Feb 13, 2012
From the derogatory tone of a recent tirade from the “paper of record,” one might get the impression that the foreign policy endeavor of the current Democratic administration was reaping staggering success.
Pot calling the kettle black?
Indeed, as the editorial itself points out, “China is rising, relations with Pakistan are plummeting, Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear programs. The Middle East is in turmoil,” – leaving the reader to puzzle over who ought to shoulder the blame for all this.
Shouldn’t much of the culpability for these woes be attributed, in large measure, to the incumbent administration, already well into the final year of its term?
With the much-heralded centerpiece of Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy – “outreach” to the Muslim world – launched with his lofty June 2009 speech at Cairo’s Al- Azhar University, in ruins, what basis is there is to believe his party “is the one to trust with the nation’s security”?
A poll conducted in mid-2010 for the Arab American Institute by James Zogby, himself closely affiliated with the Democratic Party, underscores just how miserably the administration’s grand design has failed. According to Zogby’s findings, “US favorable ratings across the Arab world have plummeted. In most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush administration.”
Zogby expressed surprise to The Washington Post’s Jason Ukman “that favorable attitudes toward the United States had actually dropped to levels below where they were in 2008.”
These findings were, as Ukman notes, “largely in line with those of a poll conducted in spring 2010 by the Pew Research Center,” which also showed a plunge in favorable perceptions of both the US and the president.
A subsequent Pew poll, conducted after the start of the Arab Spring, revealed a further overall deterioration in Muslim attitudes toward the US. Only in Indonesia was there a small majority (54 percent) with a favorable view of the US under Obama, while in Jordan (84%), the Palestinian-administered territories (80%), Egypt (79%), Turkey (77%) and Pakistan (75%), massive majorities expressed unfavorable attitudes.
Clearly then, Obama’s approach to international relations – cold-shouldering democratic allies and kow-towing to dictatorial adversaries – has not only been distinctly counterintuitive but disastrously counterproductive.
The headline of an article by Nile Gardiner in the British Telegraph, relating to the Zogby poll, conveys a widespread sentiment regarding the administration’s competence in foreign affairs: “President Obama is proving an embarrassing flop in the Middle East.”
Gardiner’s assessment is scathing: “After two and a half years of bashing Israel, appeasing rogue regimes… and promising a new era of relations with the Muslim world, Washington is now less popular in major Arab countries than it was when George W. Bush was in the White House.”
The White House’s approach – perceived by many as embracing foes and estranging friends – has alienated the latter without assuaging the former.
The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline B. Glick caustically characterized the Obama administration’s “intellectual universe” as one “where stalwart US allies such as Hosni Mubarak are discarded like garbage and foes such as Hugo Chavez are wooed like Hollywood celebrities.”
In Egypt, this policy has precipitated an archetypical lose-lose situation: Soaring anti- American animosity from the Egyptian public and a total loss of US influence with the Egyptian government, as demonstrated by Cairo’s defiant determination to prosecute almost 20 American democracy advocates (including the son of a senior administration official), despite dire warnings from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to allow them to leave the county.
Lose friends and influence
While the frequent tiffs with Israel – the result of an endeavor to wring concessions for the virulently anti-US Palestinians – have been arguably the most media worthy of the administration’s brushes with friendly nations, they are by no means the only ones – and certainly not the most damaging to the US.
Thus under Obama, relations with India have cooled down markedly relative to the warm cordiality that prevailed throughout the Bush administration. According to former US ambassador to New Delhi Robert Blackwill, “India… seems to have been downgraded in the administration’s strategic calculations.”
A 2011 Congressional Research Service paper notes that even after the US president’s visit to India, “observers continued voicing concerns at the Obama administration’s apparent ‘air of ambivalence’ toward India, with one going so far as to accuse the US administration of ‘diplomatic negligence.’”
There is a pervasive sentiment among many in the Indian elite that the US has relegated its relations with India to the backburner, preferring instead to focus on ties with Pakistan and China. This is reflected in the assessment of one seasoned Indian diplomat who sensed that under Obama, the US’s “strategic priorities in the region and India’s expectations are diverging.”
It is a matter of speculation what role this perceived divergence played in the Indian air force’s decision to opt for the hitherto unsaleable French Rafale fighters, rejecting bids from Lockheed (F-16IN Super Viper) and Boeing (F/A-18E/F Super Hornet) in its multi-billion dollar acquisition program for 126 combat aircraft. However, had the intimate Indo-American strategic convergence that characterized the pre-Obama period continued, such an outcome would have been distinctly less probable.
A China-Canada connection?
What is not a matter of speculation, however, is that the Obama administration has driven staunch US ally Canada into the arms of America’s most significant rival, China – at least as far the crucial issue of energy is concerned.
Despairing of any progress on the proposed Keystone pipeline, planned to transport vast oil reserves in Alberta to American refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, Canadian Premier Stephen Harper flew this week to China with several of his cabinet ministers, to discuss the energy deals with Beijing that were previously expected to be done with Washington.
According to New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, Canada’s view of the bilateral relationship with the US has been fundamentally transformed by the Obama administration’s handling of the Keystone episode.
He laments: “Canada has concluded that it simply can’t expect much from the United States, even on an issue that would seem to be vital to our own interests,” adding acerbically: “At least one country in North America understands where its national interests lie. Too bad it’s not us.”
However, the foreign policy debacles of the Democrats are cold comfort for the Republicans.
Setting aside its undisguised partisan enmity and unwarranted disdain, the Times editorial cited above is correct in expecting that the GOP and its presidential candidates demonstrate “real understanding” and “new ideas” in the field of foreign policy. It is correct in asserting that “American voters deserve thoughtful answers [t]hey’re not getting.”
Despite the fact that in the looming November elections, the major focus will be on domestic issues – the economy and employment – the Republicans will be gravely remiss if they allow themselves to be seen as ill-equipped to deal with the considerable foreign challenges that US will be called upon to face in the coming years.
They need to take a brutally honest assessment of their own past performance. This will inevitably involve a critical appraisal of the aspirations, application and accomplishments of the largely neoconservative doctrine that dominated the theory and practice of foreign policy during the Bush presidency – in terms of both the validity of its intellectual underpinnings and the consequences of its implementation.
It would be an intrepid speculator indeed who would give more than even odds on any positive long-term result emerging from the massive expenditure of blood and treasure in US-led military campaigns launched by the Republican administration in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Democratic peace theorem
For the better part of the last decade, the conceptual cornerstone of Republican foreign policy planning was the Democratic Peace Theorem (DPT) – the notion that democracies do not go to war against each other.
The far-reaching theoretical significance and the policy-relevant importance of this idea have been widely recognized by prominent figures in the study of international relations.
For example, Harvard’s Samuel Huntington declared: “The democratic peace thesis is one of the most significant propositions to come out of social science in recent decades. If true, it has crucially important implications for both theory and policy.”
As for the validity of the DPT, two well-known scholars of international relations write: “The proposition that democracies are generally at peace with each other is [so] strongly supported… [it] has led some scholars to claim that this finding is probably the closest thing that we have to a law in international politics.”
The embrace of the DPT by GOP policymakers was described by John M. Owen IV, in a 2005 Foreign Affairs review essay titled “Iraq and the Democratic Peace” as “The defining act of Bush’s presidency.” Owen points out that no other president “since Woodrow Wilson, a former president of the American Political Science Association – tied their foreign policies more explicitly to the work of social science.”
Blueprint for Bush doctrine
This idea was the intellectual compass that led to the “Broader Middle East Initiative” and “forward strategy of freedom” by which the expansion of political rights and participation in the Muslim world was meant to combat the appeal of Islamist extremism.
One of Bush’s most explicit articulation of this was in a 2004 White House press release following a meeting on Iraq and the Middle East with then-British premier Tony Blair: “The reason why I’m so strong on democracy is democracies don’t go to war with each other…. I’ve got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that’s why I’m such a strong believer that the way forward in… the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy.”
Bush extended this vision to Afghanistan. In an address to US and coalition troops, he declared, “It’s in our national interest… helping the Afghans develop a democracy. History has taught us democracies don’t [make] war. Democracies yield peace, and that’s what we want.”
Interestingly enough, Bush’s predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, embraced almost identical DTP-compliant ideas a decade earlier. In his 1994 State of the Union address he expressed a strikingly similar rational for the promotion of democracy as the preferred avenue for pursuit of US interests abroad: “Ultimately, the best strategy to ensure our security… is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere. Democracies don’t attack each other. They make better trading partners and partners in diplomacy,” Clinton said.
Conundrum and challenge
Even the staunchest GOP supporter cannot deny that the noble aspirations of the Bush doctrine have not been even remotely realized. By most estimates, well over a trillion dollars have been spent on Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. In both cases over 90% of this cost – and the casualties – were incurred after the Taliban were dislodged from power and after Saddam Hussein was apprehended.
This blood and treasure has been expended on subsequent efforts to establish democracy on the banks the Euphrates and on the slopes of the Hindu Kush, where signs are rapidly accumulating that this huge effort will culminate in heartbreaking futility, that in both Iraq and Afghanistan the situation will revert to the status quo ante – or worse.
In Iraq, there are warnings that, following the US withdrawal, the country is descending into a corruption-ridden police state, with the Shi’ite leadership increasingly ruling by force and fear. In Afghanistan, ahead of the planned US withdrawal, there are increasing fears that the Karzai government will not be able to defend itself against the resurgent Taliban.
Why then has a doctrine that had such sound theoretical grounding and overwhelming empirical validation of its underlying rationale been so unsuccessful? That is the cruel conundrum Republicans must address and the crucial challenge they must rise to.
In next week’s column, I shall propose a possible answer to the conundrum and an operational policy paradigm to meet the challenge.