Obama Foreign Policy: Lackluster or Courageous?

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Obama White House TWN.jpg
(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
GlobalPost‘s John Aloysius Farrell has a fascinating survey up of perspectives on Obama’s year in foreign policy.
Read the entire piece, but I’ve put some of the zinger quotes below — including my own.
What stands out is that perhaps for the first time I can recall, Danielle Pletka of AEI and I are basically on the same page.
Over at the Carnegie Endowment, Jessica Tuchman Mathews gives Obama the best grades for performance — though she worries that Afghanistan could break the back of the administration.
Carnegie’s Robert Kagan, who is with Pletka a leading figure in the neoconservative camp, also gives Obama good marks for being more trigger-comfortable with drones than the Bush administration was and for upping the ante in Afghanistan.
But Carnegie’s Paul Salem, who runs the endowment’s Middle East Center, agrees with Pletka and me.
Carnegie’s Douglas Paal calls it basically down the middle, applauding some of the tactical, low hanging fruit choices of the Obama foreign policy team — but agreeing with Pletka, Clemons and Salem that Obama made no significant strategic leaps.
Some lines from the Farrell essay:

Steve Clemons

The administration “has taken no strategic leaps in any area.”

Danielle Pletka

The president suggested in the campaign that once he was able to bring all the countries we had alienated back into our order of influence … that in fact they would be willing to step up and do more. What we discovered is nope, they’re not,”
“On foreign policy … he has done an amazingly lackluster job.”

Steve Clemons

Obama met stunning failure in his handling of a key ally in the Middle East. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called Obama’s bluff when the president pressured Israel to abandon settlements on the West Bank, and the administration’s plans for a breakthrough were stymied.
“They put themselves into a box. Whether it was right to start with the settlements or not, they went at it in an amateurish way,” said Clemons. “You figured they must have had something else planned or they would never have done so stupid a thing” but “they had no alternative plan.”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews

“I think he’s gotten it about right,” “And we just have to be smart in this country to not define success as perfection.”

Robert Kagan

Obama has matched Bush as a warrior. “They have ramped up the military aspect of the war on terror. They’ve increased the forces in Afghanistan; they’ve substantially increased the drone attacks in Pakistan,” said Robert Kagan, a senior associate at Carnegie.
“There’s a lot of kerfuffle in the United States about what happens to captured terrorists when they enter the American legal system. The Obama administration, to some extent, is obviating that problem by assassinating them more frequently than the Bush administration was.”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews

“I fear … that Afghanistan could easily become the defining issue of Obama’s presidency and if that happens, it’s likely to be a tragedy,”

Robert Kagan

“There were no good choices,” Kagan said. But “the alternative — that somehow we could sort of basically wash our hands in Afghanistan — I think was really not workable. So he was in a bind and I think he made a fairly courageous decision.”

Paul Salem

“He did engage, but he was not successful,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, who offered Obama a C-minus or D-plus grade for his diplomacy there. “No breakthroughs; no real progress.”

Douglas Paal

Obama’s ambitions to save the planet from global warming and nuclear proliferation also met with recalcitrance abroad. A new nuclear arms treaty with Russia was delayed, and the Copenhagen climate summit was anything but a smashing success.
“It didn’t blow up in his face, but it was a very muddy outcome … a not very strong outcome,” said Douglas Paal, an expert on Asia at Carnegie. “We’ve seen some tactical adjustments that are kind of low-hanging fruit, and I would applaud most of them.” But “the big strategic issues” like “what does the U.S. do about the rise … of China?” are “still an open question.”

— Steve Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

Comments

10 comments on “Obama Foreign Policy: Lackluster or Courageous?

  1. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Gee, check out the ladder in the photograph. I didn’t know that the White House shops at Target. Must be a form of foreign aid to China.

    Reply

  2. MarkL says:

    Buy lecturer,
    talk about projecting your views onto Obama’s blank slate! Your comment typifies how intelligent people came to choose Obama, despite overwhelming evidence he wasn’t equipped for the job (Yet—he certainly was a rising star).
    What evidence do you have that Hillary was more likely to start a war with Iran than Obama?
    As I said in the other thread, I think they were both about equally hawkish. As far as Obama and Iran, so far, I have no complaint.
    If you have a way to answer my question that’s not some vague hand-waving, and doesn’t misinterpret the “obliterate” remarks, which were a threat of retalation for nuclear war that any candidate would have made. If you’re going to mention the AUMF vote—don’t bother. From what we know of Obama now, can anyone here doubt that he would have voted yes on the AUMF, out of political calculation?
    I actually would feel better about having this craven, spineless jellyfish as President if I thought electing him did keep us from war with Iran.
    Of course, his election is taking us closer to war with Pakistan, which does have nukes, but what the heck.

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  3. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The punch thought regarding Obama’s foreign policy is that it has been a mixture of both ‘lackluster and courageous approaches’:courageous in a sense that it has reversed the Bush administration’s plan of installing the Missile Shield program in the Eastern Europe. It also became proactive since it made a breakthrough in regard to the START/Salt talks,thereby resetting the US-Russian ties;while it remains passive in a sense that it has been unable to halt the Israeli policy of having settlements in the Palestinian territory, particularly, in the East Jerusalem.As for Afghanistan, the President’s troops surge is indicative of the fact that the Obama’s administration is following the Bush administration set- priorities which faces the ‘public remonstrance’ in America and Europe.

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  4. nadine says:

    “Obama met stunning failure in his handling of a key ally in the Middle East. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called Obama’s bluff when the president pressured Israel to abandon settlements on the West Bank, and the administration’s plans for a breakthrough were stymied.
    “They put themselves into a box. Whether it was right to start with the settlements or not, they went at it in an amateurish way,” said Clemons. “You figured they must have had something else planned or they would never have done so stupid a thing” but “they had no alternative plan.”
    “they put themselves into a box” “they had no alternative plan” — this is starting to sound familiar. I’ve been hearing it about this admin a lot. How many times must we hear it before everybody gets that Obama is no genius?
    As for Bibi calling Obama’s “bluff”, let us review. Obama ordered Bibi to make a unilateral concession in return for nothing. Obama then asked (not ordered) the Arabs and Abu Mazen for gestures in return. Bibi gave him a 10 month moratorium to get him off his back. The Arabs gave him jack squat. So how come only Bibi “called his bluff”? I would say the Arabs called his bluff about being able to attain Mideast peace. Not only did Obama achieve nothing, he has actually PREVENTED Mideast peace talks, which went on for 16 years until he arrived on the scene, because now Abu Mazen won’t talk at all – and Obama gave him the excuse!
    As one Israeli official put it off the record, “This is what happens when you combine arrogance with clumsiness.”

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  5. nadine says:

    “A Shell of a 20th century American colossus that no longer exists”, Dan? So we are living hand-to-mouth in some post-Apocalypse scenario, a la The Postman? Who knew?
    21st America is a lot richer than the 20th century America. A lot, recession notwithstanding. Go compare the 1970 GDP to today’s and our military to anybody else’s. If the relative dominance has faded, it’s only because Europe is no longer pulverized as it was after WWII, and Russia and China and India are no longer suffering self-inflicting Communist starvation.

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  6. Dan Kervick says:

    The United States has been engaged in its Middle East wars for so long now that one senses that a commitment to ongoing war for its own sake has become a defining character trait of the national leadership. Not only have there been no major strategic leaps during this administration, but it’s becoming increasingly hard even to imagine or articulate what such a leap would look like. The wars have moved out of the category of *events*, and have been fixed into place as permanent *conditions* of the national business model.
    An atavistic national security state still survives as a shell of a 20th century American colossus that no longer exists. And like the popish crusades of the late mediaeval church, the permanent war provides a raison d’tre for the continued extravagant funding of this state apparatus. The civil-military-corporate security bureaucracy worries in the pit of its stomach, “For what do we exist if not to carry forward The War?”
    The vast costs of these wars are so obviously incommensurate with the real security interests they serve that one has to hypothesize that the interests that are more effectively served are now mainly economic, emotional or ideological. Whatever the reasons really are, the country continues the traditional taboo against discussing long-term national strategic ends in public. Sometimes non-strategic topics are mistakenly labeled as strategic questions – things like “engagement”, “smart power”, “unilateralism and multilateralism”, etc. But these are not strategic ends; they are just styles of pursuing strategic ends.
    The result is nothing that even close to a rational public discussion of strategic choices takes place in the national dialogue. Somewhere, in some office of the government, people presumably ask these questions and make these decisions. But the notion that the general public would be invited and encouraged to participate in a discussion of a question such as “How many military bases should the US have abroad in 2030?” is unheard of. The public is given to believe that these are not policy choices to be made, but turnings of the wheel of fortune that happen of their own accord.
    In a war that is fought on one’s home soil or with millions of draftees and tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties, a public quickly becomes exhausted b y war, and longs for it to end. But maybe what the current American situation shows is that when wars are sustained at a somewhat lower level of pain, they can be extended indefinitely. The wars become like religions unto themselves, and many people don’t want them to ever end, because they find the ongoing conflicts to be riveting, entertaining and a source of meaning in otherwise boring lives.

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  7. Carroll says:

    Steve and the others except for Pletka have it right.
    Danielle Pletka is wrong as usual.
    It isn’t that other countries didn’t want to be included in the fold.
    BUT…they aren’t fricking idiots.
    They wanted to SEE some ACTION.
    They hung around.
    They waited.
    They haven’t seen any ACTIONS that match what he said.
    The end.

    Reply

  8. JamesL says:

    Creeping dyslexia overcoming creeping elegance.

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  9. JamesL says:

    Fingers out of control. “Goes”, not “gods”, though of course God spelled GOD will figure prominently in the killing to come.

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  10. JamesL says:

    Kagan: “The Obama administration, to some extent, is obviating that problem by assassinating them more frequently than the Bush administration was.”
    If that’s a step forward, in the right direction, then don’t be surprised when the many “others” that we’re doing things to, do the same thing unto us. That is THE recipe for continul war until the war becomes unmanageable and gods off the deep end. Wonder it anyone will be left to hand out the war crimes awards.
    Without a plan for peace there will be no peace, just a rotten core of greedheads using war as a profit center and a coterie of nationalistic (not patriotic) yes men.
    I am an American and am sad to say that America has become repulsive and suicidal.

    Reply

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