Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, June 16, 2011

More on Obama's Foreign Policy

In a recent post, Yohanes made two arguments that I’d like to explore in more detail. As a refresher, here are his arguments: First, he avers that the U.S. has failed to exhibit much leadership under Obama. And second, Yohanes claims that Obama’s foreign policies, particularly with respect to the Arab Spring, are mostly reactive in nature.

Regarding American leadership: I beg to differ with Yohanes. In my view, the U.S. has led on the Arab Spring, especially in places like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and so on. In short, under Obama, the U.S. has cobbled coalitions together for support for pro-democracy movements and taken steps (diplomatically and via force) to nudge leaders out of office. Additionally, it is trying to cajole Turkey into pressuring Syria to cease its violence against protesters and demonstrators. And even now, it is apparent that other countries, usually its allies, still take their cues from Washington.

This approach, however, comes under from the fire from some on the American right who see Obama’s foreign policies as weak and feeble. In their eyes, they're too reliant on the wishes of foreign countries, effectively granting these actors too large a say in American policies, and far too time consuming. This group of critics prefer strong and decisive action, even it means bullying others into what the U.S. wants them to do. Indeed, it’s a stark contrast from the "with us or against" days of the Bush administration. And really, that’s the issue. The approach proffered by Obama does demonstrate American leadership, it’s just not the kind that Yohanes and others mostly on the right prefer.

Yes, it’s true that American foreign policy has been mostly reactive in response to the Arab Spring. Which makes sense. These were organic uprisings, indigenous to the various countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It doesn’t make much sense to make the Arab Spring about the U.S. The U.S. isn’t and shouldn’t be driving the action in these countries. These are foreign countries, and the people there have the right and a strong desire to chart their own political and economic futures. Internal meddling is something Arab publics don’t want. To be clear, this kind of action would only taint the reformers, making them look like Washington’s stooges, and signal that the U.S. seeks to hijack the uprisings.

Could the U.S. have inserted itself to a greater degree in the Arab Spring? Sure. Should the U.S. be doing more right now? Probably, but not significantly so. But it seems that either way Obama would be subject to criticism. Had the U.S. done less, invested less support and fewer resources on the Arab Spring, then the liberal internationalists and neoconservatives would have been up in arms about Obama not sufficiently backing pro-democracy protesters and movements. On the other had, had the U.S. substantially upped its level of effort, then other groups on the American right would have found fault with American foreign policy. The fiscal conservatives would complain (and some already are complaining) about the price of a deeper commitment at a time when the U.S. is already involved in two wars, military action in Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan, and has an unsteady and weak economy. And undoubtedly, the more hawkish side of the right would bitterly protest U.S. policies (as some already have), believing that by trying to pry open more and more Arab regimes, we will see the rise of radical Islamic governments in more Middle Eastern countries.

On a general level, what the U.S. should be doing is basically what it’s now doing. The U.S. is letting the pro-democracy protesters and revolutionaries dictate events on the ground. Meantime, it is also attempting to shape the choices and actions of the revolutionaries and existing and/or new governments. Toward that end, the White House is in the process of creating conditions-based economic and political aid packages to various countries as incentive to lead them toward greater democratic reforms. Just ask the Egyptian revolutionaries what they think of these packages. Quite honestly, they aren’t in favor of them, precisely because they know that the U.S. is attempting to narrow and restrict Egypt’s policy options going forward.

For reasons stated above, I believe Obama has done a pretty good job at the big picture level, and that’s what I’ve focused on in this post. That said, I don’t think the Obama administration has been flawless in its response to the Arab uprisings. It’s messaging has been inconsistent at best. Obama tends to disengage himself from the policy process at times, preferring to let other officials steer policy debates and give substantial input on policy matters–something evident in the early stages of the uprisings, probably at a time when Obama thought these events would be regionally confined. The failure of the opposition to break through in Washington-friendly Bahrain doesn’t reflect well on the U.S. The U.S. could have used its relationship to nudge the royal family out of office, but it didn’t. Meantime, the pro-democracy Bahraini demonstrators didn’t receive any support from America and were left virtually alone to face state-sponsored violence and repression. Additionally, each of the conflicts and violence in Syria, Yemen, and Libya threaten to spin out of control, thereby adversely impacting the entire region.

And so interestingly, Obama could potentially get the big picture essentially right yet still have his foreign policy agenda undermined by one or more of the uprisings. Clearly, events in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are still in flux, with outcomes still to be determined, so there’s time for Team Obama to continue to try to shape the directions in these countries in its favor. For the sake of the U.S., as well as the stability in the region, I hope they succeed.

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