Monday, October 28, 2013

Nuance versus hard power in U.S. foreign policy

We are so entrenched in stereotypes of thought, that it is as if we are all, individually and collectively, like the uroborus snake, with its head in its tail, winding round and round the same trench, without ever changing course.
Republicans believe they own "national security" and "strong defence" as their own strong suits, and Democrats believe they own social policy and care for the disadvantaged and when these stereotypes are threatened, they each become excessively defensive, critical and counter-productive.
Obama, for example, has worked very hard to demonstrate that he is not "weak" in the way history has portrayed former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, continuing the war in Afghanistan, and expanding the Bush level of deployment of drones against Islamic terrorists. However, in a discussion yesterday on Fareed Zakaria's GPS on CNN, a cluster of "talking heads", two from the Wall Street Journal, and one from the Council on Foreign Relations, we listened to different versions of "a failure of American leadership under Obama" based on the evidence that Saudi Arabia is afraid of Iran and wanted the U.S. to take a stronger position against that regime on both its pursuit of nuclear power and its support of Assad in Syria, and the Saudi's contempt for Assad, against whom they wanted the U.S. to take a much stronger position, and consequently, their reasoning followed, that the Saudi rejection of the seat on the Security Council, for which they lobbied and which they were invited to occupy, was based more on its "negative statement" to the United States.
Of course, comparisons to Carter's waffling were also made, as evidence of waffling on Obama's part, without paying any attention to the very different conditions that prevail in this century, especially in the Middle East, from those facing Carter in the 1970's.
Obama, however, faced a world in which contempt for the U.S. over-engagement in war, resulting from an obsessive and frightened response to 9-11, and Obama rightly saw a major part of his mandate to restore some perspective to American foreign policy, and some respectability to American foreign influence throughout the world. Republicans have charged him with "leading from behind" and "embracing Russia" over Syria's chemical weapons, and "going soft" on Iran, especially with the current talks in Geneva...all more of the same kind of "iron- based rhetoric" commonly called "gun-boat" diplomacy, or "spreading democracy at the end of an AK-47." And these were the kinds of phrases that poured from these talking heads yesterday, without allowing that Obama had attempted not only to demonstrate American creativity, collaboration and an integrated approach to world issues.
However, the Obama administration seems to have somehow, perhaps through over-reach of the bureaucracy ("we did it because we could and not because it was a good thing to do" is a phrase that we hear coming from the National Security Administration, on the over-reach on cyber-spying, for example) found its way into a morass of trouble, almost as if the new technology and its capabilities became the newest and latest, the fastest and most ominous fighter-jet surrogate, only instead of firing missiles or drones, the new technology enabled these "gun-slingers" who infest the national security apparatus to engage in some nasty business, through intercepting the cell phones of many friendly leaders. When technology drives policy, as it seems to be doing on both the spying and the Obamacare roll-out, the government is effectively "out of control" and what once stood as responsible and balanced and mature foreign policy leadership, seems to have morphed into its own demise, once again through lack of over-sight.
Are there just too many pots boiling for an chief executive to exercise over-sight?
Are there too many inside enemies of the administration, seeking to blackened its eye, for political purposes?
Are there too many threats from too many different sources just waiting to take advantage of a single gap in oversight to strike at the national reputation?
And is government, like a monster-ship, so hard to turn, from the perspective of the wheel-house, yet so eager to play with the latest technology down in the hole, that the larger mission gives way to the little boys playing with the newest toys?
It does seem rather obvious that a different mind-set and strategy and even ideology would hold true on the upper deck, of any administration from the mind-set and ideology on the lowest deck, and it may well be an open question whether or not any administration has found a way to fully integrate these two very different perspectives.
Professors, like Obama, are interested in the exploration of ideas, of strategies, and of tactics, and are less likely to wield a heavy hand in the manner of their carrying out their duties...and that may well be, on the one hand one of the most conciliatory voices in Washington, and on the other hand, one of the most vulnerable and  targeted voices for the opposition to attack, especially in a culture and history where "hard power" has consistently trumped collaboration, collegiality and compromise.
And it is not only a Washington culture, but a mainstreet culture that demands a macho face and exercise of power on behalf of the nation, even when current complexities call for a very different  approach.

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