13 January 2009|
The forces shaping Obama’s foreign policy when he takes the reins as Commander-in-Chief
2008 was just one of those years. It was easy to get lost among all that took place. Everywhere you turned there was something else. From a presidential election that may not bring much change, but undoubtedly brought a lot of history, to an economic catastrophe brought on by profligate spending and an overabundance of easy credit, that we are now told will be solved through greater profligacy and easier credit, it was an interesting year to say the least, and it was easy to forget about the many things that happened outside the United States.
2009 is already starting off with a bang. Jan 3 saw the week-long war bombardment of the Gaza Strip turn into, to use Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s phrase, “all out war,” as Israeli tanks rumbled into Gaza for the first time since withdrawing in 2005. An incident has already taken place in Iraq between U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi civilian that will test the recently enacted Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). India and Pakistan stand on the verge of their fifth war since both achieved independence in 1947 - and the first since both states acquired nuclear weapons. And the United States just handed out yet another war guarantee, this time in the form a “strategic partnership” with Georgia - yes, the same Georgia that had a brief war with Russia this summer.
So Mr. President-Elect, sure you still want the job?
For any incoming administration, and often incoming congresses as well, the first one hundred days is often seen as the most important - going back to FDR’s first term in office and his efforts to bring the country out of the Great Depression. There is no doubt that a newly inaugurated President Obama will have his hands full on the home front as he attempts to make Roosevelt’s New Deal Keynesianism look like an exercise in frugality. It is due to the domestic financial crisis that many are speculating that Obama, a neophyte in international affairs, will turn over much of the responsibility for shaping and implementing foreign policy to his former adversary in the Democratic primary, and soon-to-be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. And while this is a move certain to bring smiles to the faces of many in the Democratic Party establishment who are glad to see the wounds from the bitter primary season healing, Obama’s naming of Clinton as the country’s chief diplomat will be seen as a betrayal of many who voted for Obama based on his ostensible status as the “peace candidate.”
Neoconservatives who had ardently championed the post-9/11 policies of the Bush Administration, but have shown their disdain to the purported “softer” stance in foreign affairs pushed for by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in the later years of the administration, are cheering Obama’s selection of the former First Lady. Max Boot - who, immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, penned an article for The Weekly Standard claiming that America had been attacked because of a lack of imperialism and this summer advocated shipping mass amounts of Stinger Missiles to Georgia to aid in its week-long war against the Russians - believes that Hillary will keep the Obama Administration from veering too far from the neoconservatives hawkish agenda.
Whether it’s Hillary, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, diplomatic envoys such as Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, Vice President Joe Biden, or Obama himself taking the lead on foreign policy issues, there is an unenviable list of issues that will demand attention around the globe. The so-called “Arc of Instability” that stretches from the Horn of Africa through the Middle East and into South and Central Asia will be one of many focal points as the Obama Administration takes office.
The ongoing Israel/Hamas war in Gaza, coupled with the domestic economic crisis, has managed to monopolize much of the mainstream media’s coverage - along with the Obama daughters’ lunch menu at their new school in Washington, D.C. Lost in this equation are several crises - the most volatile of which may be the fallout over the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India that have both India and Pakistan escalating both their rhetoric and military readiness in preparation for the possibility of war between the two longtime adversaries. Past wars between the two states that formerly made up the heart of the British Raj, and “Crown Jewel” of the British Empire, were dangerous to those involved. But Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests - ending India’s monopoly in South Asia - adds a new and potentially devastating aspect to the conflict.
Adding to this volatile mixture is the situation in Afghanistan - where India, Pakistan, and the United States all have interests they consider vital. The sanctuary for a variety of extremist groups that is the Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA) along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border presents national security problems for all three nations. Al Qaeda and other related groups, along with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, operate relatively unmolested. The United States, as articulated by a July 2008 presidential finding and Barack Obama’s own campaign rhetoric, has asserted its right to violate Pakistani sovereignty in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants while meanwhile urging India to show restraint in conducting counterterrorism operations on Pakistani soil. While the U.S. has already conducted special forces operations and airstrikes from Predator attack drones inside on Pakistani soil - a move that has caused much consternation in Pakistan and even led to retaliatory fire from Pakistan’s military - similar operations by India’s military could lead to a full-scale shooting war.
Personnel is Policy
Much of Barack Obama’s political fortune was made as the ostensible “peace candidate” - based in large part on his 2002 speech opposing the impending Iraq War and as a juxtaposition to his opponent, John McCain, during the 2008 general election. But, as his cabinet and staff positions are nearly filled, the Obama Administration is looking like it will embody the hawkish humanitarianism that many have predicted for the derisively-referred to Clinton 2.0.
Obama, even before taking office, embraced the worst elements of the Clinton era foreign policy. One of his chief foreign policy advisors during the general election was former Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State, Madeleine “Half-a-Million Dead Iraqi Children is ‘Worth It’ to Depose Saddam Hussein” Albright. Outside of her quote about the value of dead Iraqi children, Albright is also infamous for telling Colin Powell, “What's the point of having this superb military that you've always been talking about if we can't use it?” It is acolytes of Albright, such as Richard Holbrooke- who advocated military action against Serbia in the late 1990s to prevent the alleged genocide of ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, facilitated the massacre of East Timorese civilians by Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1977, and will serve as a special envoy to South Asia in the Obama Administration - will craft policy under the watchful eye of the incoming Secretary of State.
Both the neoconservative camp and the liberal internationalist camp - of which Secretary Clinton and former Secretary Albright represent the vangaurd - saw the value of the supposed “humanitarian interventions” undertaken during the Clinton years. With much of the same personnel now in place in the Obama Administration those looking for true “Change” are sure to be disappointed. Obama is already being pushed, and has made a vague pledge, to do “something” about the conflict in Darfur - thus fulfilling a prophecy made by Osama bin Laden to African Muslims that the United States would soon attack both Somalia (accomplished by the Bush Administration in late 2006) and Sudan. A “humanitarian intervention” to stop the obvious atrocities taking place in Darfur may seem like a reasonable move for those who believe that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to solve all of humanities ills. The conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C. - by both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists - is that because the U.S. is the preeminent military power on earth it has a unique responsibility to act as a “benevolent hegemon.” Or as Albright put it, the U.S. is “...the indispensible nation.”
Unfortunately this position ignores the fact that both the U.S. military - and the U.S. economy - are stretched to the breaking point. America is already at a point where it will be difficult to respond to actual threats to its security. If Obama’s speeches leading up to the election, as well as his acceptance speech, are any indication, America’s role as the world’s “reluctant sheriff” will continue its imperial over-stretch until it no longer has a choice but to acknowledge the limits of its own power.