It is, of course, still too early after one year to evaluate the foreign policy or the presidency of Barack Obama. That said preliminary analysis illuminates both the best and the worst about American culture and the foreign policy that flows from it.
The best part is Obama himself. This culture is not likely to produce anytime soon another President as willing to understand and reach out to other nations and peoples in the way Obama has done. The more typical style of American foreign affairs, culturally driven, is to perceive the United States as the center of the Universe and to display what J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power” in its dealing with other nations.
Actually, Obama does consider the United States if not the center of the Universe then certainly the leading nation in the World, but this does not produce in him the militant unilateralism that not only George W. Bush but also many of his predecessors displayed. Obama’s historic speech to the Muslim world, his “reset” of the relationship with Russia, his even-handed approach to China, and his winning of the Nobel Prize are all plusses for American diplomacy. Although Obama overshadows Hillary Clinton, she is a capable, moderate secretary of state who inspires women across the World and has tried to establish human rights in American diplomatic discourse in the wake of the debacle that was Bush.
Obama has done well enough with the Europeans, but Americans have long found it easier to get on with “white” modernist Europe than the darker skinned peoples of the World. Obama, for obvious reasons, is an exception in his ability to appeal to the latter. That said Obama came up short at Copenhagen, as “developing” countries (including China) effectively used the West’s history of being the progenitor of global warming against it. God knows what’s going on in the Latin American drug wars—as wrong headed and futile abroad as they are at home—or in responding to the “radical” threat (meaning hostile to U.S. hegemony) emanating from Venezuela and Ecuador.
The essential point to keep in mind in evaluating Obama is that he must operate from within the confines of a militant culture reinforced by a vast “national security” apparatus. By retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense, and perpetuating rather than constraining the “war on terror,” Obama has embraced the status quo. He is finding it more difficult to bring the nightmare in Iraq to closure than it was to campaign against it. The same of course can be said for Guantanamo.
Obama has chosen to escalate the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has ensured that the terror wars and attempts to attack the United States directly will go on and on for many years. It would be naïve to say that Obama had many options or that the war on terror could have been ended had he chosen a different path. So much damage has been done that the best we might have hoped for would have been amelioration of relations with militant Islam, for which Obama would have been well suited.
The Afghan war is a fool’s errand and an unfortunate reflection of ignorance of history in a President who otherwise shows far more understanding of the past than most. The British and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan and the American disaster in Indochina would seem appropriate to consider here, but the national security state is ever ready to produce a new and improved campaign to win hearts and minds through counter-insurgency warfare and bombardment of villages. Relatively few Americans die or are captured (aren’t drones great!) so the public remains largely unaffected and thus indifferent. In any case one can scarcely criticize American militarism without being accused of an unpatriotic lack of “support for our troops.”
And that brings us back to the militant patriotic culture on the home front where everything begins and ends. This is the fundamental issue of foreign policy that is often difficult for many to grasp, as they think quite logically that foreign policy must be about what happens overseas when it’s really more about the society from which it springs. That’s why the same sort of things plays out again and again over the generations of American history. In many respects only the enemies change.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Obama had followed up his brilliant speech in Cairo by declaring an end to the war on terror and recalling American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider how this President is already perceived and disrespected by those otherwise–as they will be the first to tell you—who are the most patriotic of Americans. You know, the millions of birthers and tea partiers who watch Fox News, listen to Rush and Glenn Beck, and put Going Rogue atop the bestseller list (who needs to try to govern the vast terrain of Alaska when making your pile is as easy as this? Besides, slaughtering wolves and sullying the last redoubts of American wilderness gets boring after a while.)
Back to our imagined scenario, Obama shuts down the terror war, cuts the record-high defense spending (which might in another culture make sense amid a severe recession), and backs up his call for an end to Israeli apartheid by cutting off aid to Tel Aviv until all new settlements are stopped and dismantling and meaningful dialogue begin. Now, let’s say that amid all this the Christmas Day bomber had succeeded rather than failed in Detroit. Try to imagine the attacks on this “weak,” “appeasing,” “liberal, big-spending” if not outright “socialist” (and also, let’s not forget, “black”) President. Combined with the mindless backlash against health care and resistance to reining in the criminal finance industry, Obama would under these circumstances be rendered a lame duck. He would be powerless to stop the right-wing assault in the mid-term elections leading to the inevitable Republican triumph in 2012.
Of course, the political scenario might unfold that way in any case but by continuing the war in Afghanistan, keeping the national security state robust, and talking tough on terror, Obama has a chance to protect himself politically, which is the first goal of any politician. I don’t favor this course of action; I just don’t think he has much room to maneuver. Thus one shouldn’t expect much from Obama, as some of his liberal critics do, as a result of the considerable constraints he faces within the militant, even reactionary American culture. Moreover, the recession is still raging and it is therefore appropriate for foreign policy to take a back seat for now.
I will be more disappointed if Obama doesn’t deliver a bit more in his second term.