Friday, October 5, 2012

The realist in idealist clothing - The confused foreign policy of President Obama

 The next Presidential debate will cover foreign policy. In advance of the debate I wanted to outline some of my thoughts about Obama's foreign policy.

Taking his recent UN speech at face value, you would think that the President's foreign policy pursues the advance of global freedom as its central raison d'etre. This is not born out in reality. Ultimately, for this President, the idealist 'freedom agenda' takes a back seat to a more traditional realist approach to international affairs. My concern is that this approach lacks a broad narrative of clarity and sacrifices long term interests in pursuit of vague, short term objectives.

After only a few months in office, President Obama faced an Iranian protest movement angered by endemic electoral fraud. While protesters demanding freedom were brutally suppressed by ideological extremists, Obama remained quiet. In the President's words, he did not want to be seen as 'meddling'. For Obama, the pursuit of an improbable detente with Iran's leaders was more important than the protection of basic individual freedom. It was evident that freedom had suffered a serious relegation in American foreign policy.

Another example of the declining importance of freedom was seen in the President's early policy towards Egypt. Just prior to the aforementioned protests in Iran, Obama addressed university students in Cairo to offer his support for eventual Egyptian democracy. Taken alone, Obama's words suggested a bold idealist narrative in his foreign policy. In fact, the reality was far different. The same year as his Cairo speech, Obama cut Egyptian democracy aid from the US by 60% and Civil Society/NGO support aid by 80%. For the President, words provided a cheap alternative to substantive assistance. Indeed, when Egyptians later revolted against the Mubarak government, Obama only shifted support to their revolution when it became apparent that Mubarak was doomed. For the President, Egyptian democracy was preferable only so far as it was cheap, easy and uncomplicated. As the recent embassy protests illustrated, Egyptian democracy has been far from uncomplicated. With words as well as action, Obama should have supported Egyptian freedom from the start.

The confusion in Obama's foreign policy has been most pronounced in his administration's variant responses to the revolutions in Libya and Syria. Where (under European pressure) Obama reluctantly signed on to the overthrow of Gaddafi's relatively weak regime, in Syria, US policy has been very different. Faced with Assad's military power and his alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, Obama has been reluctant to provide either direct or indirect military aid to the Syrian rebel movement. Obama's short term realist hesitancy has restrained American policy. The President could and should be taking greater steps to help Syrians win their freedom.

The President's realist sympathies are also evident in his conduct of grand power politics. Where a major element of President GW Bush's Russia policy was focused on support for eastern European democracy, Obama has instead favored a 'reset' designed to balance US-Russia relations into greater stability. Although this effort seems to have produced little tangible success, Obama has recently suggested that he would make even greater compromises to Putin if he wins re-election in November.

What about counter-terrorism policy under Obama?

In 2008, the President campaigned on a platform to close Guantanamo and reform the CIA's interrogation program. However, today's reality bears little resemblance to those now distant words. Under Obama, predator drone strikes against suspected terrorists are being authorized at unprecedented levels. Guantanamo remains open and military commissions have been re-authorized. Rendition remains part of the CIA tool kit. While I personally agree with the President's decisions in these areas, I also believe that they indicate the distance between 'Obama the liberal idealist' and 'Obama the realist'.

Considering Afghanistan, while during the 2008 campaign Obama called Afghanistan 'the right war'  that he would win, the President has now decided that Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting. Although recent gains towards greater local security and local political sovereignty have been achieved, Obama has decided that Afghan freedom must be subjugated to domestic political expediency. The 'right war' worthy of continued sacrifice is now simply the war that will 'end on schedule'.

    Since January 2009, the President's idealist narrative has acted as a cloak for a traditional, short term realist rooted foreign policy. For me this is problematic. In a world where competing forces are struggling for freedom and justice, American foreign policy needs a sustaining clarity. Without such a clarity, America's enemies are emboldened and our allies (both real and potential) are alienated and discouraged. American foreign policy should never just be about navigating difficult storms abroad. Instead, it should be about bold ideas and confident resolve.

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