Sunday, October 11, 2015

What Went Wrong with the Obama Foreign Policy?

Thinking people are trying to understand the grotesque failure that is Barack Obama’s foreign policy. As the Middle East descends into chaos and Vladimir Putin takes charge, enquiring minds what to know what went wrong.

Now, Niall Ferguson, of Harvard University and the Hoover Institution has offered an exceptionally good analysis of the problem. Ferguson has just published a major work on Henry Kissinger, the first volume of a definitive biography. Reviews are been exceptionally laudatory.

Looking at America’s recent inability to conduct an effective foreign policy, Ferguson suggests two Kissingerian reasons.

They are:

First, the person at the top was selected for other skills. “The typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society,” noted Mr. Kissinger, “is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office.”

And second:

Second, the government was full of people trained as lawyers. In making foreign policy, Mr. Kissinger once remarked, “you have to know what history is relevant.” But lawyers were “the single most important group in Government,” he said, and their principal drawback was “a deficiency in history.” This was a long-standing prejudice of his. “The clever lawyers who run our government,” he thundered in a 1956 letter to a friend, have weakened the nation by instilling a “quest for minimum risk which is our most outstanding characteristic.”

American presidents fail at foreign policy, Ferguson suggests, because they do not know how to think strategically and have no real sense of history. Worse yet, they are either lawyers themselves or they surround themselves with advisers who have legal training.

According to Ferguson, Obama’s strategy was long on fantasy and short on reality:

Now I see that this was the strategy—a strategy aimed at creating a new balance of power in the Middle East. The deal on Iran’s nuclear-arms program was part of Mr. Obama’s aim (as he put it to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in May) “to find effective partners—not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya.” Mr. Obama said he wanted “to create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future.”

If we take Obama’s strategy on its own terms, it is failing:

It is clear that the president’s strategy is failing disastrously. Since 2010, total fatalities from armed conflict in the world have increased by a factor of close to four, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Total fatalities due to terrorism have risen nearly sixfold, based on the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism database. Nearly all this violence is concentrated in a swath of territory stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there is every reason to expect the violence to escalate as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post-American hegemon.

But, Ferguson continues, beyond the fact that Obama knows nothing about foreign policy, he has surrounded himself with people who know less:

Those who know the Obama White House’s inner workings wonder why this president, who came into office with next to no experience of foreign policy, has made so little effort to hire strategic expertise. In fairness, Denis McDonough (now White House chief of staff) has some real knowledge of Latin America. While at Oxford, National Security Adviser Susan Rice wrote a doctoral dissertation on Zimbabwe. And Samantha Power, ambassador to the U.N., has published two substantial books (one of which—“A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”—she will need to update when she returns to academic life).

But other key players are the sort of people Henry Kissinger complained about more than half a century ago: Michael Froman, the trade representative, was one of Mr. Obama’s classmates at Harvard Law School; Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken is a Columbia J.D.; éminence grise Valerie Jarrett got hers from the University of Michigan. What about Secretary of State John Kerry? Boston College Law School, ’76. 

Ferguson argues persuasively that Obama’s foreign policy has failed because he himself is incompetent and uninformed. Foreign policy is not the place for on-the-job training. It may not seem like it, but Ferguson is offering a generous appraisal. It is better to begin with a generous appraisal before asking whether Obama might not have more nefarious motives, and whether another ghostly figure might be influencing American foreign policy.

Perhaps Jeremiah Wright is not exercising a direct influence on President Obama, but since our president spent twenty years imbibing the wisdom of a man who is a close friend and colleague of that noted bigot, Louis Farrakhan, one should examine the Obama policy and attitude toward Israel in the light of Wright’s mentorship.

Today, Israel is facing another intifada. One imagines that the decision to attack Israelis had something to do with the fact that the American president has treated the Israeli prime minister with uncommon contempt. At a time when many people concluded that Obama, having apparently succeeded in sacrificing the security of Israel to the will of the ayatollahs, and having instructed his Secretary of State and United Nations Ambassador to boycott the Netanyahu U. N. speech, has helped incite the current wave of violence. The message from Obama-- and the Europeans-- has been that Israel is on its own.

Since Obama chose a notable Israel-hater like Wright as his mentor, Obama must not have found Wright's message overly offensive. He may have found it positively uplifting.

This to introduce the fact that yesterday. Farrakhan hosted a rally in Washington to commemorate his Million Man March. It was called “Justice or Else!”  

Among the speakers was Jeremiah Wright.  Among other things, he claimed, at a time when Palestinians are ramping up attacks on Israelis, that Palestinian Lives Matter.

What did Wright have to say?

Among his controversial statements was this one: “Jesus was  Palestinian.”

To which John Hinderaker responded:

Sorry, Rev, Jesus was a Jew. The Palestinians, if by that one means Arabs, didn’t arrive on the scene for another 600 years.

Wright accused Israel of being an apartheid state and added that he, like famed academic dimwit Judith Butler, supports the BDS movement.

He said:

Apartheid is going on in Palestine as we sit here. There’s an apartheid wall being built, twice the size of the Berlin Wall in height, keeping Palestinians off of illegally occupied territories, where the Europeans have claimed that land as their own.

As Hinderaker points out, Israel built the wall to stop Palestinian terrorism. And, for the most part it has been very successful.

He explained what Wright was saying:

The “illegally occupied territories” are Israel, and the “Europeans” are Jews. No mention of the actual purpose of the barrier, to prevent Arab terrorists from infiltrating into Israel.

People like to say that Obama disembarrassed himself of Wright when he gave a speech in 2008. This is patent nonsense. Wright taught Obama how to think about many things, among them the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Once you develop a habitual way of thinking about an issue, you continue to think that way… unless you spend years working your way out of it.

There are good indications that, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, Obama and the world are haunted by the ghostly presence of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Cheapskates can read the WSJ article by a google search, clicking on first match.

Niall Ferguson: Some things you can learn on the job, like tending bar or being a community organizer. National-security strategy is different. “High office teaches decision making, not substance,” Mr. Kissinger once wrote. “It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it.”

I'd lean to say that Obama's weak background (i.e. Community Organizer) fail because he's too dependent upon contradictory expert advice while looking for the sensible middle, so he tries to “Don’t do stupid sh--.”, but unfortunately he compromises into mere "less stupid sh--" which is still stupid, i.e. things like failing to prosecute investment bankers on Wallstreet, and thinking Drone strikes could maximize our military reach while minimizing immediate political costs, but leaving future liabilities when his half-measures don't get the job done.

It would be simplest to say that NO HUMAN BEING should have the power that the president of the United States has to make problems worse for people we don't much care about.

It is interesting to consider the military budget costs us say $1 trillion per year, and one good economic crisis can cost us $20 trillion in asset declines and debt defaults. With near zero interest rates, the federal government has nearly unlimited power to produce new debt, and there is no military budget that is too large to not warrant further increase, even if someday its 100 times larger than all other countries combined.

How do we limit this monstrosity after the next boxcutter incident justifies a further expansion of the military and security state? There's no checks-and-balances against the sort of power needed to keep an empire from imploding, and the blank checks have already been printed.

So from all that, everyone should be afraid of what we're going to do the next time we need a tail to wag the dog, like to explain why Iran is responsible for our crashing pension plans.

But never fear, we're a nation of 300 million guns, and when things go too far, we can just take out the NSA and disarm the U.S. Military with our well regulated state militia to save the day.

I have to keep hoping that we'll destroy all our nuclear weapons before the second civil war, but no one talks about such unacceptable ideas, as if the congress could agree on anything sensible anymore. You never know what madman will get access to whichever missile sites. And we definitely don't what to know.

At this point I'd almost vote to end the Union, and Obama can be the last president. And if we have 4 presidents in our new disunion (following the leadership of the republicans), perhaps our local balance of power will help keep us out of trouble with the rest of the world.

Sam L. said...

Ares, you seem rather agitated and aggravated today. Are you having a trying day, or week?

As for me, I can see why some say that his foreign policy is pretty much exactly what he wants it to be.

Ares Olympus said...

I saw online Obama spoke on 60-minutes tonight, and his standard cool as a cucumber.

Steve Kroft did his darnedest to get Obama to feel bad about making American foreign policy an embarressment, but Obama wouldn't follow. Basically he said getting people to fight against ISIL is tough with Assad at their back, and now Russia at their back too.

Interestingly Obama considers Russia's actions as more a failure of Russia's leadership than evidence of it.
Steve Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it's also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States-- America leads. We're the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.

President Barack Obama: In what way?

Steve Kroft: Well, he's moved troops into Syria, for one. He's got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II--bombing the people-- that we are supporting.

President Barack Obama: So that's leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine--

Steve Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership--

President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we'll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we've got a 60-country coalition that isn't suddenly lining up around Russia's strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.

Steve Kroft: My point was not that he was leading, my point is that he was challenging your leadership. And he has very much involved himself in the situation. Can you imagine anything happening in Syria of any significance at all without the Russians now being involved in it and having a part of it?

President Barack Obama: But that was true before. Keep in mind that for the last five years, the Russians have provided arms, provided financing, as have the Iranians, as has Hezbollah.

President Barack Obama: And the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it's an indication that their strategy did not work.

President Barack Obama: You don't think that Mr. Putin would've preferred having Mr. Assad be able to solve this problem without him having to send a bunch of pilots and money that they don't have?

At any rate, if Obama is embarressed by his failures, he hides it very well. He's ready to step down in 2017 with a job well done, and convinced if he could hold a third term, he'd be reelected. (And given the state of the republicans, it seems a fair assessment.)

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I guess this Bloomberg article is what Obama was talking about in regard to Putin's reckless distraction. We can recall that the first cold war and low oil prices is what helped to sink the USSR in the 1980s, as well as the 1998 bankruptcy was also a period of very low oil prices.

It might be that the two worst things in the world are extended periods of expensive oil (which sinks globalism and debt expansion), and extended periods of cheap oil (which sinks producers). It looks like cheap oil is in our indefinite future, and so producers/exports are at greatest risk.

Perhaps Obama is doing a favor to "let" Putin do his propagandizing without getting angry about it? Of course a future President Trump's ego would get in the way and would cause great trouble, but Obama's ego seems to allow a difference of opinion to not define his legacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's renascent cold war with the West is partly meant to obscure his country's economic slump. It's a reckless strategy -- not least because it's making the slump worse. The consequences for Putin and for global security could be dire.

Now, the repercussions are becoming apparent. Without the support of high oil prices and hampered by Western sanctions, Russia is headed into a recession deeper than the U.S. experienced in 2009. Though the official unemployment rate remains low, other indicators suggest that hidden joblessness -- including people going to work and not getting paid -- is on the rise.

Next year's budget will be a problem. Starved of revenue, the government faces tough choices as it seeks to balance the interests of pensioners, state workers and the military.

If the downturn proves temporary, Putin is well-placed to ride it out. His approval rating exceeds 80 percent. Increasingly, though, the evidence suggests that he has done longer-term damage. His grip on the economy may be strangling the dynamism and entrepreneurship that Russia needs to recover.

Sam L. said...

I suspect I'm not completely alone, but it seems to me that what Obama has done and is doing is coming out exactly as he wishes, or he is delusional.

Anonymous said...

Sam: the God of war has bad hemhorroids. -$$$