Where Have All the Thinkers Gone?

In the years since World War II, the US was blessed with great foreign policy strategic thinkers like George Marshall, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brezezinski  and James Baker among others.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Kimberly Strassel—Meet Obama’s Kissingers—documented that unlike past presidents who staffed their National Security Councils(NSC) with foreign and military policy professionals, President Obama has staffed his with political professionals.

The documented inadequacies of this NSC is apparent in the handling or mishandling of the Ukraine crisis and raises the question of whether there is any strategic thinking taking place in the White House or State Department.

Beyond not providing arms and supplies to help the Ukrainian armed forces defend themselves better against Russian supplied separatists, we appear to be leaving our European allies at risk for joining us in applying sanctions against Russia.  An escalation ladder is clearly the right approach and it seems to be working as reports indicate that the Russian economy is being hobbled.

Just as we are not providing adequate support to Ukraine, we are failing to help our allies resolve and protect themselves against Vladimir Putin using oil and gas as a weapon to counter sanctions.  Russia provides Europe about 30% or more of its oil and natural gas.  Three times in the past decade, Russia has curtailed gas shipments to the Ukraine and European Union.  It has also used price to put pressure on importing countries.  Our European allies are in a better position than they were in recent years to withstand an energy response by Putting but they are still too dependent on Russian gas.

That leads to the question of why the Obama Administration has been dragging its feet on increasing oil and gas production on federal lands, removing barriers to oil exports, and approving permits for LNG export facilities?  Nothing that companies could do if the impediments were removed tomorrow would increase supplies to Europe in the short-run  but a decision to move ahead would send an important signal to Putin and the market.  First, it would send a clear message to Putin that his days of being able to manipulate price and supply are limited.  Actions influence incentives and behavior.  Second, it would reduce the strains that currently exist in relations with allies.  Third, it would lead to increased domestic production.

Russia is heavily dependent on revenue from export sales of oil and gas. Increasing supplies on world markets would dampen prices and lower oil prices. That would hurt Putin and further weaken the Russian economy.

Linear thinking about strategy in a complex and interconnected world is more likely to come up short in achieving stated objectives.  The analogy for dealing with Putin is chess, not checkers.  The President would serve his interests better as well as the nation’s by taking to heart Strassel’s analysis.

This article appeared on the FuelFix weblog at http://fuelfix.com/blog/2014/08/08/where-have-all-the-thinkers-gone/

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