Asia at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington, told The Straits Times that the main impact will be felt in US relations with other rogue actors: "It might make it easier for governments that are undemocratic and faced with significant protest movements to basically defy those movements."

Even Russian state radio seems to be trying to rub Mr Obama's nose in it. Voice of Russia quoted United Kingdom-based foreign policy academic James Boys as saying: "One of the great problems here is that you have an American president who has staked his reputation - his office effectively - on withdrawing from foreign escapades.

"The last thing he wants to do, of course, in his second term is to be drawn into any sort of debacle in this part of the world."

On Monday, Mr Kerry and senior administration officials were deliberately vague about how and when the US would consider military action.

While they did not explicitly remove the option, they were keen to stress other actions.

"I don't think we're focused right now on the notion of some US military intervention... we have a broad tool kit and we have many options to consider," said a senior administration official.

With or without the military, the Ukraine issue will inevitably overshadow all other US foreign policy goals.

And it isn't just that it has to take its eyes off Asia; the US-Russia relationship is key to efforts to destroy chemical weapons in Syria and to ensure Iran sticks to agreed nuclear limits.

Mr Damon Wilson, a former diplomat and executive vice- president of the Atlantic Council think-tank, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that the US must be willing to focus on Ukraine even if it means abandoning its Asia rebalance.

"We should be no longer deluded by the fact that Europe is a safe spot of stability and security, and not a security risk for the US."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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