Sunday, May 30, 2010

Is Obama too easily rolled in foreign policy?

TomDispatch has a thought-provoking article by Dilip Hiro, The American Century Is So Over 05/27/2010. He looks at Obama's record in dealing with various foreign policy issues: the Hondurus coup of 2009; Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; China's currency policy; the crooked elections in Afghanistan; and, Brasil's various foreign policy initiatives, including its recent agreement with Turkey and Iran over Iran's nuclear program. He concludes:

In his first year-plus in office, Barack Obama has provided us with enough examples to summarize his leadership style. The American president fails to objectively evaluate the strength of the cards that a targeted leader holds and his resolve to play them.

Obama’s propensity to retreat at the first sign of resistance shows that he lacks both guts and the strong convictions that are essential elements distinguishing statesmen from politicians. By pursuing a rudderless course in his foreign policy, by flip-flopping in his approach to other leaders, he is also inadvertently furnishing hard evidence to those who argue that American power is on the decline -- and that the downward slide of the globe’s former “sole superpower” is irreversible.
I don't think his analysis as presented here fully justifies his conclusions, though he does bring out an interesting pattern.

But duplicity and flexibility are both necessary parts of foreign policy. And some of the examples are open to other interpretations than a weakness of style. Obama treatment of the Netanyahu government over the settlements does seem to be inconsistent on the face. But what if we assume that Obama's policy has always been to support continued Israeli settlement in the West Bank? Then the inconsistencies look more like attempts to finesse some part of the opposition to the settlements. Alternatively, we could look at the fact that the Obama administration has been more willing to publicly confront the Israeli leadership in a way that no administration since Old Man Bush's has done. That has also opened up the mainstream discussion over US-Israeli relations that is a very good thing. There's a good argument to be made that Obama is serious about halting settlement activity but faces very strong opposition in Congress, and negotiating those shoals could explain the inconsistencies.

On Brasil's involvement in the Iranian nuclear program problem, Hiro writes:

Taken by surprise and rattled by the success of Brazil and Turkey in the face of American disapproval, the Obama administration reverted to the stance of the Bush White House and demanded that Iran suspend its program to enrich nuclear fuel. It then moved to push an agreement on further U.N. sanctions against Iran, as if the Brazilians and Turks had accomplished nothing.
But, regardless of the merits of the position, this particular instance looks more to me like pursuing a broadly consistent policy of pressuring Iran to give up the aspects of its nuclear program that could give it a practical capacity to build nuclear weapons.

Part of the problem is that Hiro's analyses of the various problems combines substantive criticism with a criticism of style without distinguishing the two clearly enough. He further clouds the analysis by passing negative judgments such as "flip-flopping" and "a rudderless course in his foreign policy." But then he also suggests aat the end that Obama's deferential policy to smaller countries is an inevitable recognition of the fact that:

The influence of mid-level powers on the world stage is on the rise. Their leaders feel -- rightly -- that they can ignore or bypass the Obama administration’s demands. And, on the positive side, they can come together on certain international issues and take diplomatic initiatives of their own with a fair chance of success.

... The waning of the truncated American Century is by now irreversible.
I find the criticism of Obama's alleged "flip-flopping" particularly irritating, because that is a standard criticism Republicans that Republcans make against Democratic Presidential candidates to paint them as weak and untrustworthy. Changing a position in response to changing facts or as a result of new judgments is not always a bad thing. The US and the world would be much better off right now if the Cheney-Bush administration had changed its disastrous policy of invading and occupying Iraq before the invasion began.

Altogether, it's not clear whether Hiro is mostly trying to criticize Obama's diplomatic negotiating style, judging him negativelyfor decreasing American influence, or using Obama's policies as an illustration of an inevitable decline of American power relative to the rest of the world.

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