The Post-American Presidency

The euphoria is over. It is time for a serious critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy

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President Barack Obama giving his speech in Cairo

Judging a new American President’s national security policies after six months in office is a perilous enterprise, especially in the case of Barack Obama, where constant incantations of “change” and serial criticisms of his predecessor are the order of the day.

 Nonetheless, during the 2008 primaries, Democratic candidates fiercely debated their respective abilities to handle the “3am call,” and Joe Biden later warned that the inexperienced Illinois Senator would be “tested” early in his tenure. Now there is a partial record, and, more importantly, a worldview on which we can grade Obama’s performance. 

Obama is the first post-American President. Central to his worldview is rejecting American exceptionalism and the consequences that flow therefrom. Since an overwhelming majority of the world’s population would welcome the demise of American exceptionalism, they are delighted with Obama. 

One student interviewed after an Obama town hall meeting during his first presidential trip to Europe said ecstatically, “He sounds like a European.” Indeed he does. 

Of course, as a successful politician, Obama is never going to admit expressly that he rejects a unique US role in the world. Asked during his trip about this very subject, Obama responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This answer, of course, proves precisely the opposite of what Obama is ostensibly saying. If every country is exceptional, none is. Obama is too smart not to know this and just slick enough to hope that US listeners would tune out after his first phrase.

It fell to an admiring media commentator to lift the cover more fully, and indeed unknowingly since he intended a compliment. Following Obama’s D-Day 65th anniversary speech, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas contrasted him with Ronald Reagan in 1984:

“Well, we were the good guys in 1984, it felt that way. It hasn’t felt that way in recent years. So Obama’s had, really, a different task….Reagan was all about America….Obama is ‘we are above that now’. We’re not just parochial, we’re not just chauvinistic, we’re not just provincial. We stand for something. I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above — above the world, he’s sort of God…He’s going to bring all different sides together.”

Thomas was dramatically wrong about Reagan’s speech, which included sustained praise for America’s allies, and equating Obama to God was breathtaking even for the US press corps. But Thomas’s central observation was unquestionably correct: Obama is above all that patriotism stuff.

Obama is not the first Democratic nominee to hold these views, but he is the first to win the presidency. The then Vice-President George H. W. Bush best described the type in 1988, contrasting himself with his opponent, Michael Dukakis: “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader — a unique nation with a special role in the world.” The Dukakis/Obama approach of near-universal “moral equivalency” is widely held by European leaders, but not previously by a US President, so we will now find out just how European we have become.

Two other elements in Obama’s thinking are critical. First, he is not George W. Bush. He is Barack Obama, a man who has already written two autobiographies and who has ascended continuously and effortlessly to ever-higher public office. Hence, Obama need do little except show up and “change” will occur in the global arena, without the need for “chauvinistic” exertions on behalf of “parochial” American interests, which, as embodied by President Bush, are inevitably arrogant and disrespectful of others. Second, Obama has not yet adjusted to governance rather than campaigning or to being in the Executive rather than the Legislative branch of government. Campaigning is now continuous, but not since Reagan has a President struck the right balance with governance. Moreover, failing to shift psychologically from Senator to President is a perennial US problem. Being President actually means governing, as opposed to flitting from speech to speech and vote to vote, which “showhorse” Senators (contrasted with their “workhorse” counterparts) are all too happy to do. Moreover, whether as legislator or as campaigner, Obama has concentrated on, and manifestly feels more comfortable with, domestic rather than foreign policy (with the singular exception of opposing the Iraq war in the 2008 campaign).

One response to this analysis is the number of questions where Obama has essentially ratified or continued Bush Administration policies. For example, US troop withdrawal timetables from Iraq and the overall US political and military posture there are, so far, hard to differentiate materially from Bush’s. A breathtaking amount of Bush-era detention and terrorist-interrogation policies remain in place, despite the vivid propaganda successes of signing Executive Orders to close Guantánamo and preclude “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In fact, Bush himself signalled a desire to close Guantánamo and had suspended the criticised interrogation methods, very infrequently used in any case, years earlier. Finally, on Afghanistan, Obama’s increase in US force levels was planned during the Bush presidency (as were even higher levels), and advocated during the 2008 campaign by the Republican nominee John McCain.

Seemingly robust, but not really. Obama succeeded brilliantly in painting Iraq as Bush’s (and then McCain’s) war, using his opposition to capture the Democratic Party nomination from the sure winner, Hillary Clinton. Obama’s course as President, anguishing to the American Left, is intended to protect himself from conservative criticism while he rearranges the American economy. The Left has nowhere else to go, as they and Obama both well know. The same logic applies to interrogation and detention, although heightened by the new Administration’s uncomfortable education in reality: what to do with these captured cold-blooded terrorists and extremists is actually a most difficult question. Now that Obama cannot criticise from the campaign trail or the Senate floor, but must actually be America’s “chief executive,” operational reality intrudes. These were hard questions for Bush, and they will be hard questions for Obama. On Afghanistan, no one in Washington has missed the criticism from the Democratic Party’s Left and their ultimatum that Obama has basically one year to solve the Afghan problem. Good luck with that! (Nor has anyone in Washington missed Europe’s unwillingness to increase materially its force levels in Afghanistan, despite the expectation that Obama’s Inauguration would unleash torrents of co-operation unseen during the Bush years.)

In short, these putative examples of a muscular US foreign policy are instead anomalies caused as much by domestic political reasons as anything else. They may fascinate in the short term, but are peripheral to Obama’s core approach. That Obama’s initial steps in several areas have much in common with Bush policies tells you more about the collapse of Bush’s philosophy in his second term than about Obama’s vision. Bush was, ironically, becoming more like Obama in advance, rather than the other way around.

But let us turn to specifics, where North Korea provides the best illustration to date of Obama’s philosophy in action and why it will not work. North Korea was intended as a primary beneficiary when the new President said on 20 January: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent…we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Unfortunately for Obama, however, Pyongyang apparently wasn’t watching the Inaugural address. Instead, it was preparing for its second nuclear test and for multiple ballistic missile launches, and engaging in new terrorist activities, preparing to sentence two female American journalists snatched near the Chinese border to 12 years of hard labour.

Pyongyang’s behaviour left the young Administration in a quandary. This was not the script Kim Jong-il was supposed to follow and the resulting policy options were perplexing to Obama’s mindset. Should he reverse Bush’s twin decisions to remove North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and to allow it access to international financial markets? Doing so would, stunningly, leave him pursuing a harder line than Bush when he left office. Should Obama, in addition, press for meaningful new sanctions in the UN Security Council, and, if so, could he persuade Russia and China to support him? And what would other proliferators conclude if North Korea successfully called the American bluff? Where was North Korea’s open hand, and why wouldn’t it return to the Six Party Talks?

To date, Obama has appeared confused and indecisive in his response, although much remains to unfold. Intense diplomatic efforts for stricter Security Council sanctions resulted in only modest additions to the existing UN sanctions imposed after the North’s October 2006 nuclear test. The American reporters remained in prison. Obama’s most significant mistake, however, even while labouring mightily to achieve only incremental increases in international pressure against Pyongyang, was that his goal was still only to coax North Korea back into negotiations. Most tellingly, the North refused to return to the Six Party Talks, almost certainly because it had not yet finished wringing concessions out of the US. But even if Kim Jong-il were to oblige Obama and relaunch negotiations, nothing more would be accomplished than occurred in the prior six years of failure, or the many earlier failures, all of which prove that North Korea is not going to be talked out of its nuclear programme. Thus, even if Obama achieved his immediate objective of restarting the Talks, he would not be resolving the underlying threat.

Nowhere was Obama’s reaction to North Korea’s belligerence followed more carefully than in Iran. The close, lengthy co-operation between Iran and North Korea on ballistic missile technology and also almost certainly on their nuclear programmes (exemplified by the North Korean reactor in Syria, destroyed by Israel in September 2007), has been vital to both countries. During the 2008 campaign, Obama made Iran the very epitome of his foreign policy differences with President Bush. Iran was precisely the issue on which face-to-face bilateral negotiations, including even President Obama himself, would both fundamentally change the US-Iran political dynamic for the better and eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Once in office, however, the Administration found itself in an exhausting internal policy debate, gridlocking possible substantial policy shifts until Iran’s impending election made it impossible for real movement until the results were known. Meanwhile, Iran’s unceasing efforts to enrich uranium and expand its nuclear programme continued without effective hindrance. Even the European Union’s endless, feckless negotiating efforts ground to a halt.

Therefore, instead of prompt and decisive action, but agreeably to his governance style, Obama turned to rhetoric, most prominently in his 4 June speech in Cairo. There, in the passage on Iran, Obama’s “above the world” visage was on display: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons…And any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Moreover, on Iran’s support for terrorism, such as financing Hamas and Hizbollah, the Administration has done and said little, thus effectively abdicating leadership responsibilities in dealing with Iran. 

Despite the riotous outcome of the presidential election, Obama nonetheless reaffirmed on 15 June that he still wanted direct bilateral negotiations with Iran.  So, such negotiations will doubtless ensue, with Tehran all the while continuing its pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism. Much remains to unfold on the Iran front, but Obama’s otherworldly approach to date does not bode well. Arab states near Iran will also sense US weakness, and react accordingly, either seeking their own nuclear weapons capabilities, or making deals with the new hegemonic power in Tehran, or both. In all events, strategic stability throughout the region will decline. 

Intimately related to Iran, of course, is the Arab-Israeli dispute, and here, the “un-Bush” aspect of the Obama presidency is at its most pronounced. Among Arabs, and Muslims more generally, the response to Obama’s Cairo speech was overwhelmingly favorable. The venue, the tone and the quotations from the Koran all generated enormous enthusiasm, even if most concede that the speech was short on substance. It is objectively hard to understand why the reaction should be so euphoric since the text was indistinguishable from many Bush speeches, but the fact of the reaction is indisputable.

Whether Obama’s speech will make any difference in the real world, or even how long the euphoria will last, are entirely different questions. What is making a significant difference is the dramatic change in America’s attitude toward Israel and the seemingly endless “Middle East peace process”. Obama has, among other sea changes: adopted the European view that solving the Arab-Israeli dispute will facilitate solving all other Middle East problems; demanded adherence to the “two-state solution” with no tolerance for heresy; taken the hardest US position against expanding Israel’s West Bank “settlements” since the 1967 war; and insisted on speeding up the “peace process” in ways that can only work to Israel’s disadvantage. And, most importantly, Obama has leaned heavily on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to use military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities, despite the overwhelming evidence that Tehran can now fabricate nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing, indifferent to external considerations or pressure.

Israel has never been more distant from a US Administration, but politically Obama has so far covered himself effectively with the pro-Israel community, suffering few if any adverse political consequences. He may read that community more astutely than others, sensing a weariness with Israel’s struggles that he can exploit, or at least use to protect his political flanks. America’s strategic priorities are, of course, independent of domestic constituencies, but the basic political fact is that if the pro-Israel community tolerates Obama’s policies, it should not be surprising that many other Americans simply lose interest. That is what Obama may be counting on, as he whips Israel along the road to Damascus, Tehran and other exotic destinations. 

Ironically, important 2008 campaign issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan have faded from political prominence recently. But a new issue has arisen, one where the Bush Administration made its share of mistakes, when it was paying attention at all, and that is Pakistan. The risk of Pakistani instability or, worse, a Taliban takeover, alone or in coalition with other extremists, is far graver than the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan. No one wants al-Qaeda or other terrorists once again to have safe haven in inaccessible places, but Pakistan in their hands constitutes a nuclear threat. Continued instability could result in the military losing control over several nuclear weapons, thus immediately posing a worldwide terrorist threat. Far worse would be a complete takeover of Pakistan’s government by radicals, with its entire nuclear arsenal (estimated in open sources at between 60 and 200 nuclear weapons) at their disposal.

Here, Obama has, to his credit, made Pakistan a far higher US priority, bolstered American assistance to its government, and assigned a Special Envoy on “Af-Pak” issues to highlight their prominence. Here, being the “un-Bush” is a plus, but how long the current Obama approach will continue remains to be seen. As noted above, many Democrats are quite unhappy with his Afghan policy, and the same applies to a tough approach in Pakistan. This is a major question, since of all the “front burner” issues now confronting Obama, Pakistan and its nuclear weapons may turn out to be his greatest and most important test.

Surveying these urgent issues facing the new Administration should not lead inexorably to the conclusion they are the most important. Russia and China, for example, have figured only peripherally in the foregoing discussion, and America’s neighbourhood, the Western Hemisphere, not at all. On arms control, Russian and Chinese efforts to expand or consolidate their regional dominance, and China’s global stature because of its increasing economic heft, much remains to be seen. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has upstaged and outmanoeuvred Obama, both on the critical battlefield of photo opportunities in international gatherings, and also on issues like Cuba’s place in the hemisphere, where Obama has seemed indifferent, ineffective or both. 

For those concerned with Russian belligerence, as in Georgia, Obama’s “above the world” response (in August 2008, calling on both sides of the conflict to exercise “restraint”) cannot be comforting. Europe should take note, as Japan has increasingly done, of Obama’s lassitude when faced with such affronts as China’s call to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, an idea Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner said casually was worth looking at, until he was, in horror, reeled in by his own bureaucrats shortly thereafter. Of course, when you are Obama, and not Bush, there will be world enough, and time, to deal with these issues in due course, especially if you have endless confidence in your own persuasive powers, a trait shared by Woodrow Wilson, Neville Chamberlain and other “above the world” leaders.

Finally, this essay has only lightly touched on the UN and its role in the Obama pantheon, and with good reason. The UN has played an insignificant role to date in Obama’s  foreign policy, even though it is right up there “above the world” with Obama himself. In part, this is because the UN is performing on par, which is to say, not well or effectively. On North Korea, the Security Council manifestly failed, several times, to do what Obama wanted, which at least should have a profoundly disillusioning effect. Equally disillusioning should be Obama’s aborted effort to fix the Durban II “anti-racism” conference in Geneva, which turned into just the hateful anti-Israel, and implicitly anti-American, debacle that many had predicted.

But long-term disillusionment is unlikely, since the Obama Administration has too much theologically invested in multilateralism triumphing over the Bush Administration’s unilateralist, cowboy approach. If there were just a single issue to watch for major developments in this Administration’s future, it would unquestionably be the UN and multilateralism, both on political questions and on the international “norming” of policies heretofore properly considered domestic in nature, such as gun control, the death penalty, abortion and many others, starting with climate change. Europeans, so amenable to stripping their democratically elected governments of one competence after another to express mail them to Brussels, will soon find soulmates hard at work in Washington trying to do something similar with multilateral bodies.

In all the foregoing areas, Obama is daily acting out his worldview, and the prospect of more of the same should be deeply troubling to America’s global allies. The conceptual road map until at least 2012 is now plainly in evidence, if only incompletely realised to date. Obama simply does not see America’s strength as a particular asset, or its causes and interests as more than many other causes and interests competing in the world out there somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. Long after global Obamamania has worn off, the geostrategic consequences of this insouciance will be sorely felt. Of course, by then it may be too late.