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

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