President Obama faces in the Middle East and Russia the most dangerous international challenges of his presidency. That reality was driven home to me when I interviewed former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at an Aspen Strategy Group forum in Colorado last week. The three agreed Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s independence is the most serious crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. And they pointed to the grave dangers caused by the rapid advance of Islamic State fighters in the Middle East.
Iraq is locked in a vicious struggle for its survival fueled by Shiite-Sunni violence, the failure of the Maliki government, and the creation of the Islamic State radical terrorist caliphate in western Iraq. If Iraq implodes, violence could engulf Jordan and Lebanon and worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria, where more than 40 percent of the population is homeless.
Obama had no choice but to order U.S. air strikes last weekend when the Islamic State offensive threatened the key city of Erbil in Kurdistan. The U.S. action is intended, in part, to help save tens of thousands of besieged Yazidis and other minorities from the rampaging fighters.
The White House said this week Obama may commit troops to rescue the Yazidis. But Obama should not, and will not, commit U.S. ground combat forces on a lasting basis again in Iraq. Congress and the public will not support it.
To contain the Islamic State, the U.S. may need to launch air attacks against Islamic State positions in northern Syria.
These are risky and unpalatable measures. The alternative, however, could be the bloody unraveling of the modern Middle East’s borders and a possible threat to our own country from returning Islamic State fighters traveling with U.S. or European passports.
As the Middle East burns, Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s freedom is at its most critical juncture since Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, has warned the alliance that Putin could decide to send thousands of troops across the Ukrainian border to liberate besieged ethnic Russian militias in Donetsk. If Putin takes that step, the United States and Europe will likely respond by imposing Draconian sanctions on Russia. That will deepen the Cold War-like freeze between Moscow and the West for many years.
Obama faces a delicate and difficult balancing act with the Kremlin. On the one hand, he must deter further Russian adventurism in Ukraine through sanctions and international isolation of the Russian government. On the other, he needs to find a way to remain engaged with Putin on issues vital to us.
There is growing globally a political narrative, fair or unfair, that the United States no longer leads with as much confidence as it once did in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Iran’s leaders, as well as a newly assertive China, will be watching to see whether Obama can restore American power and credibility in the Middle East and Russia crises.
This is a defining moment in the Obama presidency. He needs to meet the Russia and Middle East tests with renewed effectiveness. They will be the great tests of the remaining two and a half years of his administration.