Susan Rice. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
Last year, President Obama famously told Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility on foreign policy after the 2012 election, since he wouldn’t have to face re-election. So, several months in, with his new foreign policy team in place, led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, it’s fair to ask how Obama is doing.
The record so far is mixed, though there are some hopeful signs. Most encouraging, in a major speech delivered at the National Defense University (NDU) on May 23, the president called for an end to the long-running “war on terror.” He said Al Qaeda was all but defeated, adding that henceforth terrorism could be dealt with by law enforcement and intelligence rather than the military. Obama reiterated his call to shut down Guantánamo, demanded that the outdated Authorization to Use Military Force be rewritten on a smaller scale, and pledged to rein in drone warfare by restricting targets and taking greater care to avoid civilian casualties.
Whether Obama’s words translate into significant policy changes remains to be seen. More broadly, he has a lot of catching up to do in international affairs. Facing an urgent set of challenges—civil war in Syria, a belligerent North Korea, stalled nuclear talks with Iran, a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process, flare-ups across Africa, tense relations with China and Russia, and a stubborn economic crisis in Europe, just for starters—Obama will have to shake off his desire to focus primarily on problems at home. During his first term, he often appeared willing to let global affairs drift as he pursued his domestic agenda, only to be seized by nasty foreign surprises.
The NDU speech began to right a balance that was lost in Obama’s February State of the Union address, which was overwhelmingly devoted to domestic issues. Even in that speech, however, Obama said Americans “believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” and he pledged to “reduce…wartime spending.” Indeed, since taking office, the president’s instinct has been anti-interventionist, the most recent exhibit being his reluctance to involve the United States directly in Syria’s civil war. Especially when measured against George W. Bush’s shoot-first, make-diplomacy-later attitude, that’s a good thing. “Obama’s great strength in terms of foreign policy is that he’s not impulsive, and he realizes that there are very few things happening in the world that can truly harm the United States,” says Stephen Walt, international affairs specialist at Harvard and co-author of The Israel Lobby.
But if that is Obama’s strength, it hides an underlying weakness. The United States certainly doesn’t need to deploy its armed forces every time trouble erupts, much less engage in pre-emptive, unilateral wars. But it does need a well-conceived approach to diplomacy, in which each piece of the world puzzle fits into a mosaic that makes sense. Building better relations with Russia and China, for instance, is indispensable for dealing with Syria, Iran and North Korea. And it’s impossible to make progress on those or other difficult problems without a diplomatic strategy that starts at the top and involves all the players. Thus far, Obama and his new team are just beginning to show that they understand how to use diplomatic clout in concert with other powers.
The administration is certainly cutting down on the number of drone strikes. According to the Long War Journal, strikes in Pakistan—where the vast majority occur, under the control of the CIA—have declined from 117 in 2010 to sixty-four in 2011, forty-six in 2012 and just fourteen so far this year. John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief until February, when he took over at the CIA, is reportedly an advocate for cutting back on the strikes. In his NDU speech, Obama defended them, portraying drones as “effective…legal [and used] in self-defense.” But he acknowledged that the practice “can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”
Nader Mousavizadeh, the author, with Kofi Annan, of a book about diplomacy, bemoans what he calls America’s “diplomatic detachment.” Mousavizadeh, who runs Macro Advisory Partners, says the administration has too often seen foreign policy as a binary choice between a hands-off approach and direct military action. “There are geopolitical crises out there that cannot be solved either by turning a blind eye and saying, ‘It’s someone else’s problem,’ or, on the other hand, making use of drones and targeted assassinations,” he says. He cites Syria, where the administration’s recent engagement with Moscow in search of a solution may be too little, too late. “There was no guarantee that sitting down with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would allow the parties to find a solution,” he says. “But not negotiating with Russia for the past two years ensured that it wouldn’t happen.”
With the addition of Kerry and Hagel, Obama raised hopes that the balance between diplomacy and military action might improve. There were several reasons for elevated expectations. Kerry and Hagel seemed measurably less hawkish than Obama’s first-term team, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Clinton, who ran for president in 2008 to the right of Obama on national security, never seemed to mesh with him, while Gates, a GOP holdover from the Bush administration, teamed up with her on issues such as expanding the Afghan war. Leon Panetta, who succeeded Gates, also joined Clinton in advocating more hawkish policies, such as her proposal late last year to provide arms directly to Syria’s rebels, which was overruled by Obama’s White House team.
In addition, Kerry and Hagel are personally close to Obama in a way that Clinton, Gates and Panetta were not. In the Senate, Kerry served as a mentor of sorts on foreign policy, and Hagel—both in the Senate and, later, as an informal “wise man”—has won the president’s trust. As Vietnam veterans, Kerry and Hagel were well positioned to challenge the military brass when Obama needed allies against their advice. Hagel, in particular, won plaudits from the left and from centrist realists for his willingness to question the lockstep relationship with Israel, his skepticism on using military force against Iran, and his openness toward relations of some kind with Hezbollah and Hamas. But the change may be more cosmetic than substantive. “There’s a more moderate tone,” says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former assistant defense secretary, but “there’s no proof yet that anything has really changed.”
One reason Kerry and Hagel may have less impact than some expect is that under Obama, foreign policy has always been controlled by a centralized White House leadership, with Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and the National Security Council—led since October 2010 by Tom Donilon—making nearly all important decisions. Kerry-Hagel may be less a “team of rivals” than Clinton-Gates, but the core White House machine is still very much in place. If anything, Biden’s role is stronger: his former top foreign policy aide, Antony Blinken, is now Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Biden ran interference for Obama on Hagel’s Senate confirmation, and he stood in for the president this spring with a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Donilon, for his part, has made several key trips on Obama’s behalf, meeting with top Russian and Chinese officials. Both Biden and Donilon reportedly reinforced Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria and his decision to speed the drawdown in Afghanistan. “I’ve seen no indication they’re going to depart from the model in which all foreign policy decisions are made in the White House,” says Walt. If anything, the fact that Kerry and Hagel are close to Obama will reinforce White House policy-making. They may also reinforce Obama’s anti-interventionist tendencies.
It’s unclear how the departure of Donilon will affect the administration’s policy-making apparatus. According to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, back in 2009, when Donilon was a deputy at the NSC—after a long career as a Democratic Party political operative, Clinton administration State Department official, Fannie Mae executive and Washington lawyer—Bob Gates said it would be a “disaster” if Donilon were elevated to the top NSC job, since Donilon would reinforce Obama’s and Biden’s already skeptical views of the Afghan War. Both as deputy and then as national security adviser, Donilon has reportedly clashed repeatedly with the Pentagon, especially with former top Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy. On the other hand, Donilon is seen as one of the architects of Obama’s Asia “pivot,” and—perhaps because of his background in politics—he has been solicitous of the Israel lobby and its allies in Washington. In particular, several years ago, following an appearance at a dinner sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—the chief think tank for the Israel lobby—Donilon told me he’d been instrumental in bringing Dennis Ross, a former WINEP official who’s since gone back to the institute, into the White House as Obama’s top Middle East adviser.
Donilon’s successor, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, is known to most Americans as the target of hysterical, and unfounded, Republican attacks after her dutiful reading of administration talking points on the attack on a CIA outpost in Benghazi last September. Far more important, Rice—and her successor at the UN, former NSC official Samantha Power—are both prominent liberal interventionists who place a premium on human rights and the prevention of genocide, or alleged genocide, in conflict zones. Both Rice and Power strongly backed the months-long intervention in Libya in 2011, arguing—without much evidence—that the planned assault on Benghazi by the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, then Libya’s dictator, would result in genocide-like killing. Before Obama’s election, Rice called on the United States to bomb Sudan, where a civil war in that country’s western province of Darfur was causing carnage. And Power, the author of “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, has had her views shaped by the war in Bosnia and the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, making her a strong advocate for US intervention overseas to prevent the death of innocents. Will the ascent of Rice and Power tilt the balance within the White House toward liberal or humanitarian interventionism, or will the non-interventionist instincts of Obama and Biden continue to dominate?
One thing retarding positive change is the inertia on military spending. There is enormous pressure, fed by the arms industry lobby and hawks in Congress, to maintain the Pentagon’s bloated budget. This is an area where Hagel could have a major impact. Unlike his predecessors, Hagel didn’t ring alarm bells over current and projected Pentagon cuts. In a major address on April 3, he said, “It is already clear to me that any serious effort to reform and reshape our defense enterprise must confront the principal drivers of growth in the department’s base budget, namely acquisitions, personnel costs and overhead.” But he didn’t outline specific cuts. “His speech was encouraging,” says William Hartung, a defense policy expert at the Center for International Policy. “He didn’t scream bloody murder about sequestration’s effect on DOD.” But Hartung notes with disappointment that the president’s military budget still allows for an increase, and he chides Hagel for not singling out programs like the expensive and unneeded F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for cuts.
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There are indications that the administration is working harder to cooperate with Moscow and Beijing. After being caught by surprise over the war scare in North Korea, the White House managed simultaneously to deter North Korea and reassure South Korea and Japan. Most important, the White House and the State Department kept China’s strategic interests in the Korean peninsula in mind, says Daniel Sneider, Asia specialist at Stanford University. Eventually, Pyongyang calmed down, probably influenced by quiet, behind-the-scenes intervention from Beijing. Then, just weeks before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled meeting with Obama in California, China said it was willing to work with Washington on denuclearizing the peninsula.
In Syria, where civil war threatens to spark a protracted Sunni-Shiite conflict from the Mediterranean to Iraq, Obama has so far avoided direct involvement, despite pressure from hawks and from within his own ranks. Perhaps because the administration realized that its policy of cheerleading the Syrian rebels and calling for regime change in Damascus was counterproductive, Kerry belatedly began working with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to organize a joint peace conference.
But the administration has a long way to go in relations with Russia and China. On China, in particular, Obama’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia, which includes beefing up the US air and naval presence in the Pacific, has alarmed Chinese strategists, thus complicating relations at a critical moment. “I don’t think they have a policy toward China yet,” says Freeman, a fluent speaker of Mandarin who visits Beijing frequently.
With Russia, the administration has failed to overcome longstanding and accumulating suspicions in Moscow of America’s motives in the “reset” of relations. “The so-called ‘reset’ has been wrecked by Obama’s own policy,” says Stephen F. Cohen, a specialist on Russia at New York University. By continuing a version of the Cold War approach toward Moscow, including expansion of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, the administration has fueled the hostility of Russian factions already skeptical of the United States, Cohen says: “What Putin hears from the Russian elite is ‘Tell us one thing that we got from the reset.’” Still, by canceling the next phase of its missile defense system in Eastern Europe, the United States created a better atmosphere for arms talks that could be the foundation for improved US-Russian ties.
Both China and Russia, key partners in the P5+1 talks with Iran, will be crucial if Obama is to reach an accord over Tehran’s nuclear program. A major roadblock has been Washington’s refusal to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, in exchange for the latter’s agreement to more stringent international inspections. Russia, a key ally of Iran’s, and China, a major buyer of Iranian oil, could help coax Iran to accept a deal along those lines if Obama were to offer it. Here, perhaps more than on any other foreign policy issue, domestic pressure from hawks, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby has convinced the White House to slow-walk the talks with Iran.
Parallel to its missteps there and in Syria, the administration has not yet seemed to grasp the tectonic shifts brought about by the Arab Spring. Dictatorships were overthrown in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya—though not in Bahrain, where a rebellion was suppressed with tacit support from Washington—but all three countries are now in turmoil. Too often, the administration has ignored the region’s underlying problems—food and water shortages and vast poverty, in addition to autocracy—while seeming to take sides in the Sunni-Shiite conflict by backing Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran and Shiite Arab forces.
In Latin America, Obama has intensified US involvement, in what Biden called “the most active stretch of high-level engagement on Latin America in a long, long time.” The president visited Mexico and Costa Rica this year, arranged meetings with the presidents of Chile and Peru in Washington in June, and dispatched Biden to Brazil and Colombia. In the past, the administration saw regional policy through the lens of drug trafficking and immigration. Obama has recently shifted his focus to economics, telling the president of Costa Rica that drug violence and immigration problems arise “because of [regional] poverty [and] because young people don’t see a brighter future ahead.” Yet the administration has built its approach chiefly around a neoliberal trade policy, highlighted by the Trans Pacific Partnership, currently in negotiation. The TPP seems designed not only to enhance corporate power but to counter China’s growing clout in both the Pacific and Latin America.
One of the most glaring weaknesses of the Obama administration is the president’s inaction on global warming. In his State of the Union address, Obama invoked Superstorm Sandy, wildfires and drought as evidence that climate change was worsening. Still, in his dealings with world powers like China, emerging as the world’s greatest polluter, Obama has yet to make it a priority, and he has abandoned international forums designed to cope with the crisis. Kerry and Hagel have also downplayed the issue.
The area of least progress is Israel-Palestine. Since 2009, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rudely rebuffed Obama’s demand for a halt to settlement growth in the occupied West Bank, the White House has virtually ignored the issue. In the spring, Kerry revived US support for Saudi Arabia’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which all the Arab states promised to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations if it withdrew from the occupied territories and agreed to an equitable resolution of the refugee issue; and he proposed a $4 billion development plan for the West Bank, which he touted as the start of an intensive diplomatic push to renew talks. But progress seems unlikely. “The Arab peace plan goes back eleven years,” says Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East expert at Columbia University. “It was ignored then, and it will be ignored again. The Israelis won’t have anything to do with it.” Khalidi says that domestic pressures from AIPAC and its allies in Congress will continue to thwart any diplomatic effort by Obama.
With the White House facing Republican stonewalling in Congress, you’d think foreign policy, where the president has a freer hand, would be one area where Obama could make a mark during his second term. Most observers believe that Obama sees his legacy primarily in terms of domestic accomplishments, including healthcare reform and pulling the economy out of recession. But as events have shown, he neglects world affairs at his—and the country’s—peril.
Until the president defines what ‘associated forces’ are, the current formulation leaves open the possibility of unlimited, unending use of military force anywhere in the world, writes John Sifton in “Obama Rejects Perpetual War, but Questions Remain About Targeted Killings.”