Lame duck flies

I’m no Asia expert, but President Obama’s performance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last week, in Myanmar and at the G20 in Australia looks damn good to me. Besides sporting his Chinese getup better than most of the other leaders, he has managed some serious bilateral moves:

  • Prospective lowered tariffs on high tech between China and the US;
  • New commitments by the two countries to reduce carbon emissions;
  • Agreement with Beijing on avoiding military confrontations;
  • Agreement with India on its food subsidy system that will unblock trade negotiations;
  • Strong support for democratic transition in Burma/Myanmar;
  • Embarrassment of Vladimir Putin for continuing to assert Russian troops are not in Ukraine.

Foreign travel and foreign policy are not unusual moves for a president in trouble. This one has used them well to do things that were planned and executed carefully. He is not looking or acting like a lame duck, especially if you throw in his preparations for a major executive move on immigration, his apparent willingness (in my view unwise) to block the XL pipeline from Canada, and the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran.

What he hasn’t done yet is to deal effectively with two current wars: against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Ukraine.

Despite Canadian Prime Minister’s blunt “you need to get out of Ukraine,” the Russians are still pouring men and materiel into separatist areas of southeast Ukraine. Putin was chivalrous in Beijing, offering of his coat to Xi Jinping’s wife. It behooves him to behave well towards the Chinese customers for Russia’s gas and oil.  But his best behavior did nothing to hide his decidedly aggressive stance in Europe, where Moscow is not only invading Ukraine but also challenging NATO’s borders with close approaches of aircraft. President Obama needs to think hard about whether there isn’t more we can do to respond to Russian aggression, whether by military or diplomatic means.

ISIS’ rapid advances have been stopped, but it is still consolidating its control over eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is making mistakes in doing so, including mass atrocities against Sunni tribes that will no doubt be motive for revenge by their surviving relatives. Some Sunni tribes are even welcoming Shia militias to help them fight ISIS. Iraqi government forces have reportedly broken the ISIS siege of the country’s only oil refinery, and Kurdish forces have retaken some towns in the north.

But there seems to be no hope for a serious Iraqi army offensive against ISIS before spring. While coalition air attacks make life tactically difficult for the caliphate’s fighters, they are not faltering strategically. ISIS is far more than the small terrorist group President Obama likes to talk about. It is a serious insurgency that will require someone–be it Iraqi government or Syrian opposition–to conduct a serious counter-insurgency campaign. Killing a few of its leaders and cadres is not going to turn the tide. There are reports this weekend of a plan to accelerate arming of the Syrian opposition. That is long overdue. A commitment to protect it when it moves into Syria should be forthcoming as well.

So yes, Mr. President, you had a good week in Asia. The lame duck showed he could fly. But things are still bad in Europe and the Middle East. Welcome home!

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