Barack Obama: Small Solutions and Big Problems

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President Barack Obama has been criticised a lot for his foreign policy. Doves are unhappy with his unrelenting use of drone strikes while hawks have been furious and embarrassed by his weak and amorphous strategy in the Middle East. And this is before we even mention Russia; indeed in 2013 it was President Vladimir Putin, not Obama, who topped the Forbes list of most powerful men. The following year, Obama watched helplessly as Putin’s hand wreaked havoc in Ukraine.

So it is no surprise that Obama would seize any glimmer of international esteem. Fortunately for him, a few have come by. With the release of American prisoner Alan Gross, Obama immediately announced a “new chapter” for the American/Cuban relationship. The move will see an American embassy in Havana for the first time in decades and will effectively allow trans-national corporations to bypass the trade embargo (although it will remain formally in place). In addition, hackers (almost certainly North Korean) have attacked Sony in a pre-emptive cyber strike against a satirical film mocking leader Kim Jong Un. This gave Obama an opportunity to assert some statesmanship and warn of US retaliation against the dictator’s capricious vanity; it gave him a chance to publicly flex his muscles.

But these achievements mean nothing. It is easy for Obama to appear strong against an opponent as weak and isolated as North Korea; if their internal affairs were not so distressing, their hyperbolic threats would be laughable. And while Obama’s “new chapter” in Cuba is an overdue alteration in a failed cold-war policy, it is hardly a mighty victory. The real problems on the international stage remain woefully unsolved.

There is some hope, though. The rouble is falling like a stone down a well, and no amount of Russian propaganda will be able to alter the fact that living costs will start rising in Moscow. What is more sinister for Putin, however, is his now turbulent relationship with Russia’s oligarchs. This saw Vladimir Yevtuschenkov arrested, ostensibly for money laundering, but many think as a warning against any attempts at a coup.

Obama will remain silent about such events, and when he does speak out it will be modest. This is not just to preserve Russian pride – the US needs Russia. Russia is integral to reaching a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis and if it so wanted it could pressure Iran to bow to US interests regarding its nuclear program.

Herein lies Obama’s Putin problem: he has no choice but to reassure his European allies over their concerns about Russia, but the closer he comes to a solution in Ukraine, the further he comes to a solution in the Middle East. As a consequence he will be vocal about his mild success in Cuba and firm in his resolve against pitiful North Korea, but the real problems will be left ignored. If you don’t believe me, next time you hear Obama speak about Cuba, ask yourself, “when was the last time he mentioned Guantanamo Bay?”

By Gregory Pichorowycz