Obama Heads for Foreign Policy Disaster

September 17th, 2009 at 1:26 pm David Frum | 19 Comments |

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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.

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19 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    Afghanistan: Frum does know that Obama has almost quadrupled the number of US forces in Afghanistan since taking office, right? Senior military commanders always press for more troops – and civilian leaders often push back based on what is available (see Lincoln v McClellan)

    Iran: poly made the case best in another thread – we can ignore Iran, we can negotiate with Iran, or we can use military force on Iran. I’d say that conducting negotiations at mid-levels, rather than high levels, is a way of noting our dissatisfaction with the conduct of the election and subsequent protests. However, it becomes childish to use this as a basis for not talking.

    Europe: I’m not sure how Bush “got better results”. Except for immediate reaction to 9/11, which was an extraodinary time, Europe cooperated with him when it was in their financial interests, and blew him off when they thought it wasn’t.

    WESTERN HEMISPHERE: A lot of people believe that Obama did exactly the right thing by not trying to interject America into the middle of a Honduran dispute. He voiced his interest in rule of law, and didn’t intervene on either side. America acting in this way is a much surer pathway to minimizing Chavez than, say, Bush trying to forment a revolution against Chavez in 2001 was.

    INTERNATIONAL TRADE: A lot of sophisticated observers believe that America needs to use the power of our marketplace as a way to ensure fair trade from our global trading partners. Are you really supportive of the number of jobs and industries lost to China over the last 8 years?

    ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Seriously, dude – virtually everyone except for Likudniks and Neocons want the Israelis to dial back the expansion of illegal settlements.

  • rbottoms

    Afghanistan: Frum does know that Obama has almost quadrupled the number of US forces in Afghanistan since taking office, right? Senior military commanders always press for more troops – and civilian leaders often push back based on what is available (see Lincoln v McClellan)

    Bush yanks troops, intel, material, and support away from Afghanistan, barely provides enough troops to keep the lights on for six years and it’s Obama’s fault that the effort is teetering on failure.

    Obama is sending more troops, money and giving the senior leaders the tools to do the job right but the poor fellow hasn’t been able to turn it around seven months. Epic Fail.

    The first two years of Obama’s term will be spent cleaning up the mess of the previous administration and/or avoiding disaster in just about every area, foreign and domestic. Some of the money needed for Afghanistan will be coming from funds that will not be spent on a useless missile deployment scheme in Poland designed to do nothing more than piss off the Russians.

    God knows what’s going to come crashing down next from your former boss’ gigantic mismanagement of just about everything. That we still have an economy to speak of is success all its own.

  • MFarmer

    I have a feeling Iran will wind up with control of Iraq and Afghanistan — I won’t go as far as saying “with our blessings”, but, perhaps, without our resistance. A realist might even think that Iran can do better with them than the U.S.

  • balconesfault

    I have a feeling Iran will wind up with control of Iraq and Afghanistan — I won’t go as far as saying “with our blessings”, but, perhaps, without our resistance.

    Iraq, yeah. Not complete control – say 75% control. The seeds of that were pretty much sown the day we decided to de-Baathify Iraq.

    Afghanistan? Nope. Those cantankerous SOBs are never going to let anyone wind up with control of them … and I suspect that unlike the British Empire, the USSR, and the USA, Iran is intelligent enough to realize that without burning their hand.

  • MFarmer

    You might be right, but if it’s a choice between the Taliban and the Iranians, the Iranians would be preferred, especially if they “take care” of them financially.

  • MFarmer

    “Frum’s #1 Fan


    Do I detect a little leftwing conspiracy nuttery — thanks for the memories:

    “The beard isn’t the only thing that’s fake. The Osama is fake as well. Ever wonder why these tapes always appear when it most benefits the Cheney regime? Ever wonder why “Osama” reiterates left-wing talking points, enabling the Bushites to tell anyone who is dumb enough to listen that the Dems are on the same page as “Al Qaeda”? At what point did Osama bin Laden STOP working for the C.I.A.? Answer: When he died in December 2001.”

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Love this intro: “His confidence is undiminished by his lack of experience and credentials”. Umm… which president are we talking about? What exactly did ol’ chimpy bring to the table in the way of foreign policy “experience and credentials” back in 2000?

  • EscapeVelocity

    OleSama is highly recommending Walt and Mearsheimer’s Israel Lobby and Jimmy Carter’s Peace Not Apartheid.

    Interesting that those books were translated into Arabic, wouldnt you say. Because most Western books arent, as their isnt much of a market for free ideas over there. Well, except for Jew bashing.

    What a hoot!

  • Jim

    MFarmer is the only one who’s making any sense here. Iran has a large indigenous population of Jews which it has always acknowledged.

    Let’s all vote in the next election, OK? BTW, is Mike Huckabee that scary?

  • wiselatinahousewife

    You forgot to mention the latest decision by our Commander in Chief to scrap the land-based missile defense system in Europe. Is it me or should we all be worried when Russia likes the steps we take to ‘defend’ our nation and allies?

    The New York Times Headline this week was: ”Putin Applauds ‘Brave’ US Decision on Missile Defense. President Obama states that a newer, more flexible system that is sea-based as opposed to placed in Poland by the Russian border is much better for us. Really? OK, maybe it’s true. What do I know? I am just a housewife…

    But I do get a little queazy when the biggest fan of our strategic homeland security decisions is the de-facto head of a former enemy country; a totalitarian regime lead by a couple of oil-rich oligarchs with nuclear weapons.

    “I very much hope that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others,” Mr. Putin said. Are you kidding me? Is this what we’ve come to?

    I sure hope there is a greater plan because if the White House is hoping that Russia will now help us contain Iran, think again. Why should they? Even if they were willing… Would we trust them?

    Ironically, right in our own backyard, Putin has granted a $2.2 billion loan to Venezuela’s dictator Hugo Chavez so he can purchase a Russian-made missile defense system. So let me get this straight. We are NOT putting a missile defense system in Europe, but we are allowing Russia to fund and develop a missile defense system in Venezuela?

    It was reported last week that in addition to the S-300 rocket systems, Chavez’s new missile defense shield will also have Russian-made Buk-M2 and Pechora air defense systems, each capable of operating a different ranges.

    God help us all.

  • LFC

    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?

    Uh, would you like to provide some backing for that accusation, David? The last figures I saw back in the spring were that while boondoggle programs like the F-22 and laser armed jet were being cut, proposed military spending was, in fact, to be increased by 4%. I was pretty good at math in college, and I can’t come up with a formula where x + 4% < x … assuming x is positive (which it is, to the tune of over $500B).

    Oh, yeah. The increases were supporting more weapons and equipment for THE TROOPS. Remember them? The people we’re supposed to support through deed, not just bulls*** slogans? That’s equipment for the troops, rather than a hi-tech fighter that has no mission and was not appropriate to send into battle for any of our past wars, or a jet based laser weapon that has had a decade of R&D and zero tangible results.

    Of course, maybe I missed something and Obama changed his mind and slashed military spending.

  • LFC

    wiselatinahousewife said… You forgot to mention the latest decision by our Commander in Chief to scrap the land-based missile defense system in Europe. Is it me or should we all be worried when Russia likes the steps we take to ‘defend’ our nation and allies?

    It’s you. The missile defense system was implemented before they ever really got it working. It’s a very high priced paper weight.

    The Russians are more angry about us moving any weapons system into what they deem their sphere of influence, and view it as part of a build-up.

    Let me ask you, how would you feel if Russia start moving weapons systems (maybe even nukes) into Cuba and Venezuela? Imagine a state of the art Russian submarine base in the Caribbean? What if Mexico ends up with a Communist leader, and they cut a deal to place sub bases just south of Texas and California? What if China did it? My guess is that you’d be crapping your pants and pissed as hell. I don’t know why you can’t understand that Russia would respond the same way.

  • Homunculus

    lfc, I am with the housewife here.

    We can drive ourselves crazy with “what if” scenarios, so it is spurious at best to “try and feel what they are feeling”. Honestly, that is where Americans continually fail … we apply our mores and values into dialog where it is neither appropriate nor helpful.

    With all due respect to the two of you – I don’t really care about the missiles there. As lfc noted, they are probably a few years from working anyway. If Gates said there is a better way to skin the cat – its all good for me.

    HOWEVER, what I do care about is what we received for giving them up. It better be fanfreakingtastic because the bad PR in Poland and amongst our allies is definitely an additional loss (especially for the president dedicated to “renewing America in the eyes of the world”.)

    I have won more than my share at the poker table with a bad hand, and in this instance we were holding a Royal Flush.

  • aDude

    With regards to the missile defense system, it would seem to me that the first target of an Iranian missile would be Tel Aviv (since Iran has lagged in the development of long or even medium range missile technology). A system located in Eastern Europe isn’t going to help there, but Aegis cruisers in the Mediterranean Sea or Red Sea would provide cover. No doubt there will be implicit (or even explicit) guarantees given to Israel that the US would cover the country. That in turn provides some leverage over Israel with regards to additional West Bank settlements. So, in one move, you neutralize Iranian nuclear missiles, protect the probably target of Iranian attack, get leverage over Israel to reach a final peace deal with the Palestinians, and reduce tensions with an admittedly paranoid Russia. That’s the sort of multi piece chess thinking where Nixon excelled. (Confession – my audio book this week is “Nixon in Winter”)

    As for trade, Obama is not slapping down the protectionist wing of his own party, which is clearly detrimental to long term economic growth. If only the Republicans could focus on serious issues like free trade rather than (…well, choose from this week’s list of Glen Back outrages…), then we could establish ourselves in the minds of the voters as the economic grown-ups we really are.

  • EscapeVelocity

    This president is dedicated to apologizing for America’s existence and actions.

  • agentprovocateur

    Oh my gosh! The evil, liberal conspiracy between the president and GE/MSNBC has finally been exposed! To the barricades!

  • Rod

    Vladimir Putin is surely getting a lot of sinister satisfaction from Obama’s new foriegn policy. Such a naive U.S. leader scares the hell out of many many people in the West. Russia is a bully, and Obama was bullied….its as simple as that. He’s letting many European leaders down with his recent decisions, as well as Democracy as a whole. Putin’s future actions will surely prove me right.