Obama’s Foreign Policy Scrambles

As President Obama faces simultaneous foreign policy crises in multiple hotspots, his reaction often appears ad hoc, rushing to one flare-up after another. But he is not the first president to face multi-front brush fires, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

At or near the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that U.S. and European statesmen have had to handle the past couple of months are the escalation of tensions with Russia over events in eastern Ukraine and the war in the Gaza Strip.

These two problems clamoring for attention at the same time bring to mind one of the most memorable pairs of simultaneous crises, which occurred in October and November of 1956: the Hungarian revolt and crushing of it by Soviet military force, and the Suez crisis brought on by an Israeli-French-British scheme to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisors in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 7, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The crises of 1956 had some obvious parallels with those of 2014, besides the simultaneity factor. In each case one of the problems involved questions of the extent to which Soviet or Russian power would hold sway over an East European state and the extent to which Moscow would act forcefully to prevent rollback of its sphere of influence.

In each case the other problem involved an Israeli military assault against neighboring Arabs. (The tripartite plan that precipitated the Suez crisis involved Israel beginning the war with an invasion and then France and Britain intervening under the guise of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces and protecting the canal.)

There were important differences, too. The sort of neutrality that would make for a stable solution in Ukraine today is nothing like the domination the Soviets were enforcing over Hungary and other Warsaw Pact states in the 1950s. In the Middle East, Arab postures toward Israel have changed significantly from where they were in 1956, while Israeli military power relative to that of the Arabs has grown significantly, as has the amount of land Israel has seized and occupied through military force.

Facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one. This was generally seen to be the case in the autumn of 1956. One problem concerns consistency of standards of international behavior and the difficulty of mustering international support for enforcement of a standard if one appears to be flouting it elsewhere.

This was a source of anguish for many in Britain who wanted to stand up to the Soviets for what they were doing in Hungary but recognized the difficulty of doing so while Britain was participating in what was being done to Egypt. A prominent member of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, said, “We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia.”

In the same vein, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon later observed, “We couldn’t on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.”

It was partly for that reason that President Dwight Eisenhower did not approve of what Britain, France, and Israel were doing but instead called for an immediate withdrawal of Israel’s forces from Egyptian territory and for United Nations-approved economic sanctions against it if it did not comply. Eisenhower encountered congressional opposition to pressuring Israel, and in the U.N. Security Council Britain and France vetoed resolutions calling for withdrawal.

A few echoes of this can be discerned in this year’s crises. The European economic interests that matter most today involve not the Suez Canal but rather trade and energy relationships with Russia. Possibly those interests made sanctions against Russia weaker and slower in coming than they otherwise would have been. In the same respect and bearing in mind the role of consistency, there was less of a constituency for sanctioning Israel than there might otherwise have been.

Although this year Britain has not had a direct military role in connivance with Israel as it did with the Suez affair, there are similarly disturbed consciences within Britain about what Israel was doing and whether the British government had done enough to stop it. A Conservative member of the cabinet (and the only Muslim member), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the issue. Now the Liberal Democrats are calling for suspension of all British arms sales to Israel.

Simultaneous crises also may be difficult to deal with because of the limits of time, attention, and priorities. Statesmen, including those of 1956, usually would say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. But bandwidth in policy-making has been a problem since before the term bandwidth existed.

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that insufficient attention by senior Carter administration policy-makers to the Iranian revolution during its early stages was partly due to their circuits being overloaded at the time by other matters, including the Camp David negotiations and some U.S.-Soviet arms control issues.

The problem is not just a simple one of a limited number of hours in a policymaker’s working day. It also is a matter of expenditure of energy and of political chits, with everything this implies for the necessary bargaining and horse-trading involved in winning support for a position or major initiative.

The most effective U.S. response to the tragedy in Gaza would have necessitated tackling head-on the underlying issues of occupation of the Palestinian territories. That would have required very large expenditure of energy and political chits, and John Kerry is still recovering from exhaustion from his last unsuccessful stab at the subject.

This in turn is related to another significant difference between 1956 and now: the growth in power of the Israel lobby, which accounts for why the Gaza crisis has been discussed so differently in the United States than it has been in Britain. The resistance Eisenhower encountered in Congress was mild compared to what any president today would face, which is why it seems inconceivable that any president today would try to do what he did.

Statesmen do not get to choose when crises will happen, except for the ones they manufacture themselves. Usually they would prefer not to have more than one crisis going on at once, but sometimes that will happen. The fact that their attention may sometimes get divided in this way should be an additional reason for caution in undertaking big new initiatives or commitments.

An initiative that might work satisfactorily if it gets undivided attention is more likely to encounter problems if it does not. There also is the drain on chits and bargaining power that any one commitment entails, making it that much harder to deal with some other challenge at the same time, not to mention the problem of winning support when it looks like one is applying standards inconsistently. Just as a rainy day fund for unknown future expenses is a good idea, so is the conservation of some political capital for handling crises that have not yet arisen.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission

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3 comments on “Obama’s Foreign Policy Scrambles

  1. RogerT on said:

    History will judge the period of American hegemony as an unmitigated disaster for the World. The USA’s central policy has been and remains a simplistic one of ‘might is right’ which has brought death and destruction to so many countries. Its major crime is that of unconscionable support for the Zionazis whose atrocities have inflamed the Muslim world and been the sole cause for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism. The spectacle of the supposedly most powerful man on Earth, the American President, subordinating himself to the child butcher, war criminal Netanyahu, seeking clearance before spouting Zionist propaganda is shameful and demeaning for all Americans. The sooner the American people oust the Israel-firsters, reclaim their government and restore the principles of freedom and democracy for all enshrined in the Constitution, the better the World will become.

  2. • LINK: Products banned for one year: what will disappear from Russian shelves?

    16-appetizing delicacy photos. Economics and Business: the Government of the Russian Federation introduced a complete ban on the supply of beef, pork, poultry, fish, cheese, milk, fruits and vegetables from countries like – Australia, Canada, USA, Norway and some of the EU for a period as long as that one year. In this photo gallery we presented food that Russians will lose the next year. As a joke, we can say that, for example, the Lithuanian milk “dumped” – naturally toppled the Russian market …

  3. Oh, poor, poor americans politics! They cannot cope with crises generated by them. What’s a pity…