Thursday, December 10, 2009

Let’s Get Real: Obama’s Foreign Policy is Failing; Time to Wake Up, Change Course, and Do It Right

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By Barry Rubin

It's astonishing to watch people try to pretend or convince themselves that this U.S. government has the knowledge, ideas, and attitudes needed to deal with the vital Middle East issues facing by the Unied States. Maybe next year but not at present.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d be delighted to think, but foolish to pretend, otherwise. The best outcome of all would be if the Obama Administration itself took the blindfold off its eyes, pulled the stoppers out of its ears, and faced reality without flinching.

A number of friends and colleagues have been asking, in amazement, if they truly understand President Barack Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. Is he really saying what we think he's saying? Yes, indeed. In effect, Obama’s signaling the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies:

Hey, we’re sending in some troops for 18 months but don’t worry. If you don’t surrender by then we’ll be leaving. So you have two choices: attack hard and claim victory when the U.S. withdraws or lay low and just emerge when the troops go home.

In his West Point speech on Afghanistan, Obama sounded like a Winston Churchill impersonator reading a speech written by Neville Chamberlain.

This is what he’s asking American soldiers to risk or even give their lives for: A show that says to hawks that the administration has done something tough and to doves that it is really getting out of Afghanistan?

The Afghan policy--and I say this as someone who opposes a big troop commitment to Afghanistan--follows the same pattern as the administration’s Iran policy, though in that case there's even less of a false veneer of toughness.

What is the real problem? In Afghanistan as with almost every other international issue, the Obama Administration takes pride in being weak, refusing to face up to confrontations, rejecting pressure, always seeing the other (enemy) guy’s point of view, and seeking consensus as the highest priority.

This Administration doesn’t understand the use of threats, leverage, credibility, and deterrence in international relations. It has only one gear in its policy: be nice and hope the other side will reciprocate. [I reread that previous sentence several times. Is it an exaggeration? Not at all.] Perhaps Obama's Nobel prize acceptance speech in which he laid out conditions for fighting wars is the beginning of a turning point; perhaps not.

Take Iran, for example, the administration gave Tehran a September deadline for raising sanctions and then abandoned it. Apparently the December 31 deadline will be missed also, despite endless warnings of U.S. patience wearing thin, now the butt of jokes among America’s enemies.

The Europeans now say they will consider higher sanctions at their January 25-26 meeting which means the earliest possible time for higher sanctions will be February 2010. If things go later than that you will know that the Iranian challenge is going to go unmet.

Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser Jim Jones said on December 6 that Washington is still open to nuclear negotiations with Iran, but that the picture is not a "good one." Jones said, the "clock is ticking."

Yes, we know the clock is ticking but when will the alarm sound and wake these people up? Or rather will it be a case of ask not for whom the bell tolls because, buddy, it tolls for thee.

What, then, should the president of the United States be doing?

Showing leadership; displaying toughness. The British, French, Germans, Italians, Canadians, and others are ready to stop coddling Iran. Announce much higher sanctions with these partners and anyone else who will agree. That won't be perfect but would send a signal and others would be encouraged to join in especially if faced by problems for those who break the sanctions, i.e., a Dutch company selling gasoline to Iran.

Also, he should start sounding credible, as if he would actually do something to a country insulting the United States, trampling on U.S. interests, and acting aggressively toward U.S. allies. Let him show there's a new Obama. Make one of those, "My fellow Americans" speeches which in effect says, no more Mr. Nice Guy. Point out the stolen election; the repression; the defense minister who is a wanted terrorist. Say enough is enough. We tried sincerely, they don't want engagement. The door has closed. (Even while secretly being ready to reassess if Iran--don't hold your breath--made some real concessions. That's how a president should behave.

and yet the need to write that previous paragraph as a reminder demonstrates all too well how far things have gone wrong, how much the first principles of statecraft have been forgotten, how bizarre  is American leaders' misreading of how international affairs work or how anti-American aggressive dictatorships áct. It shows even more how far things have gone that such simple, obvious, and traditional restatements of reality are taken in many circles as crazed reactionary nonsense.

Analysts and journalists who know better are now struggling hard to maintain the emperor has clothes, that the president knows what he’s doing and is behaving in a competent manner. That he is trying to balance toughness with the new America—non-adversarial, collegial, using all types of diplomacy.

But it’s a transparent lie, I’m sorry to say. More people are understanding this fact. The things I was writing about such things six months ago are starting to appear with increasing regularity in the mainstream media.

Here’s the simple bottom line: If the United States is strong and shows leadership it is a force for global stability. If it is weak and indecisive, that is a source of more instability, new violence, fleeing allies cutting a deal to save themselves or changing side altogether, and extended influence for America’s enemies.

Basically, we and much of the world may be in the same situation as the Taliban: trying to survive a set period of time—three or seven years in our case--waiting for Obama to go away.

Since all articles like this must end on a note of hope, here it is for the U.S. government: Please learn fast or be swept away. We prefer you learn fast.

Here’s a series of historical precedents of how presidents have fallen that should greatly sharpen your mind:

Herbert Hoover: Great Depression

Lyndon Johnson: Vietnam

Jimmy Carter: Iran hostage crisis and Nicaraguan Marxist revolution

George W. Bush: Iraq war and U.S. unpopularity

Barack H. Obama: Iran, Afghanistan, and the United States become a laughing stock for half the world and a source of bitter disappointed hopes for the other half.

Or if that’s not enough, ponder the wonderful poem by Percy Shelley, Ozymandias, about another world leader who failed despite the pomp and glory that surrounded him:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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