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Washington’s World: July 28th – August 3rd, 2014

President Obama’s mounting foreign policy crises are engendering renewed discussion among the foreign policy establishment. While some commentators voice sympathy for the complexity of the issues facing Obama and support his cautious approach, the overwhelming majority fault Obama for a lack of strategic vision and willingness to commit US strength. From conversations with White House contacts, we doubt that this criticism is having much impact on Obama’s thinking – with the possible exception of Ukraine where the Administration is embracing an increasingly tough line against Russia, now calling the Russians “culpable” for the downing of MH17. However, we sense that the cumulative effect of these crises and the difficulty which the US is experiencing in responding to them is to breed a more hawkish sentiment among the leading contenders for the Presidency in 2016. As one political analyst explained to us: “if Obama was elected to do less in the international space, his successor will likely campaign on doing more.”  A more confrontational approach to world problems is already manifesting itself with regard to China's ideas for a new model of great power relations. At the more immediate level, Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts to produce a ceasefire in Gaza have been only rewarded by a short truce, but US officials believe that this is unlikely to endure. The calculation in Washington is that both sides still see more to gain in continuing fighting than in stopping. Turning to Ukraine, the trend among top US policy-makers is to become tougher with Moscow. After a brief lull in which it seemed possible that a diplomatic settlement was within reach, a much deeper “freeze” in US-Russia relations now seems to be around the corner. Next week Kerry heads to New Delhi for the next round of the US-India Strategic Dialogue. Relations with the new Indian government have got off to an uncertain start with protocol clouds hanging over Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US in September, but Kerry will seek to calm these tensions. While in the region, he may visit Kabul where the presidential vote recount in Afghanistan is in trouble. Finally, while overshadowed by the Middle East and Ukraine, the advances of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the looming famine in South Sudan are occupying State Department planners.

Key Judgments

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