Sunday, May 16, 2010

Obama's foreign policy

Excerpts from a BBC article on Obama's foreign policy 051410

According to Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, the apparent shifts in the US approach to both Israel and Afghanistan "reflect the encounter of preconceived notions with reality, or really with two realities, namely, that you don't make your allies behave better by slapping them around, and you don't win over serious enemies by attempting to ingratiate yourself with them".


US foreign policy watcher Charles Kupchan at the Council on Foreign Relations takes a rather different view.

"President Obama's foreign policy has actually been quite consistent. From the start, he has preferred engagement - interspersed with moments of tough talk - to isolation," he said.
"He has confronted President Karzai on corruption and governance failures, but continues to work with him; like it or not, Karzai is the only game in town.

"On balance, Obama has been pragmatic, not ideological. During his first year, he had trouble turning his visions into reality. But in the second year, implementation of policy has improved - less talk and more action."

Many have commented on the paucity of results so far. Iran's nuclear programme seems restricted more by its own technical limitations than anything else.

But Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House, said there were some merits in the process itself.

"Engagement changes the dynamics for US foreign policy even if it does not achieve immediate and specific results," he said.
"Opening bilateral discussions with Iran has not changed Iran's behaviour as yet, but has increased the willingness of Europeans to back more serious sanctions.
"And 're-setting' with Russia has not stopped Russia from pursuing a policy of reasserting influence in Ukraine and the Caucasus, but has made discussions with them over Iran more constructive."


Critics have lambasted the president for what they see as a pointless attack on a good ally.
Others have argued strongly US pressure on Israel is long overdue and that it should be stepped up and maintained.

Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has chronicled and analysed the failings of the Middle East peace process for longer than he would probably care to admit.

He was less concerned about the pressure on Mr Netanyahu, but rather about the context in which it was being brought to bear.

"If the Obama administration is serious about pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace, then some tension with the Israeli government is inevitable - its positions are simply quite far from US ideas about a settlement," he said. "The problem was not the toughness, but that the toughness seemed detached from any strategy. Now, after more than a year in office, the Obama administration finally seems to be piecing together a strategy."

Nonetheless, Mr Brown is far from convinced that this strategy is based upon a sound foundation.

"The basic problem is that it assumes that the conditions prevailing five or 10 years ago still hold," added Mr Brown. "They do not."
"The Palestinian side is split and weak. Israeli public opinion - and not just right-wing leaders - betrays signs of having checked out of the peace process.
"Pursuing peace talks as if Hamas does not exist, Gaza is irrelevant and the Israelis are on board is unrealistic."

Mr Niblett said: "The shifts reflect a willingness to adjust and not be didactic if things are not working. It is part of the pragmatism that permeates the Obama administration."

But he cautioned that there were clearly limits to the US policy of engagement.
"The test will be how the Obama administration adapts its policies through this second year," said Mr Niblett.

Indeed, the coming weeks and months will provide perhaps the greatest test of President Obama's whole approach to the world. If the Israel-Palestinian talks make little progress -as most experts expect - does the Obama team have an interim approach to prevent or contain any renewed outbreak of violence?
With US outreach efforts to Syria stalled, can another conflict on Israel's northern border with Lebanon be avoided?
And perhaps the biggest question of all, even if another round of sanctions against Iran can be agreed at the United Nations, what then?

If Iran's nuclear programme continues, will the Obama administration have to come to terms with at least a "nuclear-capable" Iran. Or might it seek to change the status quo by some other means?



Back in the fifties and sixties, no one thought that the United States bond with the free Chinese on Taiwan would ever be broken. Our loyalty to our friends, who had fought on our side against the Japanese during WWII, was utterly unshakeable.

Nixon, at that time the darling of the American rightwingers, and probably a closet John Bircher in addition to being a foul-mouthed bigot in his private life, dumped Taiwan into the garbage by recognizing the Peoples Republic, and reaffirming as a matter of government policy that in essence there was only one China.
Not two countries, not two valid systems and ideologies. Not two divergent branches of the same tree, one despotic and one democratic. Not two societies with a similar heritage and a formerly shared country. One.
That decision delegitimized Taiwan, and placed the burden of resolving the issue which divided the two sides on Taipei.

This is relevant for two reasons:
1. The United States has a track-record of allowing opportunity and pragmatism to triumph over historical friendship and alliance, irrespective of political commonality and shared values.
2. Being right is far less important to American foreign policy than being big business.

That second point explains why oil companies have more traction at Foggy Bottom and on American university campuses than any number of friends of Israel. It also indicates that, until we have entirely broken our reliance on the Arabs, the United States establishment must largely view Israel and the Jews with more than a little jaundice at best, or as an obstruction to the American Dream at worst.
This is especially plangent when our new "friends" of the Asian mainland dominate our supply lines and compete with us for that precious Arab commodity.

Note: It is natural (or in any case 'normal') that world powers allow practical considerations to shape their foreign policies; Britain and France, for example, have always acted thus. And both of those countries have by their subsequent policy formulations "justified" the rankest of stinking opportunisms.

In our own case, United States involvement in Latin America is a litany of brigandage, blackmail, and support for sadists, thugs, and criminals.
The bigger the rapist, the greater the chance that we supplied him with armaments and trained his thugs in the approved way of sowing terror.

Though there have been many exceptions, our past behavior somewhat diminishes our claim to moral leadership or the pretence that our foreign policy is based solely on our democratic ideals.

The betrayal of Taiwan can by no means be considered an isolated case - in 1949, the United States and Britain threw the Dutch under the bus in Indonesia. Not that the Dutch hegemony there had any remaining merit - as rulers they were morally bankrupt - but in that the Indonesian nationalist were brigands and murderers who had collaborated with the Japanese Imperial Army and intended to exploit their nation's wealth and human resources in a manner and to an extent which put all previous imperialist to shame, they could not be considered in any way "on the same page" as the Western World - as events in Indonesia throughout the fifties and sixties abundantly showed.
The late Suharto, along with Marcos of the Philippines a great friend of the United States, put even his predecessor Sukarno to shame, running a dictatorship more extortionate and more brutal than even many Eastern-European tyrants. It was very good for American business.

Nor can it be argued that the United States acted with any ethical consistency, as our support of the French in Indochina during that period makes clear: The French employed even more murderous tactics than the Dutch in their desperate attempt to hold onto empire, the VietMin clearly had both the people and the opinion of the world on their side - but France was a far more valuable asset to the United States than the Netherlands.

[That's why the French fought on our side in Irak, whereas the Dutch.... Oh wait! It was actually the other way around! My bad! The Dutch fought with us in Irak, but the French sniped from the sidelines and supported Saddam....... Oh well, vive la France anyhow.]

For nations, the burden of being small is eternal vigilance.


Ari said...

I am grateful for the existence and goodness of our country, the good ol' US of A, and am thankful that Israel has a faithful and generous strategic ally, but the same pragmatism and optimism that enables us to prosper, progress, forgive and forget, holds the kind of ugliness and neglect you eloquently describe. BTW, I think you can also add "Kurds" to your list of spurned peoples...

The back of the hill said...

Ah yes, Mustafa Barzani. Whom we supported, then rejected. Then supported. Then rejected again. Then supported.

No wonder the Kurds are a bit snappish about our well-meaning advice.