Ernest Hemingway offered a memorable description of the experience of going broke: It occurs at first very slowly, then all at once. The Obama foreign policy remains as yet in the “very slowly” stage. But the ultimate destination to which it is trending has already come into sight.
AFGHANISTAN. George W. Bush took a lot of criticism for cutting taxes at the beginning of the prior administration’s wars. What are we to say about President Obama cutting military spending at the beginning of his? Senior military commanders are pressing for more troops. The civilian overseers of the Department of Defense are resisting. And Democrats in Congress are already eyeing the exits. The president initiated this commitment for campaign purposes in his candidate days, to allow him to balance hawkish themes in Afghanistan against his dovishness on Iraq. The commitment was not connected in any organic way to the rest of his foreign policy, the grand theme of which is conciliation through moral and practical concession. Nobody thinks a surge in Afghanistan is the policy he would have chosen if he had expressed his own mind back in 2007 and 2008. Nor was it supported by any effective constituency within his party. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s a commitment that the president avoids talking about—and whose costs are being massaged and messaged rather than explained and defended. This is a formula for a credibility gap down the road, and political failure a little further after that.
IRAN. Averting its eyes from the rigging of the presidential election and the suppression of dissent, the Obama administration will begin mid-level talks with Iran on Oct. 1. The Iranians have already announced that no nuclear concessions will be forthcoming. There’s good reason to believe them—they followed this same tactic in talks with Europeans in the mid-2000s, buying time for themselves as the nuclear clock ticked down. Iran is the most conspicuous and most important test of the president’s conciliation policy. On its present course, the likeliest result is the creation of a new and very dangerous nuclear state—established over only the most nominal American resistance.
EUROPE. The release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset al-Megrahi showed an amazing disregard of U.S. sensibilities by the governments of the United Kingdom and Scotland. Despite the affront, the Obama administration murmured only the most tepid of complaints. Likewise, the governments of France and Germany buzzed off the new president’s dubious calls for huge fiscal stimulus. So much for the restoration of cooperation supposedly achieved by Obama’s election. The cowboy Bush got worse press but better results from our European allies than the Euro-favorite Obama.
WESTERN HEMISPHERE. One of the Bush administration’s great achievements was the quiet success of Plan Colombia, which has helped pacify the Venezuelan-aided narco-insurgency in Colombia. Democrats opposed the plan at the time—and evidently haven’t learned anything from the experience. They now show amazingly little interest in the even more serious crisis of law and order in Mexico. Under Obama, the U.S. could face a threat not experienced since the very earliest days of the republic: violent instability on the nation’s border, unless this self-certain president bends enough to learn some lessons from his predecessor. But can he? Obama’s reaction to the power struggle in Honduras, admittedly a non-strategic country, reveals a depressing, knee-jerk partiality to the Latin American left-wing, even at its most anti-constitutional and authoritarian.
INTERNATIONAL TRADE. The jury is still out, but the early indications—the insertion of Buy-American provisions in the stimulus package; tariffs imposed upon Chinese tires—are disturbing to put it mildly. The Democrats’ campaign-season denunciations of NAFTA were charitably disregarded by domestic and international observers as cynical but meaningless pandering. It remains hard to believe that the sophisticated Obama can have much personal sympathy for trade protection. But what the whole world must worry about is whether a president who let Congress write his stimulus package and his health-care plan lacks the clout to tell a Democratic Congress “no” on protectionism.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE. Here, for once, the administration is exerting some muscle. But to what end? President Obama has swiftly plunged into the great time sink that so uselessly consumed the last weeks of the Clinton presidency. The U.S. is applying pressure to Israel, because Israel is susceptible to U.S. pressure, in hopes of gaining concessions from the Palestinians, who are not. The process is the diplomatic equivalent of a drunk searching for his key under the streetlamp—because it’s brighter there. The approach has never worked before, but repeated failure does not seem to have discouraged Obama from trying yet again.
Not everything that goes wrong in the world is the president’s fault, of course. Vladimir Putin’s Russia would behave aggressively no matter who was president, just as any president would confront the same unappealing range of options in Pakistan. But the very intractability of such problems makes it more important to do right what can be done right.
Despite the domestic focus of these early months of his presidency, Barack Obama thinks of himself as a foreign policy thinker above all, according to those who know him best. His confidence is undiminished by his lack of experience and credentials. That confidence continues to flourish despite a lack of positive results. Given present trends, it is unlikely to bow to lessons even from seriously negative consequences. The president is committed to his path. So, ominously, is the country.
Originally published in The Week.