Burns Offers Nuanced Perspective On Slew of Crises Facing Obama

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Nicholas Burns, the respected former American diplomat who served three presidents while working on some of the nation’s most intractable foreign policy challenges, offered a prediction at the outset of the 2014 New Year.

Writing in the Jan. 2 edition of the Boston Globe, where Burns now pens twice-monthly columns on global affairs, he warned: “There will be no rest for the weary as President Obama confronts a daunting foreign policy agenda in 2014.”

Talk about an understatement. Asked about the prediction during an interview with The Washington Diplomat in mid-July, Burns — now an international relations professor at Harvard University and director of its Future of Diplomacy Project — laughed heartily.

A1.powi.burns.headshot.storyPhoto: Harvard University

“Unfortunately, I think it has come true,” he said before turning serious and citing daunting U.S. foreign policy predicaments as far flung as Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, China, Afghanistan, Israel and beyond (not to mention problems closer to home, such as the surge of Central American minors swamping the U.S. border).

Burns has a seemingly encyclopedic understanding of geopolitics and occupies a unique space in politically polarized Washington: He’s served Republican and Democratic presidents, having worked as the director for Soviet affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration and then in the Bill Clinton White House as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia affairs. A third president, George W. Bush, tapped Burns to serve as undersecretary of state for political affairs, a position he held from 2005 to 2008. In this capacity as the State Department’s third-ranking official, Burns led negotiations on the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, helped craft a long-term military assistance agreement with Israel and led U.S. talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Over the years, Burns also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Greece, as well as State Department spokesman in the mid-1990s.

A growing chorus of critics has called President Obama’s foreign policy “besieged and befuddled,” as The Post’s Fred Hiatt recently put it, but Burns offers a more even-handed, nuanced assessment of Obama’s response to a litany of security crises around the world — an assessment befitting the complexity of the problems the U.S. faces.

The former ambassador said that among these problems, sectarian violence in Iraq is foremost on his mind. Burns said he generally gives Obama high marks on foreign policy, but suggested the president’s legacy on Iraq will be mixed.

After Obama pulled the last U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, the Shiite-led government steadily alienated the Sunni minority. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploited these tensions to seize a large amount of territory in the north, threatening to fragment the war-torn country and unleash another round of bloodletting on Iraq’s beleaguered citizens. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq recorded 2,417 deaths and 2,287 injuries in the month of June alone. That is the highest single month casualty rate since 2007, the peak of Iraq’s sectarian civil war in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Many foreign policy experts, including Burns, place heavy blame at the feet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his exclusion of Sunnis from the power structure.

“Iraq is a looming disaster for the United States because there is a possibility it could splinter into two or three different pieces,” Burns said. “The Islamic caliphate has already established itself in western Iraq and in northern Syria — the ISIS caliphate. The Kurds are already thinking about a referendum for independence and there is the continued Sunni-Shia war underway. The stakes are very high and there is no question it is in the United States’s interest to see a unitary state remain in Iraq. Our major instrument is diplomatic right now, using our influence to convince Maliki and the Kurds and the Sunni leaders to reinforce the Iraqi state and recommit to a unitary state. That role has to be constant through Secretary [of State John] Kerry, through our ambassadors there and others in Washington.”

In recent weeks, some pundits have suggested that perhaps Vice President Joe Biden was right when, as a U.S. senator in 2006, he proposed a “soft partition” of Iraq that would give the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds their own autonomous regions, overseen by a central government in Baghdad. Burns said that option doesn’t appear to be on the table in the Obama White House, and for good reason.

“Here’s the problem,” Burns explained. “Once you begin to change borders in a fragile, divisive, violent region of the world like the Middle East, where does it stop? And if you begin to change Iraq’s borders, does that have an impact on Jordan? What does it do to Syria and Lebanon? You may unleash uncontrollable forces that lead to further violence by agreeing to change those borders. The whole international system … is based on the inviolability of everyone’s borders. Borders can be changed by mutual agreement among countries, but if you begin to change them by international forces, or like ISIS through the barrel of a gun, that is very dangerous. That can lead to greater instability and more warfare.”

Despite Republican criticism that Obama’s foreign policy has been feckless and reactionary, Burns said the president’s handling of the recent ISIS flare-up in Iraq has been measured and responsible.

“I think he was right to lead diplomatically over the last 30 days. We didn’t rush into using military force blindly or [giving arms] at the service of the Maliki government without extracting some commitments from the Maliki government,” Burns said. “He’s been right to put the 600 American military personnel back in the country. We had to do that to protect our embassy and to give military advice to the Maliki government. It may be we’ll have to use American airpower if ISIS continues to make military progress, but I think leading with diplomacy made sense given the situation as it was.”

Yet the former ambassador also said Obama bungled the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

“It would have been better, certainly in hindsight, had the U.S. left a small military training force in Iraq,” Burns said. “That would have given us more influence over the Iraqi military and over the Iraqi civilian authorities.”

Of course, Maliki, facing fierce public opposition to American boots on the ground, may not have acquiesced to a continued U.S. deployment regardless of Washington’s wishes. Nevertheless, Burns points out that Obama had his “Mission Accomplished” moment too soon (much like his predecessor).

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Photo: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

An armed separatist in eastern Ukraine stands guard at the MH17 crash site, which Nicholas Burns calls a "game changer" in the Ukraine crisis.

“I think we should have been more active diplomatically as the continued powerbroker, if you will, in Iraq. We occupied the country for eight years. We ran the country for the first year after the fall of Saddam Hussein and for us just to disappear and not be a primary diplomatic force in the country trying to hold these three groups together, for instance, and trying to get the government to meet its commitments — we took our foot off the pedal.”

Burns gives the president a better appraisal for his handling of longtime adversary Iran. He said Obama wisely eschewed hawkish voices in Washington urging airstrikes targeted at Iran’s nuclear facilities and instead pursued a diplomatic path started under President George W. Bush that aimed to rein in the nation’s nuclear ambitions.

“Both President Bush and Obama championed the idea that you want to have a group of countries establish a negotiation with Iran before we opted for with Iran, and I very strongly agreed with that,” Burns said. “I was the Iran negotiator in the Bush administration for Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice. That was our policy and I think president Obama has accepted that policy since he took office; he strengthened it and ran with it. I actually see a high degree of integration between the second Bush term and the Obama administration on how to handle Iran. I suspect there is more common ground in Washington on this issue than less.”

Yet there’s little common ground with Congress, where both sides of the aisle favor a tough approach to Iran and have been pressing for harsher sanctions and terms that Tehran would never accept in a final nuclear deal.

That legislative opposition, however, did not thwart the administration’s attempts to extend the nuclear talks, which have frozen Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear in exchange for modest sanctions relief, past their July 20 deadline. Even though talks will continue for another four months, there remains a huge gulf between Tehran and the West over an array of highly technical issues, notably the number of nuclear centrifuges Iran can have. Whatever the final agreement, Burns suggested it would likely be better than war.

“There were some people in the Bush administration who didn’t believe diplomacy would work with Iran or that negotiations would have any kind of positive ending,” Burns told us. “I think that view was shortsighted. In 2005 and 2006, we had occupied Iraq, we were heading into the worst days and years of the Iraq War, and we were beginning to have major problems in Afghanistan with the resurgence of the Taliban. We had a lot on our plate. The idea that we would blithely risk a military conflict with Iran didn’t make sense, especially when diplomacy was an alternative.”

He also pointed out that, “If negotiations break down, you can always go back to sanction and reserve the use of military power. It just seemed to be the right way to do that — exhaust your options before you go to war.”

While Burns doesn’t think a military conflict with Iran is wise, he believes force is warranted if the situation calls for it. On that note, turning his attention to Syria, Burns is less charitable to Obama.

“I thought, frankly, it was a mistake last August for President Obama to draw a line in the sand on the use of chemical weapons and dare [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad to cross it,” Burns said. “He did cross it and then we did not respond. That hurt the credibility of the United States worldwide.”

Russia maneuvered a face-saving plan to rid Assad of his chemical weapons supply, taking the threat of a U.S. military strike off the table. But Obama’s reluctance to use air power last year cemented the impression that the president was determined not to get sucked into Syria’s civil war, which has so far taken at least 170,000 lives and destabilized the region.

Burns thinks that was a miscalculation. “The judicious use of American airpower against Assad’s air force could have neutralized that force and hurt Assad politically and militarily. I very respectfully think there was an opportunity missed there,” he said.

At this point in the interview, Burns is careful to stress that he was a career foreign service officer and not a “political person” or a regular critic of Obama.

“But in this case, yes, I think we never determined a definite strategic way forward on Syria,” he said. “We’ve avoided making a basic decision about whether or not to use American influence and American power to try to make a difference there. I think it’s a missed opportunity for us. This is a hard issue and there are no easy choices, but the absence of American influence is felt and it has exacerbated the situation.

“We continue to be the primary power in the world,” Burns added. “When we act judiciously and skillfully and with others supporting us, we can continue to be very powerful.”

The question of whether Obama should have acted sooner in Syria — arming the more moderate rebels before Islamist extremists like ISIS hijacked the opposition and Assad gained the upper hand — will forever haunt the administration. At the same time, the president’s supporters point out that American intervention may have only made the situation worse (Iraq stands as the crowning achievement of this axiom) and unleashed more weapons in a region already brimming with them.

One thing is certain: There are no certainties in the Middle East anymore. In recent years, revolutions have sprung up across the Arab world, from Egypt to Yemen. While the president has been criticized for his hands-off approach to the Arab Spring, it’s doubtful any outsider could have done much to contain the political and economic grievances that had been brewing in these countries for years.

Burns said the region “is in as bad a shape now as it has been in many decades.”

“Every major country from Egypt to Syria to Iraq and Jordan — they are all in crisis,” he lamented. “Look at the crises the president has to deal with in the Middle East. You have a civil war in Iraq and a civil war in Syria, where the humanitarian crisis is so profound. You have a very combustible and divided situation in Egypt between the military authoritarian government, the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties.”

Like many people, Burns was optimistic when the Arab Spring bloomed across the region in early 2011.

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Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza
A poster of the World Trade Center hangs on a wall at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan during President Obama's visit in May. From Afghanistan's disputed election to the fighting in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Israel, Obama has been hit with a barrage of foreign policy crises in recent months.

“It was a hopeful time,” Burns recalled. “There were millions of young people in all these Arab capitals not protesting against the United States but for democratic freedoms and jobs. Three and a half years later it’s hard to argue that more than two of those countries are better off — maybe Morocco, maybe Tunisia, maybe. But almost all of the other countries are worse off. The revolutions have turned very sour, very divisive and very bloody. There have been counter-revolutions in some countries and these huge civil wars in major states like Syria and Iraq. It is in fact a region turned upside down.”

Burns said Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts to get the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, in the midst of the Arab Spring upheaval, made sense, even though many saw it as an unnecessary distraction. Despite the failure of those talks, Burns points out that the recent violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a sign that the conflict will fester until real peace is achieved.

“A lot of people have criticized Secretary Kerry for having spent so much time on the Israel-Palestine issue. I don’t,” he said. “This is a 64-year problem right now and until it’s resolved, that part of the Middle East will continue to be unstable…. There may be a hiatus in the talks right now, but we’re going to have to go back to mediating political talks between the two for an independent Palestinian state and for the Palestinians to accept the state of Israel.”

Historical grievances have reared their head in another global hotspot: Ukraine, where jockeying for power has reignited Cold War-era tensions between Russia and the West. Burns called the Malaysian Airlines disaster over eastern Ukraine on July 17 “a horrific event” and “a game changer” in terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Boeing 777 was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile in an area controlled by pro-Russia separatists, killing all 298 people aboard. Blame quickly fell on the rebels, who have been targeting Ukrainian military aircraft, and on Moscow for supplying the rebels with a steady flow of weaponry.

“The European governments are finally going to have to act,” Burns said, suggesting that additional sanctions were imminent. “There seems to be little doubt that the Russian government has been aiding the separatists and delivering sophisticated military technology to them and has trained them. Therefore it bears responsibility for what they did. I certainly think this is a major, major change in the status quo there. The rest of the world now sees the cynicism of the [Vladimir] Putin regime.

“Moscow has been avoiding major sanctions until now, but that will soon change,” Burns predicted.

Meanwhile, he said the Russian response to the tragedy was disappointing but predictable (Putin blamed the central government in Kiev for starting the fighting that led to the plane crash).

“I think President Putin has been true to form: He’s been misleading, he’s been obstreperous, he has pointed the blame at the wrong party — the Ukrainian government,” Burns told us. “He’s done everything wrong and shown his true colors. He is an authoritarian leader who does not tell the truth to his people and he’s demonstrating that again in this crisis.”

Burns said Obama and Kerry rightly “pointed to Russia as the culpable party” in statements following Flight MH17’s explosion over Ukraine, and he urged world leaders to call Russia out even more.

“The most important thing right now is to illuminate to the rest of the world the lies of the Russian government as it is very likely the separatists are responsible for shooting down the airliner,” Burns said.

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Official White House photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors in the Oval Office, May 27, 2014. This summer has been a test of his ability to navigate myriad diplomatic crises.

“We need to rally the Europeans and convince them to move forward with sectoral sanctions and to continue to isolate the Russian government,” he added. “President Putin has the ability to end the war in eastern Ukraine. That he chooses not to do so is an indictment of his policies and regime.”

Even before the airline tragedy, Burns praised the Obama administration for acting judiciously in a difficult situation by steadily ramping up sanctions against Russia — as opposed to Europe, which Burns said was “too restrained” in slapping economic penalties against Moscow largely because of its heavy dependence on Russian natural gas and trade.

“It’s not a good position to be in when a potential authoritarian country like Russia has such a lock on the European economy,” he pointed out.

With the crisis in Ukraine escalating, however, Burns said that in addition to tougher sanctions, Russia’s increasing belligerence should also prompt NATO and the U.S. to reinvigorate their missile defense plans.

“It just seems to me that if relations are in effect breaking down with Russia, we ought to go back to a big missile defense regime in Europe,” Burns argued. “Missile defense in Europe among NATO countries is primarily a defense against Iran and the ability of Iran to launch long-range missiles at European countries…. If you live in a world where many states have long-range missile capacity and some of the states are authoritarian or reckless like North Korea or adversarial like Iran, you want to have a defense and it makes sense to develop it.”

Yet Obama scaled back the European missile defense program, which was first proposed by Bush, precisely to better counter what he called a more imminent threat from Iran’s short-range missiles (though Russian objections most likely factored in the decision as well).

Moreover, Putin blames the expansion of NATO along Russia’s borders for prompting it to act in Ukraine to prevent further NATO encroachment in its backyard. Obama must now tread carefully to strengthen the security bloc, reassure nervous European allies and respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine without instigating a larger fight with Moscow that no one wants.

But Obama has gotten flak for being too careful, with Republicans denouncing his foreign policy agenda as rudderless and reactionary. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent Obama critic, argues that this perceived weakness has fueled conflicts around the world because countries know they can get away with defying the U.S.

Yet governments defying Washington to act in their own interests isn’t exactly new. And it’s unclear what American military might or diplomatic cajoling could have realistically done to avert crises in Iraq, which couldn’t get its act together despite billions of dollars from the U.S.; or Syria, where the “good guys” battling the president are Islamist fanatics intent on attacking the West; or Ukraine, a geostrategic red line for Russia but not for the West.

Given the toll of two wars and the complexity of these crises, the prevailing mood among Americans has been to stay out of other countries’ messes — and that includes Ukraine and the Middle East.

But Burns, who has tackled some of the thorniest challenges in the world, says problems abroad inevitably hit home.

“We’re seeing a more isolationist mood,” he said. “We’re certainly seeing in the tea party a ‘come home America’ spirit and we’re certainly seeing that in the extreme left of the Democratic Party. I think that is a recipe for failure in foreign policy. We live in a highly integrated global economy. People as far away as terrorists outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, assaulted Washington and New York on Sept. 11, 2001. You can’t let problems fester until they get that severe or acute. The U.S. is the strongest global leader. We have to work globally every day to defend our country and to advance our interests in every continent.”

Problems, though, have become acute in places like the Middle East and Russia, but interestingly, Burns told us that America should pay very close attention to China — and even suggested that parents enroll their children in Mandarin language lessons.

“I tell my students that the most important country for our future of America is China in every way,” he said. “We are going to be China’s most important partner and China will be ours on global trade and investment, on climate change, humanitarian interventions and a whole host of issues about how the world works, from crime to terrorism. We’re going to have to be intensely engaged with China as a partner to try to work on these problems together. That’s one half of the equation.

“But, we’re also going to be the largest competitor of China as a military power in Asia,” he added. “We have an important alliance system in Asia that we’ve been running since the end of the Second World War. We’re the predominant military power and China is beginning to challenge that. The most difficult challenge for us is how we balance that equation. How can we be a country’s most important partner and their strongest competitor at the same time?”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 1, 2014