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And on the Eighth Day: Hopes and Fears over The Obama Foreign Policy 

Whatever else is said about Barack Obama, you cannot accuse him of being slow off the mark. A day after the Inauguration, he issued the order closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and CIA “black sites” and ending torture by American agencies. Two days later, he revoked the Reagan directive banning funding for any organisation carrying out abortions overseas. On 26 January, he ordered a new approach to emissions and global warming, as the State Department appointed Todd Stern to oversee policy on climate change.

Last Monday, Obama launched his “reach-out” to the Islamic world with a televised interview, his first with any channel, with Al Arabiya. Two envoys, George Mitchell for the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been appointed; Mitchell is already in the region searching for diplomatic settlements. All of this has occurred even as the Administration was pushing for approval of its economic stimulus package and engaging in fierce inter-agency debates over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The media, rightly but ritually, hailed Obama's symbolic renunciation of his predecessor George W. Bush. Much more substantial was this Administration's attention to methods. The American global image would not be projected and its position assured, as in the Dubya years, through military strength; instead, the US would lsucceed through a recognition of and adherence to international cooperation, a projection of tolerance, and a desire to listen. While the term “smart power”, developed over the last two years in anticipation of this Administration, is already in danger of overuse, it is the right expression for the Obama approach.

Yet, even in Obama's more than symbolic announcement, there were seeds of trouble for that “smart power”. The President had hoped to order the immediate, or at least the near-future, shutdown of Camp X-Ray, but he was stymied by political opposition as well as legal complications. The interview with Al Arabiya was a substitute for Obama's hope of a major foreign policy speech in an Arab capital in the first weeks of his Administrat. The Holbrooke appointment was modified when New Delhi made clear it would not receive a “Pakistan-India” envoy; Mitchell's scope for success has already been constrained by the background of Gaza.

Little of this was within Obama's power to rectify; it would have been Messianic indeed if he could have prevailed immediately, given the domestic and international context. The President may have received a quick lesson, however, in the bureaucratic challenges that face even the most determined and persuasive leader.

Already some officials in the Pentagon have tried to block Obama initiatives. They tried to spun against the plan to close Guantanamo Bay, before and after the Inauguration, with the claims that released detainees had returned to Al Qa'eda and terrorism. That attempt was undermined by the shallowness of the claims, which were only substantiated in two cases, and the unexpected offense that it caused Saudi Arabia, who felt that its programme for rehabilitation of former insurgents had been insulted. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates finally and firmed quashed the mini-coup by declaring on Wednesday that he fully supported Obama's plans.

On other key issues, however, the President faces tougher, higher-ranking, and more persistent opposition. Within a day of Obama's first meeting on Iraq, Pentagon sources were letting the media know their doubts on a 16-month timetable for withdrawal. And, after this Wednesday's meeting, General Raymond Odierno, in charge of US forces in Iraq, publicly warned against a quick transition to the Iraqi military and security forces. This not-too-subtle rebuke of the President has been backed by the outgoing US Ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and I suspect by the key military figure, head of US Central Command General David Petraeus.

The future US strategy in Afghanistan also appears to be caught up in a battle within the Administration, with a lack of resolution on the increase in the American military presence (much,much more on that in a moment). And even on Iran, where Obama appears to be making a overture on engagement with Tehran, it's not clear that he will get backing for a near-future initiatives. White House officials leaked Obama's draft letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a British newspaper, but State Department officials added that such a letter would not be sent until a “full review” of the US strategy with Iran had been completed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Still, all of these might be minor irritants, given the impact both of Obama's symbolic steps and of other quieter but important steps. For example, after the outright Bush Administration hostility to any Latin American Government that did not have the proper economic or political stance, Obama's State Department immediately recognised the victory of President Evo Morales in a referendum on the Bolivian constitution, and there are signs that the President will soon be engaging with Havana's leaders with a view to opening up a US-Cuban relationship. In Europe, Obama's phone call with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was quickly followed by Moscow's announcement that, in return for a more productive US stance on missile defence (i.e., Washington wasn't going to roll out the system in Eastern Europe), Russia would not deploy missiles on the Polish border. There are even signals of an advance in the Middle East through a new US-Syrian relationship, although this is probably contingent on some recogntion or acceptance of Hamas by Washington.

So why am I even more concerned about the Obama foreign-policy path than I was a week ago, when I wrote of my conflicted reaction to the Inauguration? Let me introduce to the two elephants in this room, one which he inherited and one which he seems to have purchased.

Unless there is an unexpected outcome from George Mitchell's tour of the Middle East, Obama's goodwill toward the Arab and Islamic worlds could quickly dissipate over Gaza. The military conflict may be over, but the bitterness over the deaths of more than 1300 Gazans, most of them civilians, is not going away. And because President-elect Obama said next-to-nothing while the Israeli attack was ongoing, the burden of expectation upon President Obama to do something beyond an Al Arabiya interview is even greater.

Whether the Bush Administration directly supported Israel's attempt to overthrow Hamas and put the Palestinian Authority in Gaza or whether it was drawn along by Tel Aviv's initiative, the cold political reality is that this failed. Indeed, the operation --- again in political, not military, terms --- backfired. Hamas' position has been strengthened, while the Palestinian Authority now looks weak and may even be in trouble in its base of the West Bank.

And there are wider re-configurations. Egypt, which supported the Israeli attempt, is now having to recover some modicum of authority in the Arab world while Syria, which openly supported Hamas, has been bolstered. (Those getting into detail may note not only the emerging alliance between Damascus, Turkey, and Iran but also that Syria has sent an Ambassador to Beirut, effectively signalling a new Syrian-Lebanese relationship.)

Put bluntly, the Obama Administration --- with its belated approach to Gaza and its consequences --- is entering a situation which it does not control and, indeed, which it cannot lead. The US Government may pretend that it can pursue a political and diplomatic resolution by talking to only two of the three central actors, working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority but not Hamas, but that is no longer an approach recognised by most in the region and beyond. (In a separate post later today, I'll note a signal that even Washington's European allies are bowing to the existence of Hamas.)

The Israel-Palestine-Gaza situation is not my foremost concern, however. As significant, in symbolic and political terms, as that conflict might be for Washington's position in the Middle East and beyond, it will be a sideshow if the President and his advisors march towards disaster in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the New York Times had the red-flag story. White House staffers leaked the essence of the Obama plan: increase US troop levels in Afghanistan, leave nation-building to “the Europeans”, and drop Afghan President Hamid Karzai if he had any objections. On the same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congressional committees that the US would continue its bombing of targets in northwest Pakistan. (Not a surprise, since the first strikes of the Obama era had already taken place , killing 19 people, most of them civilians.)

So much for “smart power”. Leave aside, for the moment, that the rationale for the approach to Afghanistan --- Gates saying that the US had to defeat “Al Qa'eda” --- is either a diversion or a flight for reality, since the major challenge in the country (and indeed in Pakistan) is from local insurgents. Consider the consequences.

What happens to Obama's symbolic goodwill in not only the Islamic world but worlds beyond when an increase in US forces and US operations leads to an increase in civilian deaths, when America walks away from economic and social projects as it concentrates on the projection of force, when there are more detainees pushed into Camp Bagram (which already has more than twice as many “residents” and worse conditions than Guantanamo Bay)? What happens to “smart power” when Obama's pledge to listen and grasp the unclenched fist is replaced with a far more forceful, clenched American fist? And what has happened to supposed US respect for freedom and democracy when Washington not only carries out unilateral operations in Pakistan but threatens to topple an Afghan leader who it put into power in 2001/2?

This approach towards Afghanistan/Pakistan will crack even the bedrock of US-European relations. In Britain, America's closest ally in this venture, politicians, diplomats, and military commanders are close-to-openly horrified at the US takeover and direction of this Afghan strategy and at the consequences in Pakistan of the US bombings and missile strikes. Put bluntly, “Europe” isn't going to step up to nation-build throughout Afghanistan as a mere support for American's military-first strategy. And when it doesn't, Obama and advisors will have a choice: will they then criticise European allies to the point of risking NATO --- at least in “out-of-area” operations --- or will it accept a limit to their actions?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the lack of agreement in the Obama Administration so far on a defined number of US troops means the President might not be in accord with the approach unveiled in the New York Times. Maybe the Administration will pursue an integrated political strategy, talking to groups inside Afghanistan (and, yes, that includes “moderate Taliban”) and to other countries with influence, such as Iran. Or maybe it won't do any of this, but Afghanistan won't be a disaster, or at least a symbolic disaster --- as with Iraq from 2003 --- spilling over into all areas of US foreign policy.

Sitting here amidst the grey rain of Dublin and the morning-after recognition that “expert thought” in the US, whatever that means, doesn't see the dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan that I've laid out, I desperately hope to be wrong.

Because, if the world was made in six days, parts of it can be unmade in the next six months.

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    EA WorldView - Archives: January 2009 - And on the Eighth Day: Hopes and Fears over The Obama Foreign Policy

Reader Comments (6)

from Justin Raimondo's article "Obama's Vietnam?" at, Jan 26, 2009:

"Obama plans on doubling U.S. forces in Afghanistan, bringing the total up to some 70,000 – and with more, you can be sure, on the way. We are told that Obama's magical diplomatic skills will compel the Europeans to do their part, with NATO taking the lead. Yet Afghanistan is not the former Yugoslavia, and if Holbrooke thinks he can impose a new Dayton on the rebel Afghans and the increasingly resentful Pakistanis, he is apt to run up against the same brick wall that has stymied would-be conquerors for 2,000 years, including the Soviets, the British, and Genghis Khan's Golden Horde. The Europeans know this, and they won't be too eager to jump into the fray."

Link to the rest:

January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Dear Scott:

Hello from Maryland! I'd add a variable to both of your reservations re: Obama's foreign policy, but particular those related to elephant #2.

The variable is that of picking one's battles. Idealistically, what almost all of us want is for Obama to change all the outrages, all at once, on all fronts--particularly where lives are immediately at stake. Realistically, however, there is (logically) a tip-over point in practice: the point at which even the center of the American support-base bell-curve is surpassed. If that teeter-totter tips, look for all the nation's cherished hope and almost desperate optimism to not merely dissipate, but become its own despondent, outraged, ferociously accusatory opposite.

I do not see this as anywhere near so great a problem for him in foreign eyes as in those at home--and this prediction was in place in my "day after nomination" piece: that he would be more easily appreciated abroad than at home. The economic maelstrom has only amplified this potential. And let's not be deluded: in large part, *if* Obama can steer us out of these roiling fiscal waters, it's going to be as much because "we, the people" WILL it to be so. His policies may be sound, but without the confidence and desire of an inspired nation that is willing to sacrifice and change its relationship with resources, money, and credit, his plan--ANY plan--will fail.

Here enters the gruesome spectre of long-range lifeboat ethics: terminate all the egregious paths he inherited immediately, all at once--or take the measured steps we've seen in him from the outset, carefully and cannily balancing the pros and cons, pushes and pulls, inherent in each move. If he does the former, he purchases immediate moral rectitude--but before the nation has become, more securely and in greater proportion, true fellow-travellers on his pathway to evolving a better America (and I mean that in the internationalist sense). For if he goes too far too fast, that key and sweeping change may be scuttled, a forlorn "might-have-been" hope that was lost because of overly-idealistic presumptions about the capability of the American public to not merely adapt to, but positively internalize and embrace, a radical change of course (in re: to the preceding 8 years)

If he is (as I suspect) following the latter course (of pacing the change), he preserves that greater hope--but, as your post so eloquently points out, at the cost of immediately ascending to the moral highground as fast as the powers of his office enable. Please do not misunderstand: I am not touting the "beauties" of gradualism. I have 5 children (4 living) and I can easily imagine them at the impact point of those Pakistan-bound rockets. And so I can leap the national line and immediately associate with the parents of those who have been killed. And still I can offer no answer: there never is one. Stop the rockets? Absolutely. But if we stop every moral outrage now, does Obama keep the support required to not just politically, but CULTURALLY change the heading of the American ship of state? If we must choose one objective over another, is it to stop the rockets as soon as we can--or to work to build an America which will FOREVER be less likely to use those rockets? And listening to the sadly revivified fortunes of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, I can only observe that the game to change America could yet be lost. The nation rejected the Dubya years with a forceful 180-degree turn toward Obama; I am sadly convinced that, if he misplays his very mixed hand early on, we could swing right back again.

And that is worth avoiding at all costs. I have my own suspicions why he has focused on Afghanistan as he has, but that would be a much longer post. Suffice it to say that whichever change he does *not* make immediately will assuredly define the vector of the misgivings we feel.

I offer this not "in place" of your post, Scott, but in the spirit of adding to it. I do not propose to have an answer: only a perspective that might, I think, widen the discussion. Please forgive any typos; I'm entering directly into the comment field, and am home with the flu--probably not at my most eloquent, accurate, or insightful!

Best wishes as ever,
Chuck Gannon

January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharles E. Gannon


Thanks for a fantastic, eloquent post, especially given it was written under flu conditions.

I appreciate the thought, which reflects my own hopes and concerns. Please feel free to develop the line on Afghanistan and submit to us for publication --- it would be an honour.


January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

"The economic maelstrom has only amplified this potential. And let’s not be deluded: in large part, *if* Obama can steer us out of these roiling fiscal waters, it’s going to be as much because “we, the people” WILL it to be so. His policies may be sound, but without the confidence and desire of an inspired nation that is willing to sacrifice and change its relationship with resources, money, and credit, his plan–ANY plan–will fail."


Professor Gannon,

Great post! I think Obama needs to make the case for a thrift-based, much less materialistic society, in which you don't buy what you can't comfortably afford. A home is the only item an individual should borrow for. The root cause of America's financial mess is POOR ETHICS -- both borrowers and lenders. People speculated with money they didn't have. Lenders had a lot of money to lend and they found ways (deceptive ways) to make money, even when some of the loans went unpaid!

Some of that $819 billion could be invested in ethics training and public education programs in the high schools, colleges and community centers. The Government could create a national toll-free ethics hotline, as has been done with smoking and drinking. It could be used at home or in the work-place - whenever an individual is tempted to do something unethical. Bailing out firms and individuals sends the signal to the people that unethical practices are acceptable. Placing 13 million illegal people illegally ahead of the legal immigrants is just as unethical. Also, politicians should not be allowed to accept donations from public interest groups and the money that's used for the spin and deception that's put on advertisements.

There is so much Obama could do to get ALL of us to abstain from seeking quick profits and short-term growth schemes, and to get the American people to practice good ethics. Just think of the long-term, steady growth that could come about.

January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Aside from very wise and necessary comment about the FP challenges all these posts hint at what I think is a larger elephant in the room; that no-one can establish, or even propose, some form of consensus answer of how to deal with the economic situation.

It's true to the point of being glib that Obama's greatest challlenge are economic problems (though Chuck expresses all this far more eloquently). But, though this is true the real problem is that no-one has any idea how to fix it, or any idea of how people want it fixed. It's not just that the vehicle has stoped becasue the engine has broken and needs fixing, but that none of the available mechanics know how the engine works, or where the instructions went. Putting tortured anaogies aside, Obama's greatest issue is figuring out what consensus can replace the currently bankrupt (no pun intended) consensus.

It seems empirically true to me (to the point of being a truism) that throughout History internal political change is prompted by challenges to an existing economic consensus. Moreover, this problem usually has a great impact on 'worldviews' and about how to act internationally. From the crisis of laissez-faire capital to its replacement with different spectrums of supply management, to the crisis of Keysnianism resulting in Monetarism. It's an over simplificaiton but what Obama is faced with is the collapse of an economic, (and even allowing for Bush) a fairly broad political consensus (hence the culture wars replacing proper political ideological debates for 10-15 years or so).

So the REALLY scary problem Obama faces is that unlike in past crisis there seems no clear consensus of how to get out of this. The most terrifying thing I heard recently someone describe the current understanding of the economic system as "something akin to chaos theory". So, the biggest challenge is figuring out an approach to the problem that can be agreed upon. Non of this is helped by his decision, however understandable, to employ the original adherents of Monetarism - Larry Summers, Paul Volker et al - to figure out how it went wrong.

So, unless we decide to rely on the classic Lewis Black understanding that "the economy goes up and goes down and no-one knows the fuck why...and I know this is true becasue I did economics!" the Obama admin (and plenty of others) need an economic plan and need one fast. Chuck is right that the American people might need to change but that is entirely predicated on the idea that the people have something to change towards, a plan to support. Other than broad principles; new responsibility in market behavior, not too much protectionism, eat your vegetables and smile at your neighbors etc, I'm not aware of any clear policy direction...yet.

It might just be that what we are talking about here isn't small stuff like being 'less materialistic' but real change - like completely rethinking the role of government.

February 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJonny


Excellent post, raising a number of issues that came out at Dublin conference on Thursday.


February 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

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