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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY: IMAGE OVER SUBSTANCE

     In January, 2009, shortly after his inauguration President Obama gave a television interview on the Al-Arabiya network headquartered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In this interview, Obama famously said his administration "will offer a hand of friendship" to the Muslim world. He followed up on his Muslim outreach with a major speech in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009 in which he praised, pandered to, and exaggerated the importance of Muslim culture in the modern world including the United States. All of this was intended to change the perception of the "Muslim street" towards the United States and initiate a new spirit of cooperation by Muslim governments, especially in South Asia and the Middle East. Now, eighteen months into his Administration Obama is finding what the Clinton Administration found out and the Bush Administrations knew all along, that platitudes, promises, apologies, and verbal hugs mean very little when dealing with autocratic governments who perceive their interests in confrontational terms and need an ideological enemy to keep their populations attention and energies directed towards the outside.
     Obama's platitudes and promises have failed to impress the public in key Muslim nations according to a recently released opinion survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.  In polls taken in April and May of this year only 17% of Egyptians held a favorable view of the U.S., down from the 27% view prior to Obama's Cairo speech in 2009.  In Jordan, long seen as a U.S. "ally" for the more moderate views of it's leaders, and the peace treaty it has with Israel, the favorable view of the U.S. was only 21%, down from 26% a year ago.  In Pakistan, a country vital to our engagement in Afghanistan and the war on Al Qaida and the Talban, only 17% of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of the U.S., down from 22% one year ago.


IRAN

All overtures and diplomatic efforts directed towards the Islamic government of Iran in hopes of stopping their development of nuclear weapons have been rudely rejected. A series of toothless economic sanctions and idle threats of "serious consequences" have brought nothing but ridicule by Iranian leaders. Attempts to negotiate desired outcomes is always a sound approach in international relations but negotiations must have and end game or their is no real incentive on the part of the recalcitrant party to negotiate. The end game in the Iranian negotiations which have been going on for over four years is the application of significant pain. The Iranians have used the hope of a negotiated solution to stall the process while they developed their nuclear capacity to produce military grade fissionable materials. The threat of a military strike against their nuclear facilities has lost its credibility as a negotiating tool. That leaves only harsh economic sanctions. Using the UN Security Council as a vehicle for such sanctions has always been a hopeless strategy. Russia and China who have veto power on the Council and valuable economic relations with Iran are willing to accept the risks and consequences of a nuclear armed Iran in order to protect those economic interests. The Obama Administration has known this since it came to power in January, 2009. The recently passed UN Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions was the result of a major compromise with Russia and China, which pulled the teeth of the sanctions and thus protected their interests. European Union officials, more concerned with the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran than Russia and China are close to imposing their own version of economic sanctions which are more broad than the Security Council version but still more of an inconvenience than a substantive application of economic pain, which is the underlying purpose of sanctions in the first place. The Obama Administration will cooperate and follow these European sanctions but Obama has had plenty of time to lead instead of follow and a comprehensive and significant application of economic isolation, especially with respect to refined petroleum which Iran lacks, would have had a more significant impact on the negotiations that have dragged on during his tenure. Economic sanctions do not have a good track record in deterring policies to which a government has made a major commitment but the more progress, and thus the larger the commitment that Iran has made in terms of prestige and financial investment over the last two years of diplomatic haggling has made a successful outcome from the point of view of the U.S. and Europe unrealistic.


PAKISTAN

     The air war conducted by CIA operated drones against Taliban leaders in Pakistan is being undermined by the cooperation and support of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Pakistan's president, harshly and routinely, criticizes these missions and according to CBS News, "Pakistani opposition politicians have repeatedly denounced their own government for its support of the U.S. led war against militants, and called for an end to all cooperation with Washington." Pakistan is the recipient of enormous annual military and economic aid but the Pakistani government and military are playing a double game; cooperate with U.S. anti-Taliban objectives while maintaining contact with the Taliban itself. Pakistan already is a nuclear weapons state and the worlds second largest Muslim nation, rife with radical Islamic elements. A failure of the current government if replaced by a Taliban or Taliban- like radical government would be a disaster for relations with India and thus regional stability. A clear policy of support with the appropriate levels of cooperation and pursuit of mutual interests is vital. The Obama Administration's relationship with the Pakistan government seems muddled at best.


TURKEY

     In Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation and NATO member, the President, Recep Tayip Erdogan, reportedly a "devout Muslim" has sided with the terrorist Hamas organization that governs the Gaza strip in the so called "Freedom Flotilla" incident. Edrdogan declared the Israeli take over of the largest ship, which was leased in Turkey and on which eleven Turkish citizens were killed while attacking Israeli commandos, "state terrorism". Erdogan was no doubt encouraged by the Obama's lack of support for the Israeli position, and his call for an "international" investigation which like previous international investigations of Israeli foreign policies have predictably resulted in condemnation. Turkey has also recently opposed UN economic sanctions against Iran in connection with Iran's defiance in it's quest for nuclear weapons. It even voted against those sanctions in the UN Security Council where it currently serves a two year term. This anti-Israeli, pro-Islamist stance, which is a major change from Turkey's previous efforts to develop friendly relations with Israel, is also an anti-West stance since it has adopted the pro-Hamas position and may signal that Erdogan is abandoning efforts to win Turkish membership in the European Union. The implications for it's membership in NATO are also extremely troublesome. Obama needs to make clear to Erdogan, Americas support for Israel and opposition to Hamas.


SYRIA

     Obama has followed up his friendly outreach to the Muslim world with a simplistic attempt to pry Syria away from Iran. A high level delegation of diplomats and officials of U.S. corporations has recently been sent to Syria to meet with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad ostensibly to aid Syria's entry into the world of sophisticated information technology. This despite recent information disclosing the transfer of scud missiles by Syria to the terrorist Hezbollah organization in Lebanon for use against Israel. Syria has moved ever closer to Iran in recent months and along with Iran, supports both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.


ISRAEL

     While "reaching out" to Muslim autocracies and receiving nothing but scorn in return, Obama has managed to offend large portions of the citizens of our long standing ally's, Britain and Israel. Obama has personally excoriated the Netanyahu government in Israel for building apartments in East Jerusalem, while ignoring the fact that Jerusalem is the Israeli capital and the government does not recognize a divided city. His previously mentioned lack of support of Israeli in their blockade of Gaza which is intended to prevent the importation of weapons further distanced him from Israeli security goals and diminishes the U.S. role as the intermediary in attempts to start “indirect” peace talks.


BRITAIN

     The Gulf oil crisis has brought considerable criticism of Obama in the U.S.for a perceived lack of leadership. The far Left has demanded that he show more emotion i.e. get mad as a reflection of American anger, not a natural reaction for the reserved Obama. However, reacting to this growing discontent he has ratcheted up the rhetoric about "British Petroleum" which became "BP", an international conglomerate after it bought U.S. oil firm Amoco. Now Obama is demanding that BP cancel it's annual dividend to share holders, forty percent of whom are Americans but a significant number of whom are British pensioners, Obama has raised the ire of the media in Britain as BP's stock price has declined by half and British officials, including the Mayor of London and members of the Conservative Party are pointing out that the financial destruction of BP is not in the interest of either the U.S. who needs the assets of the company to both clean up the damage in the Gulf and to pay for economic losses in the region, or Britain for whom BP is a major financial center.

     British news outlets report that "His beating up of BP has clinched his anti-British credentials on this side of the Atlantic. The anger here is palpable". BP has acknowledged it's responsibility and has said it will pay for the damages. Angry rhetoric for domestic political purposes is counter productive and could have lasting effects in other areas where British cooperation is needed. Obama’s handling of this issue can only be described as clumsy.


AFGHANISTAN

     In his commencement address at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama said this about the nine year struggle in Afghanistan.

“I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, the key player in the attempt to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai, doesn't agree. Recently Karzai said he doubts that the NATO and Afghan forces can win the war and he has suggested talks with Taliban leaders about the possibility of bringing them into his government. Clearly, the Afghan effort is in trouble. Obama was right to defer to his commander in the field, General Petraeus, and attempt to create a turning point by committing an additional thirty thousand troops in the "surge". However, the effort has so far not brought the game changing results hoped for and if the mission in Kandahar is not successful in bringing a debilitating blow to the Taliban, Obama will be forced to face harsh reality. The war cannot go on forever. The American people are growing weary of it and the financial costs are unsustainable. The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, they can simple fade into the mountains and wait for the inevitable U.S. departure. The tribal culture, religious intransigence towards modern values and endemic corruption in the government make "hearts and minds" strategies seem almost naive. Drilling water wells and building schools may benefit small communities but won't bring resistance to the anti-modernist ideology of the Islamists as long as the message comes from the West. The only hope for a semblance of security and slow cultural transformation lies with the Afghan government itself. Unfortunately, Obama's emissaries have been unsuccessful in bringing that message to the corrupt power centers in Kabul.

    . Obama said the United States would “be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well,” while also trying to “build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions."

     This new “national security strategy” seems more intended to make Obama the “anti-Bush”, pander to the domestic Left and remake America’s reputation as a more passive, more international order oriented player in its international security role. So far his “outreach” to the Islamic world had produced nothing positive. A foreign policy that is overly dependent on “stronger international standards and institutions” is a foreign policy overly dependent on unreliable lesser powers and is a recipe for inertia in the face of threats. The national interests of the world’s major powers simply do not coincide as the UN’s Iran sanctions efforts have made clear. “International standards” are often corrupted by cultural, religious and ideological differences which make their application as the basis for international security impossible. Obama should be primarily concerned with the security of the U.S. and less with his reputation as an international “community organizer.”

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