Remember those halcyon days of yore, also known as last year, when President Barack Obama's frequently challenged job approval rating was always buttressed by his ratings on foreign policy and geopolitics? Those days of yore are certainly no more, with the global portion of the president's portfolio now dragging down his overall rating, as you see in these recent polls.
Now new crises centering around Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, and Germany threaten to depress Obama's already depressing ratings for international prowess. In each of these scenarios, the situation is bad, with U.S. options limited. Absent some war college wizardry, which does not immediately spring to mind, America is likely to look worse, with the buck of blame ending up on Obama's Oval Office desk.
What looks to me like Gulf War III continues to unfold with the former al Qaeda outfit ISIS making more gains in what we have called Iraq, as well as Syria. These include not only scarce water resources but also what had been Iraq's major chemical weapons plant along with some low-grade nuclear materials that could be dangerous in a radiological weapon. While Baghdad is probably safe, with the resolve of the Shia-dominated Maliki regime's forces stiffened by Iran.
After tit for tat atrocities in the form of horrific lethal attacks on civilians, which evidently began with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Israel and Hamas (which denied being behind the initial action but praised it) are again slugging it out, with Israeli forces launching air raids in the Gaza Strip and prepping a potential invasion after calling up the reserves, and Hamas sending much of Israel's population to bomb shelters with rocket attacks. (Though naturally Palestinians are the ones getting killed, as Israel has elementary missile defenses and the Hamas rockets are not all that fearsome.) The problem here is that hardliners on both sides are insistent on victory rather than compromise.
Meanwhile, in the next door portion of Central Asia where we've been engaged since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, our other big attempt at nation-building fell to collapsing in widespread accusations of voter fraud and ballot box stuffing. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the ex-foreign minister who was a close advisor to the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Mahsoud in the fight against the Soviet invasion, ran far ahead in the first round of voting against a candidate backed by outgoing President Hamid Karzai. The vote was 45 percent for Abdullah and 34 percent for Ashraf Ghani. But then he supposedly lost the run-off in a stunning turnaround --- with Ghani credited with an astounding 56 percent to Abdullah's 44 -- and as a result threatened a "parallel government."
The reality is that the Northern Alliance of which Abdullah has been a key member was the most consistent and effective ally of the U.S. in the 2001 disruption of Al Qaeda and takedown of the the Taliban regime after 9/11. But the Bush/Cheney administration installed Karzai as president, reasoning that his ethnicity made him a better choice to make a go of governing all of Afghanistan. Which, having been there, strikes me as one of the ultimate fool's errands.
After two days of intensive talks in Kabul, Secretary of State John Kerry got both sides to agree to a full audit and recount of all ballots in the election, with the rival candidates both agreeing that their factions will take part in a more unified national government after the election, no matter who wins. It's a good little short-term result, but doesn't change the underlying fractiousness that gave rise to seemingly massive electoral cheating in the first place.
Elsewhere, our relations with one of our most important allies in the world, Germany, are in disarray with the German government deciding to expel the CIA station chief in Berlin after not one but two alleged U.S. agents were revealed in the federal republic's intelligence and defense ministries early this month.
I couldn't remember the last time that a U.S. ally expelled the CIA station chief. An Obama administration source tells me that the last time it happened with a U.S. ally was 1985 in France. In fact, it happened very seldom even in adversary nations during the Cold War. The Germans have been frustrated for the past year both by revelations of massive U.S. spying on them, not the least of it infamously including Chancellor Angela Merkel's private mobile phone, and by the insufficiency of the U.S. response to their concerns. The problem in Germany, which seemed in some ways to be a special target of what turned out to be a very expansive program, was further exacerbated by some recent bad history with surveillance states and sophisticated secret organizations -- the notorious Stasi in East Germany and the even more infamous Gestapo in Nazi Germany -- providing the muscle for those states.
What each of these crises has in common is that each is the consequence of American overreach.
Was there any post-9/11 necessity to invade and occupy Iraq? Of course not. Saddam Hussein's regime had nothing to do with 9/11 and its allegedly threatening weapons of mass destruction were non-existent. Saddam was a bad guy, but guess what? If that is the criterion for taking out a regime, we are going to find ourselves ruinously busy, including dealing terminal force to the regimes of some American allies.
Was the nation-building project of occupying and trying to impose a modern democratic state on all of a very fractious Afghanistan necessary to keep it from again becoming a haven for transnational jihadists? Of course not. Having effective allies on the ground and the ability to surveil and strike if needed did not require the foolhardy mass escalation and massively mislaid financial aid that Obama has presided over.
The latest crisis between Israelis and Palestinians is more complex than the obvious American errors in Iraq and Afghanistan, with roots in ancient enmities and complex responsibilities going back to the Holocaust and beyond. But here, too, American overreach has had a precipitating role with the latest laborious round of clearly doomed to fail peace talks spun up by Secretary of State John Kerry on the administration's behalf stirring up a provocative cocktail of hopes and fears alike.
The crisis with Germany, already exacerbated by the US stance that it go against its own interests in more aggressively opposing Russia in the Ukraine crisis, is the result of American overreach not only in the federal republic but around the world. This is a serious situation, as Germany is the most powerful and important U.S. ally on the European continent, bulwark of any future scenarios for an effective European Union, poised at a unique pivot point for relations between Russia and the West. The Snowden revelations of the National Security Agency's breathtakingly expansive secret surveillance programs around the world raise profound questions about how benign America's relations are even with its friends, not to mention what sort of country Americans are living in.
As longtime readers know, I favor aggressive intelligence programs. But endless reams of data do not constitute information, much less knowledge. All this technical capability did not enable us to avert the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Nor did it enable us to check the rise of Isis before it made a mockery of the so-called Iraqi state we spent a fortune rebuilding.
America could not only have a lunar colony right now but also manned missions to Mars and a few other planets for all the money we have blown in Iraq building the "nation" that Isis has so dramatically demonstrated to be hollow. And if the point of the Iraq adventure was to exercise global leadership and demonstrate "American Exceptionalism," wouldn't leading the way for the rest of the world in exploring and expanding across the solar system have been a better use of all that money?
What may be worst of all about all this overreaching is how it stretches the intellectual bandwidth of the administration. Trying to do too much in these areas takes away from the ability to concentrate on other matters. And it also creates new problems to burden more bandwidth and burn up more valuable time.
As we see with these crises.
Since the situations which give rise to these crises are largely untenable, U.S. options are generally poor and at best limited.
With no real pullback on the expansive global surveillance program, the U.S. won't make Germany happy. And press reports, especially detailed by Bloomberg News, indicate that a compromise solution to the crisis was presented late last week to the German government by the very able American envoy in Berlin, Ambassador John Emerson, my old colleague in the Gary Hart for President campaigns and former best man who was a top aide to President Bill Clinton and has extensive high-level political experience. The compromise was reportedly an invitation to an intelligence-sharing program. Emerson can't discuss the negotiation with me, though other sources are not so constrained.
Whether the Bloomberg report is specifically accurate or not, there is a larger takeaway. Events have overtaken clubby deals. Germany isn't so much interested in being part of the US-led English-speaking club of nations as it is outraged by the US programs themselves. Spying on an allied head of government's private mobile phone is a bridge too far in espionage, especially when combined with previous revelations of mass surveillance, not to mention the shocking realization of how compromised systems provided by ubiquitous American cyber firms have proved to be.
While Kerry may have cobbled together a compromise around the Afghan elections -- though we will see what really happens when a winner is finally announced -- it doesn't change the underlying dynamics that have produced two straight presidential elections shrouded in extreme controversy. And it does keep more American treasure flowing into Afghanistan past our so-called withdrawal date. Kerry and Obama may just be able to leave office before the situation blows up again.
As for the big flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry's earlier efforts to effect a peace agreement, criticized by both sides, especially Israel, seem to be fouling present efforts to achieve a ceasefire. Egypt and Qatar are trying to work in the gap left by the US.
In what we have called Iraq, the de facto partition of the country appears to hardening further into place. Isis is not being dislodged from the vast swathes of territory it and its allies have seized from Maliki regime forces. In fact, they have important leverage over much of the rest of "Iraq" over control of important segments of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Kurdistan is moving toward independence, its determination to use newly secured oil reserves in direct contravention of the wishes of Baghdad ever more apparent. Meanwhile, the core of the current Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies, appears adamant in not giving up or seriously sharing power despite U.S. efforts to that end.
And while the U.S. keeps pushing for a unified "Iraqi" government as it studies the balance of military forces, it has done nothing to diminish the growing power and wealth of Isis, which has merely emerged as the wealthiest and most aggressive radical Islamist outfit in the world.
A lousy situation.