Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Obama Ideology and World Affairs, Part Four: So What Are We Going to Do?

By Barry Rubin

Theme Six: North Korea and Israeli-Palestinian: Six months and already failure

Finally, in her speech on U.S. foreign policy, Clinton gets down to some specifics, regarding North Korea, Arab-Israeli, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Note that all but the first are Middle Eastern issues, showing the overwhelming importance of that region in the administration’s agenda.

Let’s start with North Korea. Her presentation is startling because it is offered as a case study of the administration’s approach on the issue as if it were a great success. Yet this policy has been a visible failure. North Korea is a type of country (the Bush administration called them "rogue states") unresponsive to the Obama-Clinton approach to a greater extent than any other country on the globe.

Here's Clinton's account of the administration's management of this issue:

“Our diplomacy regarding North Korea is a case in point. We have invested a significant amount of diplomatic resources to achieve Security Council consensus in response to North Korea’s provocative actions. I spoke numerous times to my counterparts in Japan, South Korea, Russia and China, drawing out their concerns, making our principles and redlines clear, and seeking a path forward. The short-term results were two unanimous Security Council resolutions with real teeth and consequences for North Korea, and then the follow-on active involvement of China, Russia, and India with us in persuading others to comply with the resolutions. The long-term result, we believe, will be a tougher joint effort toward the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

This is intended to sound impressive: significant diplomatic resources...Security Council consensus...spoke numerous times...making principles involvement of allies and other powers...teeth...tougher joint effort.

And yet, nothing happened in real terms! North Korea does precisely what it wants without significant costs. This policy is a failure and the case study damning for the administration's strategy. That Clinton clearly doesn't notice this--that she's outspokenly proud of her effort--is the most single disturbing point in the speech.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue on which Clinton says the administration “wasted no time in starting an intensive effort on day one,” there’s nothing to show after six months. It isn’t as if seeds have been planted that will bear fruit in future. There’s just nothing.

There’s a vague reference to the settlement construction issue (“we’ve been working with the Israelis”) and at least recognition that “these decisions are politically challenging” for Israel's government. There’s talk of the Palestinians having to do something on security and incitement. There’s a call for Arab state action “to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region.”

Nothing here that might not have been said in much the same language by every president since Richard Nixon. No plan, no concept, no fresh approach, and no reason to believe it will go anywhere.

She concludes:

“So I say to all sides: Sending messages of peace is not enough. You must also act against the cultures of hate, intolerance and disrespect that perpetuate conflict.”

Yet the Palestinian Authority (PA) is using U.S. taxpayer money for events and institutions--contrary to U.S. law--honoring suicide bombers who murdered Israeli civilians without any protest by the administration. Nor is there any material pressure being applied to the PA regarding daily incitement, or against any Arab state for promoting antisemitism, hatred, and intolerance. Consequently, this is empty rhetoric.

I think this administration is going to achieve zero on this issue. It might even be starting to get that idea for itself.

Theme Seven: Iran

Clinton says the administratoin's approach “is to lead with diplomacy, even in the cases of adversaries or nations with whom we disagree. We believe that doing so advances our interests and puts us in a better position to lead with our other partners. We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage.”

So, step one is to try engaging. There is supposed to be a step two, though one might ask, what if taking it would put the United States in a worse position to maintain the highly valued consensus among allies?

Clinton, of course, is aware of criticism:

“Yet some suggest that this is a sign of naiveté or acquiescence to these countries’ repression of their own people. I believe that is wrong. As long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table. Negotiations can provide insight into regimes’ calculations and the possibility–even if it seems remote–that a regime will eventually alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community. Libya is one such example. Exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert pressure should persuasion fail.”

This is not an impressive comeback. In fact, it makes me more worried than before I read it. Obviously, engagement should be removed when it no longer serves interests, but what if the administration doesn’t want to recognize that point when it is visible? What if it continues after the usefulness is exhausted. And does the administration really need to engage with Iran and North Korea, Cuba or Syria, to find out what they think?

Moreover, yes, there might be a remote chance but engagement could lead to altered behavior. But I would have felt better if Clinton also acknowledged the opposite: engagement can reduce the chance of a regime altering its behavior by removing pressure.

As with North Korea, Clinton seems to misunderstand the Libya case as well. Libya is a perfect example of a radical regime being frightened into becoming more moderate in its behavior. It wasn't engagement that shook Qadhafi into concessions but the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even any opponent of the invasion should be able to acknowledge that. Once again, Clinton discounts the uses of power, threats, and pressure and the costs of not using them. There definitely is a pattern here.

With Iran, she also does something unnecessarily partisan which is disconcerting:

"We know very well what we inherited with Iran, because we deal with that inheritance every day. We know that refusing to deal with the Islamic Republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran’s treatment of its citizens.”

So she blames the Iran problem on Bush and says that pressure has failed.

There is, of course, another interpretation: that pressure was insufficient. This is why I find Clinton’s statement scary. Let me explain.

Let’s say that the Obama administration engages Iran but concludes that it isn’t working. What to do? Clinton has set up the case for then saying it would make no sense to refuse to deal with Tehran because that didn’t work. In other words, how could Obama go to a Bush-type tough line having already declared it is futile? There’s no option but engagement.

What should she have said: We have tried pressuring and isolating Iran. Iran's regime persists in its ways. We will now give Iran a chance through diplomacy and engagement. If Tehran wants to compromise it will find a ready partner in the United States. But if it wants to persue its extremist course, it will find a steadfast foe in the United States. We prefer friendship but the regime must decide.

That's how presidents and secretaries of state, from either party, usually speak. One could argue that this is what she is saying but, at best, she's doing so in such a soft manner dealing with such a tough adversary that it sounds like mush.

Here is her either/or line, repeated over and over by herself and Obama: Engagement gives Iran's “leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation.”

And what if Iran doesn’t accept? Does “further isolation” mean going beyond a Bush policy that she says failed? There is absolutely no serious stick offered here. Rather, we are being told that the stick has failed; let’s offer the carrot. And if that’s not taken? Then perhaps we’ll return to the "failed" policy of last year?

Theme Eight: Fighting terrorism in one country

There is only one point on which Clinton takes a tough stand:

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies, and to prevent their return to either country.”

Ironically, though, Afghanistan may be the worst place in the world to do this. Obviously, the United States does not want to see the Taliban return to power or al-Qaida get a safe haven there. Yet the conflict in Afghanistan is unwinnable—far more so than Iraq—because of the nature of Afghan topography and society. It is not a good candidate for nation-building.

“To achieve our goals, President Obama is sending an additional 17,000 troops and 4,000 military trainers to Afghanistan. Equally important, we are sending hundreds of direct hire American civilians to lead a new effort to strengthen the Afghan Government, help rebuild the once-vibrant agricultural sector, create jobs, encourage the rule of law, expand opportunities for women, and train the Afghan police.”

And will any stable regime conceivably emerge from this?

The same problem exists with Pakistan, one of the world’s major sponsors of terrorism, we should remember, which is committing covert aggression against its neighbor, India. True, as she says, “Pakistan is itself under intense pressure from extremist groups.”

But it is not accurate to say that “trilateral cooperation among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States has built confidence and yielded progress on a number of policy fronts.” Pakistan has been really unhelpful. And if, “Our national security, as well as the future of Afghanistan, depends on a stable, democratic, and economically viable Pakistan,” then the United States is in serious trouble.

Finally, there is Iraq. Here Clinton has a difficult task. She has to say that everything is getting better without giving any credit for Bush. She mentions the withdrawal and then adds, “Our principal focus is now shifting from security issues to civilian efforts that promote Iraqi capacity –supporting the work of the Iraqi ministries and aiding in their efforts to achieve national unity.” This is basically a continuation of Bush administration efforts and builds on whatever success was achieved by the surge. She gives no hint of that.

If one is looking for a radical Obama administration changing everything in U.S. foreign policy, they won’t find it in Clinton’s speech. There’s much continuity, far more than the administration will dare admit. Yet the same applies if one is looking or a clear, confident vision to deal with the enormous problems facing the world.

This administration has a reputation for being weak in its foreign policy, rejecting the use of force and power politics, naive about America's radical foes. Clinton easily could have put in some language to address that problem, even if it were merely for show. That she didn't do so--that she misconstrued the Libya and North Korea cases while saying that pressure against Iran would not work--is a source of concern.

A lot of the media reaction to the speech made it sound as if Clinton had delivered a tough and pragmatic view of U.S. foreign policy. This is simply not what the text contains.

The bottom line is probably this: the administration is going to face one or more huge crises and failures. Either it will toss a lot of this thinking out the window and take charge as a leader in the world or it will fail the test. Muddling through it can clearly do but will that be enough? The times are unlikely to permit that.

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