Friday, October 16, 2009

The Question on which the World Hangs: Can Obama Learn To Manage U.S. Foreign Policy Well?

By Barry Rubin

I often fantasize about the existence of a large employment advertisement that goes like this: “Wanted, President of the United States. No previous experience necessary.”

Does the fate of the world, then, depend on one simple question: Is Barack Obama capable of learning? Maybe it does. This is an absurd situation but nonetheless it’s what this third planet from the yellow star Sol is up to nowadays.

Obviously, the answer is unknown as of today and probably will be until the spring of 2010. I refer only to foreign policy—I leave American domestic issues to those who know more about them than I do.

For a while, I thought the answer must be “yes” but now I am less sure. Let me lay out the reasons why by beginning with two central problems. First, there is the evident lack in Obama’s intellectual make-up of the most basic concepts of international strategy. I don’t say that as an insult but unfortunately it is an easily observable fact.

Obama is a man who preaches universal nuclear disarmament. Yet he has to a large degree already practiced strategic self-disarmament.

Where are the ideas of diplomacy and strategy that seem to have no place in his arsenal?

Credibility: Understanding the need to ensure in others a belief that you are strong, determined, and ready to use power

Deterrence: Possession of the proven instruments—including willpower—to stop other’s from doing what you don’t want because they know you will even go to war to stop them. Consequently, they are most likely to avoid going to war.

The use of serious threats and friction: In diplomacy you must demand a great deal—even consciously asking for too much—in order to get a moderate amount.

Ensuring allies that you will support and protect them, precisely because you are prepared to be a tenacious fighter—if you’ll excuse the expression—one mean son-of-a-bitch.

Leadership: Taking a stance and pushing it through even if others among your friends oppose it or are not ready for it, even if they accuse you of unilateralism.

Willingness to use force: If you so denounce and apologize for past use of force, who will believe that you will employ it in future?

Readiness to be unpopular: To make tough decisions, to do things that other governments and populations don’t like—rightly or wrongly—because you are acting in your own country’s interest. In some ways, Obama’s international popularity is not a good thing but a hint of how wrong he’s gone.

I know that there are those who would presume to answer the above points by finding some quotation here or policy statement there. The word “Afghanistan” might be mentioned—which is precisely why Obama has made a big deal of fighting that war, which is the one war in the world least worth fighting and most likely to fail. Yet don’t we all really know that this critique is a true one?

And can one really believe that he will learn all these things in a few months, no matter what the experience? Others have, perhaps, so learned but they were people who simply didn’t know, they were perhaps ignorant and inexperienced but had not installed directly contrary ideas at the center of their beings.

The problem, it should be stressed, is not that a Democrat or that a liberal is president of the United States. One might merely say: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. All had their faults (yes, one name has been left out of this list but he, too, could be added) and made big mistakes, but they were less disastrous potentially than Obama is. Hilary Clinton stands within this pattern; Obama does not.

In fact, the current president is a man who is not a liberal Democrat in the sense that these people were but rather a man of what in America can be called the left. In Europe, one might say “far left” or in Britain “hard left.” Again, this is not meant as an insult but as a statement of fact for Obama lies beyond the traditional liberal (America) and Labour or Socialist framework of national leaders.

At the same time, it should be stressed, of course, that the right-wing has exaggerated Obama’s perfidy and intentions. He does not seek to destroy Israel or to empower the world’s worst dictators. Indeed, he has no overarching program despite all his fine words. The watchword for his administration is really passivity, to do the minimum, avoid confrontation, and substitute soaring rhetoric for clear, attainable goals or strategies closely attuned to realities.

And this is the other reason why I am doubtful at the moment about Obama’s learning. This issue can be summed up in the phrase: the cost of change. For to change he would have to consider confronting Venezuela and North Korea, Syria and Iran, numerous radical and terrorist groups, and even to a lesser extent Russia and China. He would have to decide consciously to sacrifice that popularity which is his greatest boast. Obama would have to turn into his opposite, and there are few men who have the self-knowledge, courage, and strength to make such a thorough self-transformation.

When one makes these points in conversation, the response is often that Obama is better than Bush. Aside from being irrelevant this precisely reveals the problem. For being the Anti-Bush is too important for him and Bush, whatever his faults, was a national interests’ president. Again, the question is not whether Obama is better than Bush, the issue is whether he is a good president in his own right.

Another argument that is frequently made is that Obama is “smart.” Yet being smart is not enough to make you able to perform any given complex job. No matter how smart you are you might not be able to be a surgeon or a software writer or an army general, or any other complex occupation that requires certain skills and psychological orientations beyond just being intelligent.

As the British professor Basil Willey put it just after World War Two reflecting back on the previous century of sad history, “Knowledge without wisdom brings sorrow.” Or to quote a popular aphorism: Wise people are those who have to get smart people out of trouble. As has also been pointed out, smart, attractive, fashionable people—who David Halberstam called memorably the best and the brightest—got the United States into the Vietnam War.

A smart person may proceed on wrong premises, or by the very process of being in love with ideas may value them above experience. Obama thinks he knows precisely what must be done and unfortunately that program is dead wrong.

The final point is that there are good people around him, a the huge force of advisors who—hopefully or presumably, you choose the word—will warn him that his thinking is very out of touch with the world. They, if not he, will be capable of evaluating the administration’s experience and urging a course correction.
That might be. But I also must keep in mind that some (many?) share his conceptions, that human beings have an amazing ability to see what they want to see (and not what they don’t want to see), that they will want to please their boss, and finally that many draw different conclusions which make them fight rather than unite.

Of course, administrations do change their policies and many are the presidents who had quite distinctive periods of different policies during their term in office. Perhaps that will happen to Obama due also to the force of external events. We will see. At the moment, though, I’m more pessimistic given the evidence we do have.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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