Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Obama: The Foreign Policy President? Part 2

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By Guest Blogger Ryan Berg

In my last post, I examined Obama’s potentially crippling defeat in the midterm elections.  I suggested that one way presidents typically deal with domestic problems is to turn to foreign affairs, where their latitude for unilateral action is far greater.  I also suggested that Obama, unlike Clinton and more like Reagan, faces an international environment that offers him plenty of room for decisive action.  Let us examine these windows of possible action, weighing their costs and benefits from a political standpoint.

Iraq—Obama has little room for decisive action here.  His only option is to delay the withdrawal of forces in order to counter an increasingly robust Iranian presence in Iraq, and to shore up American support in a newly elected Iraqi government.  What is more, changing course in Iraq would jeopardize one of Obama’s fundamental campaign promises.  Recall Obama utilized a basic dichotomy: Iraq was the “bad war” while Afghanistan was the “right” or “just war.”

China, Russia, Europe—China, Russia, and Europe are not conducive to bold action and innovative solutions.  To be sure, increasing Russian control over Germany and its former satellite states due to energy links is disconcerting.  The Yuan is severely undervalued.  Europe is cutting defense budgets and pulling troops out of U.S.-led wars.  Yet, Obama cannot hold dramatic meetings calling for energy independence from Russia, appreciation of the Yuan, or increased European commitment to American wars.  If anything, these issues play into Obama’s accomodationist tendencies, not his need to exercise decisive action.

Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations—Obama is experiencing trouble restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks due to settlement disagreements and the looming issue of Iran.  Israel thinks it does not have to make any concessions, while Hamas seems unlikely to change its position.  Moreover, history is replete with hopeful returns from such negotiations, only to have those dreams shatter as negotiations ended in nasty chaos (as Clinton experienced in the Oslo Agreement).  Thus, Israeli-Palestinian talks are not likely to lend themselves to decisive action for Obama either.

Afghanistan—I discussed Afghanistan thoroughly in my last post.  The tragedy here is that although it offers a chance for decisive foreign policy action, it also presents itself as the least politically rewarding.  Afghanistan is a quagmire of political and military conflict, for which the American public has an eroding confidence (as well as important members of his Administration, most notably the Vice President, Joe Biden).

The Iranian Option—The elephant in the room is Iran.  Republicans think Obama is weak on Iran, while Democrats are upset about Iran’s crackdown on human rights.  The Saudis fear a strong Iran, and Iraq is already showing signs of Iranian influence.  The Israelis are obviously concerned for their existential security.  The Europeans are also concerned about Iran, but as always, they want to avoid a conflict, especially one that results in a disruption of energy supplies.  The Russians and the Chinese are the thorn in the American side here.

The Iranian situation also has wide implications for American resolve in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What are Obama’s options in Iran? Obviously, the military option looms large.  However, nothing would hurt him more than a failed military operation that did not destroy Iranian nuclear facilities and galvanized the regime.  Jimmy Carter failed in his military operations in Iran, to a devastating electoral defeat in 1980.

Failed military actions aside, does Obama have the justification to use the military option against Iran? Thus far, Obama’s approach is piecemeal, featuring incremental sanctions built around weak coalitions.  The idea is that if sanctions can weaken the Iranian regime, or its President, moderates who are less likely to pursue nuclear weapons in the country may seize control.  Hence, a military operation against Iran would be a fundamental shift in the U.S. stance.

The easiest claim to substantiate such a policy shift, one that Republicans have made for years, is that Iran is about to possess a nuclear weapon.  Because “about to possess” is such a loose phrase, Obama could justify a military operation against Iran with a mere shift in definitions and assumptions.  The threat of nuclear weapons is also a serious concern that resonates with the world.

This looks like a strong option for Obama.  Why, then, might he be hesitant to attack Iran? Despite American strengths in aerial warfare and technology, Iran spent many years hardening its nuclear facilities, building plants into the sides of mountains, and hiding these facilities from satellite imaging.  An Iranian attack would involve significant risk and would require strategic planning.  Iran also possesses the ability to retaliate, in both Iraq and Afghanistan (by creating civil wars), and beyond (using its surrogates in Palestine to bombard Israel).  Besides an extended air campaign to bomb Iranian facilities, an American attack would need to secure the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel through which 60% of the world’s oil flows.  This is not to mention the presence of formidable Iranian ground forces, or the need to verify, with covert intelligence, the successful destruction of Iranian nuclear facilities.  Even if the U.S. was able to destroy Iranian nuclear capabilities, it risks the unintended consequences of hardening the Iranian regime and keeping its President in power.  The risks of even the best military plan appear to outweigh the rewards of decisive action.

Iran may present a possibility for negotiation, but this is not politically prudent for Obama.  In the wake of an electoral rout, Obama would appear like an appeaser and Republicans would lambaste his accomodationist tendencies.  Losing the midterm elections profoundly reversed Obama’s room for negotiation.

Nonetheless, the international scene is ripe for American action, certainly more than Obama took in the first two years of his presidency.  Currently, a passel of issues presents themselves to Obama, many of which resonate with the American public.  Obama should not decide foreign policy entirely on politics, but no President makes decisions without political considerations in mind.  Assuming domestic gridlock is on the way, a shift to foreign policy emphasis makes sense for Obama to shore up his credentials as an effective leader.  If Obama can address these issues adroitly, he can appear presidential in spite of weak domestic support.


Written by ryancberg

November 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm

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