Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Obama's first-term foreign policy

My biggest disappointment with the first term of the Obama Administration was his failure to prosecute the torture perpetrators of the Bush Administration. Torture undermines the rule of law in a fundamental way. Governments don't torture to get information, even though they make occasionally get some information in the process. Torture is a tool of state terror. That's it's purpose. Not law enforcement or hunting terrorists; the purpose of torture is state terrorism.

It might be overreaching to see that decision as the root of the rest of Obama's Look Forward Not Backward philosophy to let wealthy and powerful lawbreakers in the financial industry escape prosecution. But it's certainly a closely related phenomenon.

In looking at Obama's foreign policy, I'm always seeing it in two contexts. One is context of the existing national strategy of global hegemony, the other is in the context of the most likely alternative strategy that Stephen Walt calls "off-shore balancing". Although he doesn't use that exact term in this article - More or less: The debate on U.S. grand strategy Foreign Policy 01/02/2013 - he does discuss the current strategy, which he here labels t "deep engagement/liberal hegemony". And he asks: "'Deep engagement' might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn't it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?"

Yes, it is. But the prospect that Obama will embrace such a major revisions of strategic doctrine is vanishingly small. So his foreign policy also has to be evaluated in the context of the current strategy. And in that context, he has done things that I see as more right than wrong. Completing the pullout from Iraq and now setting the end of next year as the final date for the exit from Afghanistan, for instance. Not going to war with Iran. Supporting the new New START treaty to limit nuclear arms and getting it approved by the Senate.

This weekly address by Obama, Ending the War in Afghanistan and Rebuilding America 01/12/2013, actually says pretty straightforwardly that we're going to stop now. Or, actually at the end of the next year. I wouldn't even really calling "declaring victory and getting out". Because in the this one he doesn't really declare victory, though he likely will over the next two years.

Given the wide range of bipartisan agreement on foreign policy and military issues right now, it would be a heavy lift for a President to explain all the real problems that the US has encountered in the Afghanistan War, such as the mission creep from attacking the Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan to a massive nation-building project to be imposed by foreign military force.

Aside from not prosecuting the torture perpetrators, there are a number of areas on which Obama's foreign policy has been bad, notably the "surge" in Afghanistan and the drone war. Though many Democrats cheered it, I've never thought the direct intervention in the Libyan civil war was a good idea. The extent to which we've waged war on parts of nuclear-armed Pakistan is also big reason for concern.

Glenn Greenwald in The bombing of Mali highlights all the lessons of western intervention The Guardian 01/14/2013 spells out a number of legitimate concerns about Obama's foreign policy, in the emphatic manner that earned him the nickname "Glenzilla":

As French war planes bomb Mali, there is one simple statistic that provides the key context: this west African nation of 15 million people is the eighth country in which western powers - over the last four years alone - have bombed and killed Muslims - after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Phillipines (that does not count the numerous lethal tyrannies propped up by the west in that region). For obvious reasons, the rhetoric that the west is not at war with the Islamic world grows increasingly hollow with each new expansion of this militarism. But within this new massive bombing campaign, one finds most of the vital lessons about western intervention that, typically, are steadfastly ignored. [my emphasis]
His criticisms have largely to do with the negative future implications of these policies, and the seeming shortsightedness of much of it.

The current deep engagement/liberal hegemony strategy doesn't require each of these interventions. But pursuing that strategy will inevitably produce numerous interventions of this sort.

It's worth noting that the current French military intervention in Mali is being pursued by a Socialist government. The center-left parties in Europe as well as the US have a notable consistency not only in their adherence to a neoliberal orientation but often also in their militarized and interventionist foreign policies, especially the Labour Party in Britain and the French Socialists.

And there's also a shared democratic deficit in the conduct of foreign policy. As Glenn writes:

... for all the self-flattering rhetoric that western democracies love to apply to themselves, it is extraordinary how these wars are waged without any pretense of democratic process. Writing about the participation of the British government in the military assault on Mali, Jones notes that "it is disturbing – to say the least – how Cameron has led Britain into Mali's conflict without even a pretence at consultation." Identically, the Washington Post this morning reports that President Obama has acknowledged after the fact that US fighter jets entered Somali air space as part of the French operation there; the Post called that "a rare public acknowledgment of American combat operations in the Horn of Africa" and described the anti-democratic secrecy that typically surrounds US war actions in the region[.] [my emphasis]
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