Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Obama Foreign Policy: A Response to Yohanes

Here are a few quick thoughts, comments, and questions in response to Yohanes’ post on Obama. 

1. Sure, a number of American commentators did wonder if the death of bin Laden enhanced Obama’s reelection chances. But let’s not overplay this. As early as a few days after Osama’s killing, that specific speculation about Obama in 2012 was displaced by different a prognostication. Indeed, most now argue that no matter what Obama does on foreign policy, his reelection will likely be determined by whether America's sluggish economic growth and high unemployment improves. Indeed, I've heard quite a few comparisons between the current plight of Obama and the predicament in which George H.W. Bush found himself in 1991-92, which should please Republicans and their supporters.

2. With that in mind, I don’t think Obama "squandered" his bump in approval as much as he was overtaken by events on other issue-areas. It was inevitable, given the poor U.S. economy.

3. Did the Obama and his associates try to "soak credit" for killing bin Laden? Or were they simply trying to get out an important story as quickly as possible? The answers to these questions are heavily dependent on how one views Team Obama. 

4. Sure, there have been missteps, but it is an overstatement to say that all of Obama's recent moves have yielded bad news. Here are a few examples: There's good news from Libya. The so-called rebels are continuing to advance, making progress toward ousting Gaddafi. Obama's speech to AIPAC received good reviews. Obama's plan for economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia is key to ensuring that democracy and liberalism are gradually but firmly anchored in both countries. These might not be enough to satisfyYohanes, but they do count for something.

5. I think Obama's intentions regarding Israel are misunderstood or mischaracterized (or both) by the American right. Arguably, he forced the issue of peace talks a bit with Israel out of concern for that country. He knows that Israel could find itself even more isolated (a point I made here) if the status quo continues to hold until September, the time at which the Palestinians might push the issue of statehood at the UN. This is a view shared by Tony Blair. And as Israel’s main supporter and benefactor, Obama also knows that if Israel takes a hit internationally, so will Washington, possibly from many different directions. Saudi Arabia has already promised "disastrous consequences" for its relations with the U.S. should Washington veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN.

6. Yohanes claims that Obama’s not an expert on foreign policy. But how would we know if Obama is indeed such an expert? By the decisions he makes? Bad decisions don't mean Obama lacks sufficient foreign policy knowledge, just as good decisions don’t necessarily imply he has a wealth of foreign policy expertise. Take the example of Jimmy Carter. The conventional wisdom is that he made bad policy decisions but possessed a good understanding of international politics. The punchline: decision-making is an inadequate proxy for it doesn't adequately capture what's in the head of leaders. By the way, out of fairness, I believe my argument here should be applied to George W. Bush, someone who was widely panned as a foreign policy dolt. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. That's almost beside the point. The more important issue is how we would operationalize "knowledge" or "understanding."

7. It seems the main argument Yohanes makes is really less about Obama's foreign policy ideas and knowledge and more about the overall foreign policy process in the Obama administration. That is, his real concern is about how Obama engages with the policy process, how he interacts with staff and cabinet, and the messaging from the administration. In my view, for reasons I previously cited here, I see this as a very legitimate criticism. After more than two years in office, it's disappointing that the U.S. foreign policy process under Obama doesn't function more smoothly and efficiently.

8. By now, it is apparent Obama does have a plan for the Arab Spring. It’s just one that Yohanes and others, especially people in the region, might not like, and that's understandable. Obama wants to treat each case of democratization on its own terms. The justification for this singular approach is that each case is shaped by its own set of external and internal variables. Cookie cutter solutions, so goes the logic, are ill-suited to deal with the Arab Spring. That’s the plan. The downfall is that, to his critics, this approach doesn’t seem like much of a plan. Perhaps. And it also leaves people in the Arab world extremely disappointed, because Obama, despite his repeated soaring appeals to democratic ideas and institutions and so on, won’t advocate for democracy equally across the Middle East. It only reinforces the notion that the U.S. is a hypocritical country.

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