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Obama’s greatest foreign policy test

Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr./US Air Force via Getty Images

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 US air strikes last weekend when the Islamic State offensive threatened the key city of Erbil in Kurdistan. The US 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 yesterday Obama may commit troops to rescue the Yazidis. But Obama should not, and will not, commit US ground combat forces on a lasting basis again in Iraq. Congress and the public will not support it. He did sent 130 additional advisers to Kurdistan earlier this week, however, and may have to send more to coordinate air strikes inside Iraq and to equip and train the Kurdish peshmerga forces struggling to respond to the astonishing advance of Islamic State forces.

Washington now needs to assemble a combined Iraq-Syria strategy to have any chance of containing the Islamic State. That may ultimately include US air attacks against Islamic State positions in northern Syria. How else to turn back the most virulent terrorist organization since Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda?


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 US 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 — nuclear stability between the United States and Russia, keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, as well as cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan. This will test the administration’s diplomatic skill, but there is no practical alternative.


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.

Obama needs to move quickly on both. To start, Congress should agree not to cut the Pentagon or State Department budgets. In the Middle East, the United States must assemble a regional coalition to contain the Islamic State. At the upcoming NATO summit in Wales, Obama should lead Canada and the European allies in reaffirming the alliance commitment to defend NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland from Russian intimidation.

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.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.