Tartu-Based American Military History Lecturer: Obama Must Channel Reagan (2)

8/28/2014 11:12 AM
Category: Politics

In his own country, US President Barack Obama has proved perhaps as controversial as his predecessor, for both domestic and foreign policy reasons. In a Skype conversation, Kristopher Rikken of ERR News interviewed Joseph Enge, a mid-1990s Fulbright teacher who is back doing doctoral research and teaching American and military history at the University of Tartu, about the context of the September 3 visit.

In the past week, we've heard Obama called the worst US president in the history of NATO. Certainly there were warnings from Baltic Americans already before he was elected that he would be weak, although some of the critics said Vice President Joe Biden would possibly compensate for any weakness. How do you, an American with deep ties to Estonia, assess Obama's foreign policy?

Well, Biden is not in a position to compensate for Obama's weak foreign policy. To date, Obama's (Biden with him) foreign policy has been vacuous and unrealistic, plus weak across the board and regarding Russia. The "reset" and unilateral cancelling of the planned missile defense system in Poland when Obama took office in 2009 without any quid pro quo reflected a delusional worldview that is dangerous for America and Europe. I can only hope and pray now that Putin's true colors have been clearly demonstrated, Obama and his administration have taken off their rose-colored glasses and effectively start dealing with reality.

It is time for Obama to be proactive instead of weakly reactive by announcing three things during his visit to Estonia. First, full support for permanent NATO bases in the Baltics and Poland. Second, establishment and expansion of the previously cancelled missile defense bases in Poland. Third, arming and training Ukraine's military at a substantive and necessary level. Sending Ukraine MREs does not cut it.

This is something we often heard growing up as emigre Estonians … even great war heroes like Eisenhower, when push came to shove in Budapest in 1956, sent "only corn and beans"...

Yes, more than "beans" are required here.

The problem, as I understand it, may be that there is no guarantee that the weapons will stay in Ukraine, what with even a commander of an entire branch of the Ukrainian military having - in the early going - absconded to Russia.
And there doesn't appear to be a framework for aiding Ukraine. It's "just not a part of NATO".

Yes, it will require US and NATO serious oversight of any weapons provided. Close vetting of Ukrainian commanding officers in addition to US and NATO supervision of weapons provided would be necessary. The vetting and replacement of Ukrainian officers may have already been done. The problem stems from Viktor Yanukovych placing many pro-Russian officers in charge of Ukrainian defense. I would imagine that has been rectified by now.

There's a lot of rancor and political infighting in the US over the legacies of Bush and what Obama's doing. I have to ask: How do you compare the two? Was Bush better on foreign policy toward Russia?

Good question. Bush concerned me when he claimed to have seen Putin's soul in his eyes when he met him. Thankfully, Bush had Condoleezza Rice to guide him through a realistic foreign policy with Russia. I do not believe Putin would have tried his current gambit in the Ukraine with the Bush administration, but the weakness of the Obama administration has emboldened Putin to strike during the two-year window of Obama's last two years in office.

OK. But he did invade Georgia….this was in Bush's second term. Was the US reaction sufficient, or was there even anything they could do?

Yes, but Putin did not press further. The options in Georgia were limited, and Bush was able to limit the Russian incursion and damage against Georgian sovereignty.

Through deterrence, or actual intervention? I remember a strong statement from Rice. Some carriers were in the area, I think. I'm not trying to convict Bush here, and don't want to put you on the spot, I just don't remember anything concrete.

[It] is hard to determine what the Russian leadership was thinking in Georgia and why they didn't press further. I suspect it was a combination of both. We did send naval units to the Black Sea, but not a carrier group, though. [Posts link to article indicating Russia felt intimidated by US naval presence] That would have been far more serious.

As a military historian, how do you see the debate about NATO boots on the ground in Estonia? If you have one guy saying that NATO would not be able to do anything, maybe before Russia overran Saaremaa, while another counters it is possible to stop them with what's on the ground, who's right and who's wrong? Specifically, can F-15s and Typhoons do anything against tanks coming over the border?

The key is airpower, as you noted. F-15s and Typhoons can provide complete air superiority allowing themselves and attack helicopters to chew up advancing ground forces. True, it would take quite a while for NATO ground forces to arrive, but air assets in place and others moved in quickly would be decisive.

Images from the Iraq wars of Russian made tanks and APCs columns destroyed by air could well be repeated in such a scenario.

So you think the current contingent could buy enough time. By my count, there's a few dozen fighters, Black Hawks, several hundred elite US airborne troops, and unspecified special forces (don't know how many).

Russia has upgraded its military in the last few years, but it should be remembered such upgrades are not across the board for all of their units. Not all of their military units are up to par for offensive actions. True, they have increased the number of units capable of offensive action, but their ability to carry out long-term offensive actions remains questionable given strong resistance by air combined with even few, but well-trained NATO level ground troops. That is only an estimate of course that can only be proven if it really happens, but I doubt Putin is really as confident in his military's abilities as he pretends to be.

We could go on for an hour on Putin's psychology, and I'd like to. But finally, how are you spending "O-Day," September 3?

Putin's psychology is an interesting subject. "O-Day," that is funny! I will be in Tartu as normal. I only hope Obama channels Ronald Reagan and rises to the challenges facing America and Europe by at least announcing the three actions I hope he takes.


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