Puzzled US foreign policy: Obama at West Point (The Guardian, May 28th)

The Guardian posted this piece by me today reacting to President Obama’s speech on foreign policy at West Point.  And the New York Times later quoted the article in a review of (mostly tedious) reaction to the speech.  Here’s the article in full:


Beyond Obama’s West Point speech: a foreign puzzle, not a real foreign policy

The president wants us to look past Afghanistan and Iraq. OK, fine: from drones to Damascus and Putin to the planet, these are parts of a not very unified whole

Obama arrives at West Point.Obama’s speech marked the end of a war-laden chapter for the US – with little clear idea of what the next chapter should really mean. Photograph: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

Even before President Obama spoke to the US military academy at West Point on Wednesday, the White House trumpeted his commencement address as offering a unifying vision of US foreign policy – one that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral”.

With an introduction like that, it came as a welcome surprise that the speech was merely intelligible. I liked the anti-thoughtless-intervention line – “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” – but much of the nearly hour-long speech was a dull checklist of world problems (and the UN Law of the Sea Convention!), most addressed by the routine oversimplifications required on such occasions.

Obama’s “vision” was peppered with confusing vocabulary about “realists” and “interventionists”, both depicted as straw men, and too many predictable bromides about international cooperation, democracy and “human dignity”. And I say this as a former speechwriter who also used to lean on such filler.

There was no over-arching theme to this rhetoric, save Obama’s recommitment to American exceptionalism (“with every fiber of my being”) and his rejection of mindless invasions. Not much to disagree with there, but not much new either. One couldn’t avoid the impression that this speech marked the end of a war-laden chapter for the US – with little clear idea of what the next chapter should really mean, save the repetitious evocation of “American leadership”.

The leitmotif of Obama’s foreign policy – and the first item of his West Point talk – is withdrawal, as Tuesday’s announcement about drawdown in Afghanistan reconfirmed. So what about the rest of Obama’s foreign policy?

Facts, not rhetoric, paint a picture of this administration’s troubling and often counterproductive inconsistency abroad. There is some good, but there is plenty that’s really bad.

From drones and emissions, to the South China Sea to Somalia to the Crimea and back again, it’s not easy connect the many dots of America’s foreign policies. Because aside from tortured rhetoric, unified they are not.

Terrorism: a continuation of Bush’s self-defeating course – and a secret war

predator drone shadows‘When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly,’ Obama said, ‘we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people.’ Photograph: US air force / Getty

Secret drone strikes and “night raids” by special forces in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere – it seems we’ll never know where – directly contradict the evidence that these attacks, where uncounted civilians die alongside so-called “militants”, actually foment the very thing they are supposed to combat: terrorism.

After his administration finally agreed to release a drone memo, Obama offered a vague, indirect promise at West Point:

I also believe we be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out – whether it is drone strikes, or training partners. I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.

But right now, we have no accurate idea of the scale or casualties of these strikes; there is zero transparency or accountability. At least in Guantánamo, one can at least now see the injustice – though it took years of international and domestic pressure.

That it has taken Kentucky senator Rand Paul to press hardest for even a minimal explanation of the killings of Americans by drones (to say nothing of the foreigners) says a lot about this administration. With only three years as a professional politician, Paul has clearly yet to learn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture that pervades Congress’s approach to scrutinizing what is in effect a secret war. That America’s allies also acquiesce in these targeted killings – and in the UK’s case, collaborate – is equally disgraceful.

Above all, the kill-list strategy fails to acknowledge that, in all but a few cases (AQAP in Yemen, perhaps), the “militants” are not al-Qaida terrorists bent on another 9/11, but fighters motivated by more distinctly local concerns, whether in Baluchistan, northern Mali or south central Somalia. Perhaps the CIA thinks that terrorizing entire populations is contributing to local political solutions in these places.

On Wednesday, Obama claimed US strikes should pass a simple test: “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” By this measure, the evidence is clear: fail.

Climate: a more encouraging story – but not quite ‘out in front’

There have been encouraging signs of late suggesting that the US is beginning to catch up with China and Europe in addressing carbon emissions at the source. So international expectations are rising for a more progressive US position at next year’s crucial UN conference in Paris, where a new global agreement is supposed to be signed.

The US remains central to that negotiation. If it is not seen making hard commitments to cut emissions, there is no chance that others – above all the big emitters like China and India – will do so either.

One can only hope that Obama’s promise on Wednesday to be “out in front” on this deal means that the administration will face down the irresponsible climate-deniers of a Republican-controlled House and perhaps, come 2015, a GOP-dominated Senate, too.

The Middle East: a mess, as usual – and no magic deal

Regionally, we’re seeing a similar pattern of strange good/bad inconsistencies. Take, for example, Iraq. The US is providing sophisticated weaponry to the repressive Maliki government,which allows Iran to ship arms supplies through its territory to Assad’s regime in Damascus … which in turn continues to repress the opposition – which the US, as Obama reiterated on Wednesday, supports.

This strange mixture might make sense in Washington’s arcane calculations. But the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon front is, in essence, merging into one epic battlespace,where multiple wars, including a Saudi-Iranian confrontation, are taking place at once. According to White House background briefings, it appears that almost all US Middle East policy has been subordinated to the (welcome) push for a nuclear deal with Iran. You could imagine that this might be the key to everything else. Unfortunately, it won’t be.

The Obama administration can hardly be blamed for the descent of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and much of northern Africa into fratricidal and sectarian violence. But you can challenge it for supporting the Sisi regime in Egypt, the repressive behavior of which tragically mimics that of Mubarak, who was the perfect recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida. As Egypt drifts into a persistent low-level civil war, and thousands of Muslim Brothers are imprisoned with barely the pretense of judicial process, the soil is being fertilized for yet another generation of anti-western terrorists.

There’s a legitimate suspicion that US foreign policy on this front is not being driven by America’s own needs. Even Obama said as much:

In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism.

Indeed, Israel prefers “stability” in Egypt – just as it resists military intervention in Syria or significant game-changing arms supplies, like MANPADs, to the pro-democracy Syrian opposition.

Big-power diplomacy with Russia and China: a limited toolkit in the ‘Pacific pivot’

obama putin‘[S]keptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action,’ Obama said. ‘I think they’re wrong.’ Photograph: Kevin LaMarque / Reuters

The US, unsurprisingly, seems most comfortable in what might be called “traditional” foreign policy – that is, the relations between established states, rather than troublesome globalized issues like terrorism and global warming, or the chaotic collapse of the Anglo-French colonial dispensation in the Middle East.

The rhetoric of the “Pacific pivot” has not forestalled an aggressive expansion by China of its maritime territory. Take that B-52 flyover across a new, Chinese-declared air notification zone – or Obama promising US forces to defend the unpopulated Senkaku Islands: it’s enough to make me worry that military pressure will only provoke further military reaction.

Imagine what the US would do if the Chinese Pacific fleet sailed but a few miles off American territorial waters. There’s no guarantee that China will always be restrained by its mutual economic dependence with the US and the west. The US needs an aggressive diplomatic approach, recruiting China’s vulnerable neighbors to force it into a comprehensive regional territorial settlement.

When it comes to the Ukraine, firmer, non-military US pressure has been held back by European economic self-interest – including, egregiously, French arms supplies to Russian and British banking interests. But here, too, Obama is paying a price for much longer-term disaffection with the US – born, of course, during the George W Bush administration.

Indeed, it’s striking that the rising European far right is often so anti-American. And Vladimir Putin is not the only European to see that US attention, under Obama, has turned inward. But I don’t buy the cliché that Obama has somehow neglected Europe. Sensible Europeans are well aware that without US political backing – and without military power, when necessary – they can get little done beyond their own continent. As Obama said on Wednesday:

[W]hen a typhoon hits the Philippines, or girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine – it is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come.

I have actually long wished that the EU would be much more demanding of the US – as it was in Libya, for instance – in forcing a deal on Israel-Palestine, or more aggressively pressuring Russia and Iran to cease their grotesque support for the Assad regime.

The big picture: good intentions – but limited execution

I don’t envy the White House speechwriter tasked with trying to make this lot into a coherent theme. And to be fair, today’s world offers none of the binary clarity of the cold war or even the global war on terror. It’s complicated out there.

From his speech, it sounds like Obama is convinced of the right things: negotiation (not war) with Iran; a push for nuclear disarmament; cutting carbon emissions. But it’s hard not to wish that there was a greater sense of someone stitching these many threads into a greater whole, while abandoning those parts, like drone strikes, that are downright wrong.

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