March 2

Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2005 to 2008, he worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council.

As the United States tries to determine how to respond to Russia’s intervention in Crimea — perhaps the most pressing foreign policy dilemma of Barack Obama’s presidency — another question hovers over the proceedings: Why didn’t we see this coming?

When I served on the National Security Council staff, the meetings I looked forward to the least were contingency planning sessions. With so much happening in the world that demanded an immediate response, it seemed almost indulgent to engage in hypothetical debates over how to respond to events that had not yet happened, and might not ever.  

But contingency planning is a critical step in the policymaking process. It forces one to think not merely of how to respond to events of the day but also to extrapolate several moves ahead and consider the likely implications for U.S. interests as those events unfold.  In doing so, one develops a better understanding of what is likely to occur and what policy steps one should be taking now to head off future crises, or at least how to be prepared for them when they erupt. Planning also forces prioritization: Senior officials have only so much time and energy, and they cannot afford to expend it on matters that are marginal to U.S. interests.

Few foreign policy failures have been so acute lately as the failure to think ahead and plan for contingencies. Many of the crises we are grappling with were foreseeable. 

In Venezuela, the passing of the torch of chavismo from Hugo Chavez to his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, was never likely to go well. Chavez’s eccentric policies were propelled by the force of his charisma and political savvy and the loyalty of the armed forces. Maduro enjoys none of these advantages. As Venezuela’s economy has foundered and popular outrage has grown under his misrule, he has resorted to the primary instrument available to him: brute force. This scenario was by no means inevitable, but it was certainly predictable. Yet Washington has groped for a response.

In Syria, warnings of the consequences of U.S. inaction — a rising humanitarian toll and mounting extremism — have been sounded continuously by Middle East analysts since 2011. Yet the United States has painted itself into a corner, insisting that Bashar al-Assad must go while steadfastly refusing to adopt a policy to hasten his departure, effectively leaving Syria to burn. This lack of foresight was compounded when Obama warned Assad not to use chemical weapons but had no response prepared when Assad defied him.

In Ukraine, the key moment for forethought passed us by in November, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, a turnabout in policy probably influenced by some mixture of Russian coercion and incentives.  The United States and European Union had no response to the Russian gambit, high-mindedly wanting to avoid a “bidding war” with Moscow or engage in geopolitical games with Vladimir Putin. Two months later, the price we will need to pay to secure Ukraine is higher, as are the geopolitical stakes. 

In each case, what was required, and what contingency planning would have counseled, was a bolder policy. Not bolder in the sense of acting rashly or aggressively — the straw-man alternatives so often put forward by U.S. officials nowadays to defend passivity or inaction — but in the sense of taking early, proactive steps to head off crises. In each case, the chosen policy has seemed designed to minimize risk and cost in the short run — but at the expense of greater costs in the long run. We have stood by as crises have deepened and problems grown harder to solve, and our prestige has waned accordingly. 

Now, having warned Moscow that intervention would incur costs and having been ignored, the United States and its allies must quickly act to make good on the president’s warning. But the policy process cannot stop there. It is not too late to think ahead and plan for predictable contingencies. In addition to punishing Russia for its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, whether through sanctions or related steps, we must consider how to halt any further advance of Russian forces and respond to possible Russian counterreactions such as threats to cut off natural gas supplies to Europe. 

Because our larger objective is not merely to punish Russian misdeeds but to get Ukraine on its feet, our policy must also focus on how to aid the cratering Ukrainian economy and encourage pluralistic, inclusive government. Progress on these fronts, and not only the withdrawal of Russian forces from Crimea, is needed for Ukraine to enjoy stability and prosperity. 

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine serves as a reminder of something policymakers have learned and forgotten many times over: Geopolitics is not dead yet. It should also snap us out of our foreign policy stupor and underline the importance of contingency planning and forward thinking in policymaking. In a world full of crises and conflicts, we should at least be prepared for — and, better yet, prevent — the foreseeable ones.