Obama’s Murky Foreign Policy

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Half a year into President Barack Obama’s last four, it is still too soon to predict what his foreign policy legacy will be.

In Washington, a seemingly unending series of fake scandals (Benghazi), leaks (most recently the Snowden revelations), and diversions (sexual abuse in the military) has devoured senior officials’ time. Meanwhile, round two of the budget and debt-ceiling crisis looms largely unattended.

The National Security Council is about to change hands, and critical subcabinet appointments, especially at the State Department, have not been made.

What was touted in January as a foreign policy team of seasoned former senators—Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel—who would see eye to eye by virtue of similar backgrounds and temperaments, is no longer so clear. This White House has tightly held the reins of foreign policy, so the replacement of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, a cautious, behind-the-scenes realpolitik player, by the far more activist “liberal hawk” Susan Rice, signals real change. Samantha Power as ambassador to the UN will reinforce Rice on most issues.

What matters in the end is the presidential thinking that cannot be deduced from these appointments. Two (Kerry and Hagel) point in one direction and two (Rice and Power) suggest quite another.

It is clear that, for his part, Kerry does not intend to waste a minute of what is likely to be his last political post. Whereas former secretary of state Hillary Clinton avoided the thorny issues with a future presidential run in mind, Kerry is obviously determined to spend every last penny of the political capital he has amassed over a long career.

Not waiting for the lengthy interagency studies that usually launch a new U.S. administration, Kerry has begun by making policy on the road. Only a few months into his tenure, he has visited 26 countries—several of them multiple times—diving into every one of the United States’ toughest challenges, even the long-stalled Arab-Israeli conflict.

His determination to make this job the apex of his career, and his confidence in his own ability to carry out one-man diplomacy, are obvious in the scope and frenetic pace of his travels. If this continues, the minor frictions that have arisen with the White House as a result are likely to grow.

Beyond personality and process, uncontrollable events shape policy. From across a huge planet, issues in two neighboring countries will determine what the history books will remember: the administration’s choices regarding the raging civil war in Syria, and how it handles the nuclear issue in Iran.

For almost two years, Obama has been commendably determined not to be drawn into the Syrian tragedy without a path toward some kind of stable political outcome. At the same time, he has blurred his policy with rhetoric that contradicts his actions and confuses everyone outside his inner circle—and perhaps within it.

To say that President Bashar al-Assad’s continuance in office is “unacceptable” and to draw a redline at the use of chemical weapons (though conventional ones have caused vastly more suffering and death) raises expectations he chooses not to meet. In the past few weeks, he has compounded the confusion by suggesting that the United States will arm the opposition while offering far too little help to make a strategic difference.

Meanwhile, Hassan Rowhani’s completely unexpected victory in Iran’s presidential election has turned the nuclear standoff between Tehran and the West into an opportunity for a positive outcome. Rowhani has everything he needs to reach a negotiated solution to this crisis. He has been close to the Supreme Leader for years and, for now at least, enjoys his trust. He has a popular mandate, having campaigned on the need for a negotiated settlement and won a huge victory—with more than half of the vote in a six-man race.

Rowhani is also a pragmatist. He speaks perfect English. And he knows the technicalities of the nuclear issue in detail, having previously served as Iran’s chief negotiator. He will face stiff opposition from the Revolutionary Guard and perhaps from the Supreme Leader himself, but he represents a legitimate opening to avoid a war that would be hideously costly for both sides.

To seize that opportunity, President Obama will first have to end the waffling within the government over whether an acceptable deal can involve uranium enrichment. There is simply no possibility of a deal without it. Those who still think otherwise are voting either for a nuclear Iran or for war. Negotiations may well fail, but this is the sine qua non for a serious try.

Ultimately, the hardest step may be persuading Congress that sanctions can be effective only if one is as prepared to lift them as to impose them. Unfortunately, Congress has gotten rather drunk on sanctioning Iran at what may turn out to be the worst time.

If Obama hopes for public and international support on Syria and Iran, he urgently needs to clarify, and above all to share, his thinking on both and the reasons for it. Otherwise, he is likely to be pushed to exactly where he doesn’t want to go.



Comments (6)

  • Ezichi Obasi ( Nigeria)
    President Obama is tactically dodging the stigma of Iraq and Afghanistan when it comes to the Syrian debacle. Surgical strikes and creating a no fly zone is likely to aid and help the Syrian rebels in ousting the strong man of Syria.
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  • HorowitzCSM1985
    In a bewildering barrage of constant think tank analysis, this powerful little piece is a real gem. Indeed, what will be the Obama foreign policy legacy? Will it be an Arab-Israeli peace treaty? Highly unlikely, considering the independent W. Bank paradigm has run its course and the region awaits the next new faze. The fate of Syria is also the fate of a militarized Hezbollah and a revolutionary Iranian ideology. But a revolutionary Iran has been the product of an over intrusive US policy with regard to the entire Persian Gulf area. A nuclear Iran, as well as, a Shiite crescent (now in retreat) stretching across the Levant, is also more an indication of Iranian concern for American power projection than any fear of a small Jewish State in the Middle East. Meanwhile, all the US allies in the region are watching this current Administration with a not so quiet angst. What is US Middle East foreign policy? And how does the Syrian regional war square with the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. At this late stage, they certainly cannot be unrelated. Likewise, from an Iranian point of view, a uberpower one superpower world is not something it wishes to live with on its doorstep for decades to come. Its the same with international sanctions. A deal can be made for a peaceful Iranian nuclear enrichment (I completely agree only a deal will suffice, without one, war or a nuclear Iran would become the Obama legacy). But what kind of deal? A little one that leaves the G1 in place in the Gulf and the regional war across the Levant boiling? Is this even possible anymore? Or, instead, a big one, a legacy builder, a deal that could encompass the entire region, a Grand Bargain. I would surmise that Israel would be receptive to such a scheme. A non-hegemonic Zone of Peace whereby regional security is guaranteed through an Iranian-Turkish-Israeli understanding, G5 security cooperation for the Zone of Peace, and an end to regional sub-blocs and extra-territorial armed militias. Similarly, all nations in the Zone of Peace would recognize each other and become members of the NPT. A nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East could be in the offing. For Iran, the question becomes will it become a normal state or will it continue to adhere to its revolutionary posture? For the US? What is its policy in the Middle East?
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  • Robert Chapman
    I strongly disagree with Ms. Matthews assertion that Syria and Iran will be the determiniative issues in Obama's foreign policy.

    Syria is a small country without natural resources or influence on the world stage.

    The finesse that the Administration has shown in supplying humanitarian aid to the 0.95 million Syrian refugees wihile avoiding military or diplomatic entanglements is quite impressive, but will not be remembered by nonspecialists in the years hence.

    Similarly, if Obama is successful in containing Iran or defuses that potential conflict, there will be no history associated with it. If he fails and another Middle East War results it is doubtful to be remembered better by future historians than say, the Anglo-Dutch Wars.   Those wars had a determinative effect on the future of European imperialism, but remain largely unstudied and forgottten.

    The determinative factor for the Obama foreign policy relationship will be US relations with the lesser developed countries.

    The questions that will be asked to determine Obama's effectiveness will be ones like, did Obama deal effectively with the BRICS?

    Were the Obama Administration's policy and trade initiatives toward sub-Saharan Africa effective in reducing poverty and human suffering in that region?

    Were the Obama Administration's initiatives in South Asia helpful in rationalizing their domestic economies and increasing food production for dpmestic consumption and export.

    Was the Obama Administration effective in weaning the US economy off its oil dependency and establishing a more competitive global economic position and more independent diplomatic one?

    Did Obama move the world toward convergence of living standards, preserving our high standards and raising those in the LDCs?

    In short, history will ask if Obama was effective in promulgating and implementing humane policies or did the US continue with the post WWII status quo of neo-Imperialism?
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  • Jerry
    Just a quick question for the author. Why do you write, "a seemingly unending series of fake scandals (Benghazi)"? Did the administration not blame what they knew to be an organized attack against a video that no one had seen?
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    • Sympathizer replies...
      Many agree that the only reason the Benghazi attack stayed in the news as long as it did was because of Ambassador Stevens' religious affiliation. Had it been any different Benghazi would have been, rightfully so, a non-issue from day one. I ask.... let me see any proof, even a small one of purported AQ involvement. Just because it’s in the NY Times does not make it true.
  • Harry C. Blaney III, Center for International Policy
    I agree with Dr. Mathews on the question of taking advantage of the changes in Iran even if her optimism is not fully realized. I suspect however that the administration has a plan to do just that in order to deal with the complex and difficult Middle East landscape, even as noted the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    We need to give President Obama a break. There seems to be a mounting unfortunate effort by the neo-cons on the right that got us into the Iraq disaster, and the far left to push him either to do nothing or to act precipitously without either a practical end game or without full understanding or leverage on the ground yet to make a reasonably likely happy solution. As I have written earlier (Rethinking National Security blog), It is not “murky” foreign policy but more “cautious” and "deliberate” that is at work in the White House.

    I do agree that unless the opposition in Syria can rebound and go on the offensive or at least regain some ground and get more united that Assad, with the backing of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, will have little incentive to negociate, let alone resign.

    The push for negotiations is a key diplomacy track, as with Iran, America should pursue but as Mathews knows from her government experience we do in fact have “Plan B” and likely Plan C also in the works. I would add that having both what are called “realists” and also “idealists” on the team might not be a bad mix in fact I think Obama and Kerry and Hagel are realistic idealists – in any case we need both!

    The latest news from Syria is there is considerable infighting among the opposition groups and this means we need to be careful as possible just how our arms and our other efforts are employed. And we and our allies have to work harder on bringing unity within the opposition and in the field. Yet there will be a decisive moment soon, in my opinion, when a major decision will be made on Syria, and hopefully with our allies and based on a multilateral effort to get rid of Assad, and to establish a process of security and broad new government for the Syrian people.

    The Obama/Kerry/Hagel team is looking at the entire Middle East conundrum, and giving it much of their time and travels while facing a daunting environment, but they are making a “full court press” which is more than the last Bush administration has tried and with more intelligence at work and less stupidity of mindless military intervention and thought to the larger consequences.
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