Compass for the Ship of State


Presidents in their second terms have latitude for fresh foreign policy initiatives – so it is claimed.  Revalidated at the ballot box and freed from the compulsion to view all through the optic of the next election, Barack Obama supposedly can focus on those vexing international problems that bedevil the United States – and whose resolution holds the promise of a respected legacy. Too, presidents have more constitutional freedom of action abroad than on the domestic agenda.

For Barack Obama there is no shortage of issues that demand attention, especially in the greater Middle East where Washington has set itself audacious goals that are slipping farther and farther from its grasp as the policies of the post 9/11 era fail one after another due to their intrinsic flaws. What can we expect from the White House in the upcoming months? To date, no major diplomatic overtures have been announced nor did the campaign reveal evidence of new thinking. Still, the strains in the country’s foreign dealings on nearly every front call for innovation. So we ought to be alert to signs of redirection or novel ideas.  What are the tell-tales we should keep on our eye on to anticipate a tacking away from the current course? Here are five worthy of attention.

In Afghanistan, the administration’s commitment to remove all forces by the end of 2014 looks wobbly  – in two respects.  First, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta last week revealed concrete plans to keep between 10,000 and 15,000 military personnel there indefinitely to strike residual al-Qaidi (estimated at 100) and recalcitrant Taliban .  A complementary mission is the further training and support of Afghan security personnel.  Second, the Pentagon wants to deviate from the existing withdrawal schedule in keeping the bulk of the present 68,000 force through 2013 before a slow recessional begins in 2014.  Together, these two proposals represent a commitment to reaching the initial goal of creating a Taliban immune, competent Afghan state which most knowledgeable analysts consider to be a lost cause. Therefore, how Obama reacts will be a signal of whether  he holds onto the frustrated goal of “victory” in Afghanistan or is prepared to scale back what we hope to achieve – and, more important, what the national interest dictates we need to achieve.

On Iran, the President faces a harder choice that he cannot blur or evade.  It is apparent that even draconian economic sanctions are not forcing the leadership in Tehran to bow to our demands that they cease and desist from pursuing a serious nuclear program.  That leaves two unpalatable options: military action that would have unpredictable and dangerous consequences across the region or seeking a diplomatic modus vivendi with Iran that takes into account their self-defined security concerns as well as ours. The latter, if it were to succeed, likely would mean a voluntary suspension of sensitive nuclear activities but do not preclude a later effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability even if not a bomb. On this issue, the tell-tales are already sending a clear signal of intent. The White House within the past few days has issued a thinly veiled ultimatum that Iran has until March to meet its demands or face dire consequences. Is that tantamount to saying that the United States is ready for war? No – but it expresses an attitude that could make war unavoidable.

Palestine is the big one.  The United States’ unqualified backing for the Netanyahu government is losing it influence among all the parties, e.g. Fatah as well as Hamas, Arab governments more susceptible to popular outrage than ever before, and Jerusalem which takes provocative actions on the presumption that Washington will not hold it to account.  Here, too, there are recent signs that a steadfast commitment to the existing policy remains in place.  President Obama’s vociferous and total support for Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza is one sign. The implacable opposition to the Palestinian Authority campaign to obtain observer status to the General Assembly, punctuated by acquiescence in Israeli retaliation by way of new settlement building around Jerusalem and a withholding of tax revenues, makes it crystal clear that no reappraisal is underway.

On democracy promotion, the United States has placed itself on the horns of a dilemma by vocally backing the Arab Spring movements in principle while being selective in choosing where and when it will extend practical support – political or material.  Realpolitik factors  govern what Washington does and says in regard to repression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere. There are inescapable trade-offs to be made, with losses to be incurred, whichever way the United States leans.  Perpetuation of the present ambiguity as to priority and purpose runs the risk of both losing credibility as the beacon of democracy and estranging allies in the confrontation with Iran and the war against jihadist Islamic movements that are American priorities.  There is as yet no indication that the White House is ready to grasp this nettle.  We will be alerted to any steps that it might take to resolve the dilemma, one way or another, by the cries of aggrieved parties there and over here.

Finally, there are appointments to senior foreign policy positions.  We soon will have a new Secretary of State, a new Secretary of Defense, and a new CIA Director.  The names that are being bandied about point clearly to policy continuity rather than change.  Susan Rice is a member of Obama’s inner circle who has and will place loyalty to the President above all else. Moreover, there is no evidence whatsoever of her harboring heterodox views.  Possible heads of the Pentagon include John Kerry and former Senator Chuck Hagel.  The latter is the one person under review who is an independent thinker who has questioned some of the key assumptions underlying American post 9/11 foreign policy. He also is a strong personality. His selection would be a sure sign that a course correction was at least a serious possibility. By contrast, John Brennan – the leading candidate to replace David Petraeus – is a hidebound devotee of all that we have been doing who would double down on the “war on terror,” on militarizing foreign policy, on confronting Iran and generally on not giving an inch to anyone or any idea that threatens an expansive notion of national interest.

Keep a weather eye peeled.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

November 30, 2015
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