Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Thanksgiving for Current U.S. Foreign Policy

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By Barry Rubin

Wishful thinking is the most powerful force in human existence, or at least in contemporary international affairs. The desire to deny evidence in order to assume that things are working out just fine overwhelms the senses and the rational faculties all too often nowadays.

This isn’t a matter of optimism or pessimism. The first step to solving problems is to recognize their existence, degree of difficulty, and what measures aren’t working. Such behavior blocks the needed change to policies that might work or at least be far less damaging.

In trying to show that the Obama Administration is doing well in foreign policy, elements in the media are growing increasingly desperate. My favorite was the New York Times editorial back in September which raved about what a success the current government is but could only come up with two specifics: that Russia was considering—only considering, mind you—sanctions on Iran and that the Guantanamo prisoners’ camp was being closed down.

Ironically, or deliciously, that same day the lead article in the Washington Post was a detailed assessment on how the Guantanamo close-down had been botched by the government.

Now, ten weeks and one Nobel Peace Prize later, Gerald Seib tries to find something good to say in the Wall Street Journal. He notes that President Barack Obama has been trying to follow the diplomatic route and, “Maybe he is finally starting to get some return.” Seib’s list has three entries: Iran sanctions, Afghanistan, and global climate change.

What is so astonishing about these exercises--and many average Americans are still glowing about how popular America is now in the world and how great things are going--is how little they can show in terms of  successes. Let’s examine the Seib trio.

Afghanistan: At last, the Obama Administration has made a decision. Neatly, of course, it splits the difference between a surge-type, rapid build up, approach and deciding not to fight it out in Afghanistan. Troops will be fed in but at a slow rate, thus not doing much good and giving the Taliban a precise timetable of what to expect. Then, after a brief peak in troop numbers, Obama promises to start bringing them back in eighteen months, by which time nothing would have been achieved.

In short, this is a totally political plan designed to look good to domestic political audiences. To hawks: I'm sending more troops! To doves: I'm bringing them home! This has nothing to do with strategic issues in Afghanistan at all. This may be a warning of how the administration handles future crises generally.

Regarding the claim that Obama's diplomacy has made progress, what's cited is the idea that some European allies may agree to a small increase of their troop levels in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on the word “small” and even if this happens it would be the first thing European allies have actually done at Obama’s behest, despite their supposed worship of him, during an entire year of his term.

An increased U.S.  commitment to Afghanistan is nothing to celebrate. Ironically, Obama, the man who portrayed Iraq, inaccurately, as his predecessor’s Vietnam is seeking one of his own. At "best" the whole exercise will achieve nothing. At worst, American lives will be lost on the basis of a cynical strategy that neither seeks victory nor an alternative arrangement that would gain U.S. objectives without increasing troops. This could well be the most advantageous outcome al-Qaida and the Taliban could hope for.

Even under Obama's design in eighteen months we will be back precisely where we are today! And so will Afghanistan. How can this decision not remind us of a well-known nursery rhyme based on an incompetent British general of the 1790s, who botched his first actual command over soldiers:

The grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

Any long-term, larger U.S. commitment in Afghanistan faces tremendous problems. Unlike Iraq, there is no solid group to provide a real government which will ever be able to take over the war. Afghanistan is badly divided by geography and ethnicity. It has weak institutions and uncertain leadership.

True, there are some instances in Afghan history—though not many--where a level of stability was achieved. But this was before the cat of modern-style ideology was let out of the bag; years of civil warfare broke down those aspects of traditionalism which enhanced quiet; and money plus weapons flooded the country to reinforce the warlords.

Pakistan makes the situation even worse since the country the United States is most depending on in the area in fact acts as if it is on the enemy, or at least terrorist, side. It is quite true that when groups we can call the Pakistani Taliban threatens the central government it will fight. The rest of the time, however, the regime’s intelligence service subsidize and help the Afghanistan Taliban and other radical Islamist groups, for which Pakistan is safe haven, including a base for launching bloody terrorist attacks on India.

How is the United States going to “restore” order in one of the world’s poorest, most congenitally anarchist, ideology-ridden, divided, and geographically inaccessible countries?

If American forces stay there permanently, they can keep the Taliban out of Kabul but is that the commitment Obama thinks he’s making? His presumption is that a few months of clever campaigning and nation-building will produce a stable situation in which the U.S. forces can leave. Prediction: In eighteen months the situation will not have improved.

Iran nuclear: Iran is still totally defiant. The “big” development is still another resolution condemning Tehran. But this is no shocker. After all, events since the previous such resolution include the revelation of a huge secret Iranian nuclear facility and Iran’s rejection of the latest deal offered by the big Western powers. How could they not pass a resolution?

Basically, however, nothing much has really changed in the two years since higher sanctions were supposedly to have been imposed. Rather than being coddled by talks of minor “successes” the United States and other Western governments should be prodded to action by criticism and ridicule over their major failure.

True, Britain, France, and Germany are now eager to move ahead. But the United States is holding them back. Why? Aside from all the problems with the current government’s world view is another one. The Obama Administration wants to get all of Europe on board. This means that such countries as Sweden, which chairs the EU now, and Spain can veto. This is not good.

In addition, the pretense is that Russia and China—which voted for the latest UN resolution-will come aboard on sanctions. There is absolutely no reason to believe this. Quite the contrary. According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry press briefing, sanctions "are not the goal" of the process. "We should properly resolve this issue through dialogue," spokesman Qin Gang said. "All parties should step up diplomatic efforts."

Note: Mao Zedong did not say that political power grew out of the barrel of a diplomatic dialogue.

Climate change: Seib cites a Chinese announcement that it will set a specific target to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases, as the U.S. had urged. I claim no expertise on these issues, but when the president of the United States comes to visit you, it is required—at least if you aren’t an Arabic-speaking country—to give him something in exchange. Announcing a target is no big deal. How high a target? Over how many years? And even then it is only a “target” which need not be met, or the numbers can be fiddled.

Indeed, the Chinese announcement is, in fact, a transparent trick. It promises only to reduce its "carbon intensity," that is, carbon emissions per unit of production. Actually, China's emissions will continue to rise steeply even if it were to keep this promise.

So is this the best that can be done to assure us that things are on the right track? Isn’t it better to admit that things are on a very wrong track and change tracks? This is especially true when the headlights of a very big locomotive—make that several big locomotives—are clearly visible heading straight toward us and a rather nasty, noisy collision is otherwise inevitable?

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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