Sunday, January 12, 2014

Obama struggles to regain public confidence in his foreign policy

There continue to be rumblings about the clash of both emotions and policy preferences in the Obama administration coming out of the public debate over former Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates' memoir, published last week.
  • Whether Obama himself was ever really committed to the "surge" in troops in Afghanistan 
  • Whether the strength of the individuals then conducting American foreign and military strategy overshadowed the accomplishments
  • Whether a war-weary president reflected the best national interests of the country, also suffering from battle fatigue
  • Whether the current cast of characters, Hegel, (Susan) Rice, Kerry are up to the quality of the previous case of Gates, Donilon and Clinton
  • Whether or not American foreign policy is unravelling in the second term of the Obama presidency, especially since domestic policy has fallen ship-wrecked on the shoals of Tea Party conservatism
  • Whether political considerations too often have trumped national interests under both sets of heading actors
  • Whether or not Obama can recoup both the policy and the public debate over the policy in the remaining months and years of his second term....
These are just some of the questions that are swirling around the book in the media and the questions are being posed not only by political opponents of the president but also by serious and relatively objective observers and commentators. There is an undertone of "same as president Carter" (code words for too weak, too placating, too wishy-washy, and too easily manipulated) to the criticism in a country whose political rhetoric is itself based primarily on war metaphors and images. The biggest and most devastating military, supported by the largest military budget in the world as compared to all other countries taken together, operates much of its political culture on a "war basis"....not that they are always formally engaged in battle on the ground, in the air, or on the seas, but that strategic thinking and public debate on foreign policy issues, including national security issues, comes out of this "war mind-set." There is always a strong voice from the Republican side for more weapons, and more engagement in all troubling conflicts around the world, as part of their culture to preserve the "standing and reputation" of the American myth as the world's superpower. That culture and point of view has resulted in both Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the last decade, started by Republican operatives in both the State and Defence departments.
And while the national budget, including the national debt, suffers severe pain and nearly succumbed to bankruptcy, there is very little public debate that points to the costs, in both dollars and lives, of those wars. It seems that the Republican party wishes, as if living in a Technicolor dream, that their hands are not covered with blood and responsibility for those decisions, made under George W. Bush. Certainly there were Democrats who voted for both military engagements, and Obama, while opposing the Iraq debacle, has to claim ownership for his support of the Afghan engagement. Hillary Clinton, it now appears, supported the Iraq invasion, "because she was involved in a political campaign against Obama" and less for the purpose of national interest....at least according to the revelations of the Gates tome.
There has been severe and telling criticism of Obama's "leading from behind" as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, while campaigning for Romney in the 2012 presidential race. And the American people, historically, are never comfortable in a "secondary role" in foreign affairs. It is only when, once again, they witness the tremendous costs and the extremely limited "gains" from both the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres that they become dis-enchanted with their war efforts. Nevertheless, they are loath to question seriously their dependence on the military, and the national security apparatus, another quasi-military establishment that now includes the gargantuan Homeland Security department and the National Security Agency in addition to the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI all of them largely spared from substantial budget cuts even through the sequestration. It is not just that there are these monstrous agencies, but that the American psyche considers all them as a gestalt necessary to "protect" the people of their nation.
Building a bunker, and pouring the national bank account into that bunker, is little more than buying the largest insurance policy available, only to have it filled with holes that were not plugged if and when the country is attacked.
 Of course, there are serious enemies of the United States around the world, both in rogue states and in guerilla and terrorist camps, yet the "defensive posture" far outweighs the size and the danger of the threat. It is as if the Washington fear of "attack" the most hateful and demonic thing that can happen to a superpower is underpinning the national security mind-set, and so, in spite of all the talk about progress and hope, and making a more perfect union, the country remains steadfastly mired in the swamp of its own fears.
And of course, that collective, unconscious, national fear is projected onto the White House and its current occupant, as the only person in the country with the power to reverse any sign of action or policy consideration that is not demonstrating the "super-power" capability to intervene and "make things right"...as if the U.S. is responsible for the elimination of all forms of enemy threat.
Super-powers must, according to the archetype...
  • never fail,
  • never lose,
  • never appear to be confused,
  • never appear to be unknowing,
  • never appear to be undecided or in a quandary,
  • never lead from behind
  • never resist an opportunity to engage in a fight
  • never moderate the application of its hard power assets in support of a collaborative initiative
  • never resist the call to arms that will always come from the right as the strategic metaphor for all political, ideological, including all foreign conflicts
And it is not only in the policy but also in the characters of its leaders, that a superpower must demonstrate its continuing prowess, superiority and capacity to rule. And so, with the debate over the "strength" of the former administration "cast" as compared with the current cast, the public is sensing more strength, control and domination from the former than from the current cadre. And, of course, in that debate, the public "fear of loss of control" expresses criticism because it appears that American is less "dominant" and less "in control" of situations that are not congruent with previous periods of history, at least in the recent past, and, in a country dominated by a "narcissistic" instant-gratification motive, such a situation is unacceptable, even contemptible, and those who are in charge have lost their bearings.
In fact, however, it is not only the U.S. but also the whole world that does not know what to do about the current civil strife in the Middle East, in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Egypt, and even in Afghanistan, as well as in the Central African Republic, in Somalia, in Mali, in Nigeria, and in who knows what other hot spots that will inevitably emerge over the coming months. In fact, demonstrating moderation, restraint, collaboration and even a level of maturity and balance, while at the same time resisting "jumping into the arms of the military strategists"* is a balancing act worthy of a tight-rope walker, without a net while the world watches and fires at you...and yet that is what Obama has been attempting to do. And if and when he errs on the side of the political, as compared with the strategic, as he most certainly will do, then there will be those, worthy of being considered, who will try to bring his focus back onto the strategic.
Soft power, and moderated, collaborated and restrained hard power, it would seem, are both necessary and at odds with the American national character. Clearly, confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity are words that do not belong in the American lexicon, especially on foreign affairs and potential threats to U.S. national interests around the world. Obama, while schooled in international relations as well as 'the law' and bringing, as he does, a generous heart and spirit to the Oval Office, may now face the greatest challenge of his presidency...attempting to navigate a course through wild and unpredictable (political, economic, religious, ethnic as well as climate) upheavals, hurricanes, storms and threats, while attempting to keep the political dogs suffering from distemper at bay on the home front.
And as he valiantly tries to preserve his own equanimity, he would do well to read, reflect upon and even discuss with the author, the prescription offered in a recent column by the respected Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius:
The reality is that Obama needs to own his foreign policy. He needs to be more strategic and less political. He needs to set a vision and articulate it to allies and adversaries. His national security adviser needs to help him focus and communicate policy decisions.
(David Ignatius, Only Obama can fix his broken foreign policy, in Washington Post, January 10, 2014)
*Remember Kennedy's mistake in trusting the military in the Bay of Pigs. It still hangs like a cloud over the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon.

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