Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

Justice for Tzipi


On December 27th, 2008 the Israeli Defense Forces unleashed a ferocious attack on the Palestinians called Operation Cast Lead. The international condemnation that began once the extent of the offensive’s brutality was revealed seemed to culminate in the Goldstone Report. But in a further development, Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and member of Israel’s war cabinet during the attack, party to the decision to go to war, along with others involved, was indicted by a British court for war crimes. The court was right to pursue justice.

The British government is under pressure to change the law under which Ms Livni can be punished. But why should it? Does it no longer care about international law? Is it something to be applied to enemies, such as Sudan, but not to allies, such as Israel? Or are politicians so afraid of being called “anti-semitic” they will grant immunity to war criminals?

Some people are saying that this is typical of the international community’s antipathy toward Israel, and its relentless attack on the Jewish people. However, Israel is by no means the only target of international criminal law. International law has been moving in the direction of trying political and military leaders, even sitting heads of state, for decades. Leaders from all around the world have appeared in court for jus cogens offenses: Charles Taylor of Liberia, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for crimes against humanity, Augusto Pinochet of Chile for torture; and with any luck, the list will get longer.

Moreover, a decade ago, people complained that it was mostly only leaders from the former Yugoslavia who were on trial, and that African and Israeli leaders who committed crimes under international law were escaping the knife. But customary law has made it possible to try a wider range of criminals. Universal jurisdiction now applies to everyone, regardless of rank, who commits the most egregious crimes. To read the reports of the human rights organisations, including the Goldstone report, on Operation Cast Lead, it is clear “egregious” is an appropriate word to describe this war.

Others warn that arresting Israelis for war crimes or upholding the law according to the findings of the Goldstone Report could derail the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that the rest of the world seems so keen on pursuing. To this I ask, what peace process? Not only are there no negotiations to speak of at the moment, but it is easy to forget that justice is a prerequisite for peace. Only the threat of punishment can prevent further massacres like Operation Cast Lead. What Israelis and Palestinians need to live in peace is more justice, not less.

Tzipi Livni has said she might travel to the UK to see if the law would really be enforced, and make an example of how flawed the idea of justice is. The British government has assured her they will not arrest her. I say, let me pay for your ticket, Ms Livni, and we shall see what happens.

Arms for Taiwan, finger for China

The US and Taiwan have good relations. Though the US does not officially recognise Taiwan as independent from China, like the rest of the world it treats Taiwan as what it is: a de facto independent state. And now it is apparently time for a new arms deal between the US and Taiwan. The US sells arms to just about everyone, so why not to a little island in the Pacific? What could China possibly be angry about?

If you answered “a lot”, you not alone. Since the government of China considers Taiwan a renegade province which will, inevitably, one day be reunited with its true owners, and since a huge number of people in China fervently agree, American arms sales to Taiwan are a kind of provocation. If the Chinese government sold weapons to al Qaeda, Americans would feel approximately the same as the Chinese do at present.

I believe that any group of people that wishes to be independent should be, regardless of what some militant nationalists say. Therefore, I am all in favour of Taiwan’s continued independence from China. However, there is no reason to provoke China by selling Taiwan another $6.4b in arms. As I said, I support independence, and the US government has already made it clear that it does too. It established the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and updated it with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. The Acts both authorise arms sales but the central clauses state in clear terms that the United States guarantees Taiwan’s security and independence. Even though it has always denounced it, China’s government grudgingly accepts the security pact. Why antagonise China further?

The United States needs China. Its government, in particular, through decades (or at least one decade) of myopic policies, is financially dependent on China like a teenager with a credit card is dependent on his father to bail him out. The two countries are, of course, economically interdependent; witness the Chinese government’s understandable threat of sanctions on American arms manufacturers. They should be cooperating more on political and military levels–in the Security Council; on East and Central Asian security matters, where their interests coincide; on Iran, which for some reason Barack has a desire to punish but which China is wisely declining to rush into a decision on; the list continues. Their divergent attitudes on the Dalai Lama are another source of Chinese anger, but the US government accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and can leverage this acceptance to extract other concessions. Neither has an interest in war with the other.

The problem is, at root, one of ego. China and the US both see themselves, at a cultural level, as the rightful superpowers of the world. Each needs to be the best in the world, the biggest, the richest, the fastest, the strongest. Over the next generation, we will see this playground need for supremacy play out everywhere from the oceans to the Olympics. But why do we need to be number one? Surely, we should be working to be better than our former selves, not better than others. But instead of setting our own goals and working with others to achieve them, we treat others as competitors and train to beat them, even cheating or holding them down if necessary.

Only through recognising their common interests and cooperating on them will the US and China avoid violent collision. Billions of dollars in arms sales to Taiwan is not the way to build a partnership that affects the entire world.

I should mention one other point, however. China’s government (unlike its people) do not actually want Taiwan to be “reunited” with the mainland. Claiming unwavering and fully legitimate sovereignty over Taiwan serves two functions. It is a kind of bone thrown to the Chinese people that whips up anger at foreigners for their support for Taiwanese independence, which in practice means more support for the CCP. And it can be a blunt foreign policy instrument to use against foreign governments, to extract concessions: you owe us for your support of Taiwan. Though I still think the US should not antagonise China unnecessarily, there is every reason to regard China’s claims about Taiwan skeptically.