Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Obama Foreign Policy Report Card

We're going to grade on a curve here, because the world is a strange, chaotic place, and there are genuine limits to foreign policy, especially diplomacy.  Foreign policy is about subtlety; a minor nuance can be the difference between success and failure.  Often the right strategies are obvious, but how you execute them makes all the difference.  The other key to successful diplomacy is never to take your eye off the ball; sustained action is essential, even when there's no crisis.

Obama came into office with about the usual amount of naivete.  The only three post-war presidents that weren't naive were the ones that had done serious thinking on foreign policy before they took office:  Eisenhower, Reagan, and H.W. Bush.  So Obama gets a partial pass on making some rookie mistakes.  In general, I'd say he made about the usual number of forced errors and a somewhat higher number of unforced errors.

Loosely grouped, from the best to the worst, let's review:

Full-Blown Success

Libyan Arab spring.  I think this is Obama's one crowning achievement.  Far from leading from behind, he capitalized on French anxiety about its North African interests to forge an effective alliance.  Escalating from a no-fly zone to a ground support mission--without putting boots on the ground and pissing off the whole Arab world--showed a strategic flexibility that was surprising, given all the things I'll cite below.

Bin Laden mission.  Possibly a slam-dunk (because the political fallout of chickening out would have been vastly worse domestically than the fallout from trying and failing), but Obama gets credit for doing it.  And the burial at sea (or otherwise undisclosed location) was pure genius.

The Cairo speech and international approval.  No question about it:  Obama's conciliatory tone and light touch has made the world feel better about the US.  Note that "feeling better about" and "respecting" are two different things, but all things being equal, the world at large has a better opinion of us, which gives us a little wiggle room when we have to be bad-asses.

The drone campaign.  There's been some criticism of this, both from an international law perspective and from the point of view that we're depleting intelligence sources by not capturing more of these guys.  But, in a world that's very tired of American boots on the ground, the drones are cheap and effective.  As for the international legality, I think the Bush Administration put in place a decent framework for the waging war on non-state actors and Obama had the good sense to quietly affirm and consolidate it:  People who conduct military operations against the United States or its interests can expect the US to conduct military operations against them, whether they're state actors, non-state actors, or even American citizens acting from offshore.

Western Pacific alliances.  The round of diplomacy that resulted in a tiny Marine force stationed in Australia was timed nicely to capitalize on China overplaying its hand in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia.  It was a low-cost gesture that made all of China's neighbors a bit more confident in the US commitment to containing any Chinese expansionary tendencies.

Free trade agreements.  Obama gets props for following through on the Bush-negotiated free trade agreements with Columbia, Panama, and South Korea.  These were being held hostage by the Democratic Senate at the end of the Bush Administration, and Obama gets credit for providing a (rare) modicum of adult supervision after he was elected.

Did As Well As Could Be Expected 

The Arab Spring in general.  As a supporter of the Bush Doctrine, I understood that any trend toward democracy in the Arab world was going to be messy, unsatisfying at best and fraught with peril at worst.  It was, it is, and it will remain so for a good decade or so.  Obama could have done a bit more in the aftermath to advise the liberals in Egypt (which is really the only place we care about) against the Islamists, but the risk of getting caught doing it would have greatly outweighed the benefits of possible success.  Like it or not, the Islamic world is going to move from autocracy to, if not outright theocracy, at least a government where the lines between the political and the religious are really damn blurry.  In thirty years, we'll see if it's possible to transition to liberal democracy.

China.  It's impossible to tell at this juncture whether Obama did well or poorly, but nothing overtly bad happened on his watch.  He hasn't screwed up on economic relations and he's been adroit at capitalizing on Chinese missteps in the Western Pacific and Africa.  So far so good.

North Korea.  What can you say?  It's a nightmare, but it's mostly a nightmare for the North Korean people, and there's nothing we can do for them.  The good news:  Their nuclear and missile programs are having trouble (hopefully with some assistance from us), they didn't invade South Korea, and their capacity for mischief-making is still low.  Obama has provided benign neglect, which is about right.

The Iraq drawdown.  Given that Iraq is vastly more important than Afghanistan, it's nice that Obama stuck to the Bush timetables, and the drawdown proceeded smoothly.  As for what happened near the end of the drawdown, see the "total failure" section.

Mexico.  Something happened in Mexico?  Nope--and that's usually good news, as it is in this case.

Could Have Done Better

Syria.  I'm going to score this one as an "incomplete" but I'm leaning toward a grade of "opportunity missed".  Given our situation with Iran, a collapse of Alawite Shiia rule over Syria and a Sunni-dominated government would be a huge help.  Granted, the most likely Sunni domination would be Islamist, but that's the likely endpoint no matter what.  Getting there sooner, even if it bothers the neighbors a little bit, is probably better.  No-fly and air-based ground attack aren't really options, but lots and lots of anti-tank weapons and covert training would be handy.  Maybe those things are going on--I hope so.

Hillary Clinton.   As a political sop, Secretary of State was a nice bone to throw Hillary, and I had high hopes that she'd learn the job fast enough--she seems to be smart.  It doesn't appear to have happened.  Obama would have done better with a professional diplomat.  Plus, what's the deal with Hillary choosing Madeline Albright as her fashion role model?

The Green Revolution.  It was highly unlikely that the post-election Iranian uprising was going to succeed.  But moral support would have gone a long way, and no doubt would have improved our chances of being able to influence the liberal elements of the Arab Spring.  They probably still would have lost to the Islamists, but they wouldn't be in complete disarray right now.  Even more important, however, is that we were in a position to start cultivating grass-roots support amongst the opposition forces inside Iran.  We blew that right out the window with our silence.  If revolution ever does come, it's not going to be revolution that owes the US a favor or two.  There were subtle things to be done here, but the Obama Administration doesn't know how to do subtle diplomacy.

The Arab Fall.  The initial response to the protests over the video was genuinely disgraceful.  But the big problem with the protests rippling through the Islamic world is that they were forseeable and could have been mitigated with proactive diplomacy.  The Obama Administration took its eye off the ball, with predictable results.  They don't seem to understand that, when you just leave things alone, you cede ground to people who are actually willing to engage.

Post-Bin Laden relations with Pakistan.  Honest, I'd just like to disengage with Pakistan and throw the whole country down the memory hole.  It's a despicable government, failing to manage a set of fairly despicable tribes and allowing them to do despicable things.  But it's a government with nuclear weapons (which by several reports are highly insecure), controlling territory that we need for our logistical tail into Afghanistan, and a major problem for India, the one country that has a chance of counterbalancing China in South and Southeast Asia with something approaching Western ideals.  Not informing the Pakistanis of the bin Laden raid was completely correct, but everybody was caught flat-footed at Pakistan's rather predictable response.  We're right on the cusp of Pakistan changing from frenemy to enemy, and that didn't have to happen.

Islamism in the Sahel.  The stuff happening in Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, the Sudan, and Somalia has moved from general lawlessness (not a national security issue) to the beginnings of a broad-based foothold for Islamism and international Islamic terrorism (definitely an issue).  The attack on the Libyan consulate seems to have brought this to a head.  Again, this is just plain old neglect.

Canada.  How is it possible to make your best trading partner start building pipelines with an eye toward favoring Chinese trade over your own?  I mean, it's Canada, for chrissake.  Stupid.

International respect.  The Obama Administration appears to be widely perceived to be feckless.  Everybody's really happy when the US isn't using the big stick, but nobody except our enemies is happy seeing us throwing the big stick under the bed with the old GI Joe collection.  Half-hearted diplomacy is worse than no diplomacy at all--but no diplomacy is pretty bad.  Obama was incredibly naive--or arrogant--when he decided that the force of his oratory was going to preserve American influence while making everybody love us.  It's OK if they don't love us.  It's not OK when they don't fear us, at least a little.

Total Failure

Guantanamo.  Naive, naive, naive.  He should've just kept his mouth shut.  He didn't understand what the Bush national security changes were all about until after he took office.  He didn't understand the difference between law enforcement and military operations.

Climate change.  The policy would have been worth a 'B-' in a freshman intro to poly-sci course, but it's an 'F' in the real world.  Obama has no conception of how shooting his mouth off and then utterly failing on the follow-through weakens us internationally.  Climate change diplomacy isn't going anywhere until the rest of the world is caught up economically, and anybody other than a college sophomore would have known better.

Eastern Europe missile defense.  The policy of using Aegis cruisers in the Aegean and Black Sea is actually pretty clever, but throwing Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus damaged Eastern European confidence and pretty much convinced Russia that they could do whatever they wanted.

Israel.  OK, let's first understand that the temptation to take a crack at the Palestinian peace process appears to be something that is impossible to resist once you're President.  But other presidents have been smart enough not to add preconditions onto the talks that cause the Palestinians to demand a major concession--a rollback of settlements--before they'll even sit down at the table.  The Obama Administration managed to put negotiations back a couple of decades in an afternoon.  Add on the mindless snubbing of Netanyahu, who is, admittedly, a bit of an asshole, but previously was a steadfast ally, and our alliance with Israel has gone from one with genuine moral authority, where the only mature liberal democracy in the Middle East was endorsed fully by the US, to a sterile military alliance where the two parties mistrust one another.  Small wonder that Netanyahu has started to meddle in American politics--his country is being backed into an untenable position, and he doesn't have much to lose.

Afghanistan.  Obama predicated his campaign on a fundamental untruth:  that Afghanistan was the "good war" and Iraq was the "bad war".  So he was more-or-less obligated to pay lip service to winning in Afghanistan, which has always been impossible.  Dither, surge, but surge while committing to an exit timetable, dither some more, ignore the Afghan government, and sit counting the hours until we can declare victory and retreat.  Afghanistan was unwinnable from the start and we accomplished as much as we were going to in the first three months of 2002.  Bush was right to focus on Iraq (which has real strategic importance), and Obama's entire strategy for both wars was recto-cranially inverted.  It would have been fine to use the election as a reason to pull out, but half-heartedly surging and then failing utterly sends yet another signal to people who really, really hate us that they can get away with just about anything and the only response will be for internal political consumption.

A nuclear Iran.  Let's start with the fabled "reset" where we were going to dial down the rhetoric and talk to Iran.  That buys them almost two years on their nuclear program.  Then we go limp on the Green Revolution, which buys them still more time.  Then we are utterly incapable of doing a deal with China and Russia at the UN, which might have brought real sanctions down on the Iranians in time to prevent them sprinting toward nuclear readiness.  Then we telegraph total unwillingness to do anything military by leaking Israel's plans.  It would all be laughable if it weren't so damn dangerous.  With Iranian nukes, Israel can't deter them.  With Iranian nukes, the whole Middle East will proliferate, because the threat that the Iranians hold over the region is intolerable.  And with Iranian nukes, Iran can extend its covert military operations wherever it wants with little to no threat of retaliation.  And now Obama won't even talk about military action until after the election.

The Iraq SOFA.  Major military involvement in Iraq had to end--the American people weren't going to put up with it, nor were the Iraqis.  But the Iraqis would have been overjoyed to have anti-terrorist forces and a tripwire against the Iranians.  But the Obama Administration so badly booted the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations that we're left with nothing.  Make no mistake:  American interests in Iraq are all about oil, just like the protesters said in 2003.  And that's a damn good reason to have a military presence in Iraq.  We don't, and the country has effectively gone dark for us, almost as dark as after the Iran-Iraq War.  Iraq may stumble along to become a decent democracy, but the odds against it went up quite a bit when the last American serviceman left the country.

All-in-all, The Obama Administration's foreign policy is a lot like a lot of Democratic administrations.  They don't quite understand why you have to remain engaged.  That's not fatal in the short run, but you're likely to leave the a flaming bag of poop on the doorstep of the guy who comes after you.


Karl Hallowell said...

Mexico. Something happened in Mexico? Nope--and that's usually good news, as it is in this case.

Well, there is that cartel war. And we did send via the ATF two thousand high quality, untracked firearms (as I understand it) to drug gangs in Mexico. Given how often those appear at crime scenes in Mexico, that can't be good for US/Mexico relations.

And I agree with the Arab spring assessment. I didn't have high expectations primarily because the best historical example, the European revolutions of 1848 turned out pretty mixed as well (for example, the UK made some of its final transitions to a democracy during this time, but it also established Marxism as a viable ideology).

I also see a few "throw under the bus" examples. This seems to me the most odious and self-destructive of Obama's habits. Even using sociopathic logic, there's good reason to maintain a relationship with people or countries you can't currently use because they may be used later.

And why insult someone (as he did with Israel) while you throw them under the bus? If you don't have scruples, then you need something else going for you like finesse.

TheRadicalModerate said...

If anything, I view the cartel war as the most promising development in Mexico in a decade, but I get the impression it's mostly the Mexicans deciding that they've had enough rather than US diplomacy. I only hope that the new government doesn't keep its promises and restore the status quo.