Monday, February 24, 2014
Obama's foreign policy objectives
n his first year in office, U.S. president Barack Obama was asked about his belief in the concept of "American exceptionalism." The president's response was a sharp break from the concept as understood by his predecessor in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, and many Americans. The more generally accepted concept was summarized by writer James Kirchik as the notion "that our history as the world's oldest democracy, our immigrant founding and our devotion to liberty endow the United States with a unique, providential role in world affairs."
The concept, in other words, supports an outlook on America's role in world affairs that includes our active involvement in these matters, and argues that America has had a positive involvement in world affairs.
Obama's response as the leader of his country, a country that for decades was the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, was unusual to say the least: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Comparing the United States role in the world to Britain's, a former great power, now one with one-fifth the population of the United States, or to that of Greece, a country with less than one-thirtieth the population of the United States, and a collapsing economy to boot, suggested that for the new president, neither America nor its history were all that special.
This is, after all, a president who has been seemingly obsessed with "difference" and inequality at home. So it was probably not that surprising that he viewed America's recent outsized and costly role (both in men and treasure) in military interventions overseas, as something to be scaled back. Greece could not afford to send, and was not sending troops around the world, so why should America? Why should America be the big dog? Was our prominent role in world matters (as compared to the role of other nations) fair?
The president campaigned on a platform that emphasized multilateralism in activities abroad, with a greater emphasis on diplomacy over the use of force. To a large extent, war fatigue was something the president shared with many Americans. The United States has suffered about 7,000 fatalities, and several times that number of injured in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Vietnam war, a very long conflict that also caused a long post-conflict American war fatigue, had eight times the number of Americans killed in combat, and left a similar less-than-satisfactory state of affairs in the country where we had been engaged.
One great difference between the Vietnam War and the more recent conflicts related to the size of the American armed forces, and the greater shared sacrifices that occurred in the earlier conflict. In a nation of 180 million, 3.5 million served in the military during the Vietnam period, and a large number of those who served had been drafted rather than volunteering for duty. Now the United States has an all-volunteer military, with about 1.4 million members in a nation of well over 310 million people. The share of the American population in the armed forces has dropped from 2% to less than 0.5%, a greater than ¾ decline. Many fewer American families are "military families" with a real personal stake in what happens to their sons and daughters overseas, and the division between military families and the rest of America has widened.
Obama's shift from a presidency concentrating on foreign affairs, including wars abroad, to one that focuses the president and the government on domestic matters, is therefore a popular course, though there are obvious wide splits within the nation on the critical domestic issues that should be the focus of government, and on the appropriate domestic policies to pursue.
The past few years have witnessed many American policy statements on troubling matters abroad, but much less of an active role in resolving them. The Syrian civil war, which has continued for several years and has produced well over a 100,000 deaths, seems to have barely bothered the critics of America's invasion of Iraq (which of course at the time included then Illinois State Senator and later U.S. Senator Barack Obama) and produced similar large casualty figures in the civil war that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. While good policy options for ending the conflict in Syria have not been obvious, the Obama White House seemed to have set policy in part not to offend the Iranians (with whom it was negotiating on a nuclear deal), and Russia, both of which had important stakes in preserving the Bashar Assad government. The human rights choir in the United States, which seems to care so deeply about what happens to innocent refugees in the Sudan, seemed not to value as much the lives of murdered Syrian civilians. Maybe if Mia Farrow and Nicholas Kristof had ventured off to Syria, the Left would have cared more.
There might have been a time during the Syrian conflict when a more active American role might have enabled a non-al-Qaida dominated Sunni resistance to have emerged to fight the Assad regime. But that does not appear to be an option today, and the killing continues. In Libya, the United States was happy to "lead from behind" in the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, supporting a limited military intervention by our allies, in order to respond to identical crimes that have occurred in Syria on a much larger scale. Clearly, even with a policy of avoiding direct U.S. military involvement, consistency has been a hard thing to find with this administration in responding to overseas hot spots or human rights catastrophes.
One area where the administration has been steadier has been in its public pronouncements and more recently in its stepped-up efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is zero evidence to date that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry can move the parties to a deal within the designated or any time frame. While the American negotiators always talk of windows of opportunity about to close without a deal this very moment (suggesting the atmospherics are better now than at other times), it is hard to see why that is the case. The Palestinians seem as uninterested in resolving the conflict as they always have been. They have demanded maximalist concessions from Israel (a complete transfer of sovereignty in Jerusalem's Old City), never relaxed any of their demands (a right of return for between 5 and 8 million descendants of refugees), and never promised to agree to an end of the conflict if a satisfactory agreement could be negotiated to create a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are rejectionist for several reasons: They never pay a price for saying no to American negotiators or those from other countries, they have no interest in actually having to run a state (given the Hamas/Fatah split and the chaos, corruption and failed governance and economies in both Hamas- and PA-dominated areas), and they have never reconciled to the permanence of a Jewish majority State of Israel. It is always easier to blame Israeli stubbornness about settlements as the reason why talks collapse, and that is likely to be the case again.
The passion with which Kerry has undertaken his peace negotiations is matched only by his zeal for alarming people at home and abroad of the catastrophe that he warns will soon be upon us due to global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. While in Indonesia this week, a developing country with a gross domestic product less than $3,500 per capita, Kerry argued that global warming should be the No. 1. concern of this nation of over 200 million people. As the evidence of the extent of global warming becomes increasingly scant, the voices warning of its dangers have become more strident.
Many have tried to make some sense and find a common thread in the new internationalism of the Obama administration. If you review the evidence, you get this -- fight no more wars abroad, reduce the size and cost of the military, expand the welfare state, fight global warming (renamed as climate change since it goes down easier and can be applied to all changes up or down in the number of storms, or temperatures), pressure Israel for a peace deal with the Palestinians (since solving that problem is so essential and ripe for resolution, and Israeli intransigence explains why a deal has never been reached to date), allow the Iranians to talk their way out of sanctions with promises they don't really commit to on scaling back their nuclear program, work more closely with international bodies and groups of nations on particular problems, and never unilaterally advance specifically national (American) objectives. This laundry list well describes the foreign policy objectives of the major European nations and the European Union itself over the past decades.
If you want to manage a nation in decline, Barack Obama has chosen a good model.