Ambassador Stephenson: Time to Abandon Leading from Behind

Thomas Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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Much has already been written about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the challenges we face in trying to rein in Putin’s aggressive nationalism in the Ukraine. Most of the plausible steps we can take at this point have been well aired by others far more knowledgeable than I about eastern Europe and the former USSR. My purpose in writing at this point is to encourage us to focus on the dire consequences for the free world when there is an absence of strong U.S. leadership in dealing with aggression by countries with tyrannical leaders. It has not been a pretty picture over the last five years and is worth summarizing briefly.

In 2009 we had an opportunity to provide at least some strong moral support and encouragement to the “green revolution” in Iran in the aftermath of what was clearly a fraudulent election. We chose to do nothing. In Libya we made statements of outrage at the human suffering that was going on as Khadafy’s control of the country began to unravel, but we declined to intervene in any meaningful way until the French and NATO finally demonstrated some initiative and leadership. Twice in Egypt since the commencement of the “Arab Awakening” leaders have been toppled with enormous consternation while we procrastinated on the sidelines and were essentially irrelevant to the outcome. None of the major players in the Middle East today, least of all the Egyptians, considers us to be of consequence as to how events will turn out in this most populous of the Arab states. In Syria we emitted lots of outrage and bluster about the unacceptability of chemical weapons and the enormous amount of civilian suffering, but when push came to shove, we failed to enforce the red line we had set forth, using Putin’s offer to intervene with Assad regarding his chemical weapons as the excuse. Whether Assad’s chemical weapons will ever be fully removed is highly suspect, but in the process, we’ve likely eliminated any chance of the opposition forces driving Assad from power. With regard to nuclear weapons negotiations with Iran, we’ve already lost, in many respects, as the debate is now about how much enriched uranium Iran will be permitted to produce rather than whether or not Iran will be allowed to produce any at all. Our exit from Iraq with no residual force to help preserve what we had accomplished there and a similar situation unfolding now in Afghanistan are just two more indications of weak or no leadership by us in critical areas of regional turmoil.

I am certainly not suggesting that any of the situations described above are easy or have obvious solutions. We are a war weary nation with severe military budget challenges, but it is a very precarious world out there today, and to me the current consternation in the Ukraine is just the most recent example of the consequences of either no U.S. leadership or too little too late. It is very difficult to conduct effective diplomacy when you don’t have a credible military threat, and today our principal adversaries don’t believe we will do anything to enforce red lines or our expressions of moral outrage. We also lack a strong strategic context in which to evaluate our options and settle on a course of action. Our foreign policy today is little more than a series of random tactics that lack any coherent theme or structure. We desperately need to develop this strategic context, and then say what we mean and mean what we say.

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