Obama and American Foreign Policy

Focus on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy have been talk of the town of late.

David Frum for the right wing Canadian newspaper National Post, asked Obama the question “what is [your] expertise? What does [you] think [you] know … a lot about?” to which Obama assertively responded “foreign affairs”.

The G8 and G20 meetings are to begin with smiles, soon sinking into misery when the topic turns to BP and Afghanistan. This will be Cameron’s first visit on official business to the US to see President Obama, and he has already issued the fighting talk, stating his desire to pull troops out within 5 years, but not wanting to set a date for release. When Cameron meets with Obama later for a private meeting, this will surely be the most pressing of subjects.

Another issue today bringing Obama’s foreign policy to the fore is the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, an event that some have pointed to as proof that the war effort is unpopular, unwinnable and unnecessary. Georgie Anne Geyer has made the point that “It is certainly not unusual for troops, or even officers, in an unpopular war to complain and gripe about officials back in Washington (and just about everything else).”

Obama’s foreign policy can only be understood in the context of the last nine years specifically. In 2008 when Obama becam president he promised to undo the damage of the last seven years. He made further stands against isolationism, fear of talking and negotiating with the enemy, and pledged to spend 0.7% of the GDP on foreign aid.

For some Obama has done next to nothing of any progression to the Bush era.

Frum again said:

The Afghan war is going wrong. Diplomatic outreach to Iran was slapped away. Concessions to Russia failed to buy meaningful sanctions. Pro-Obama European governments have declined to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama’s personal relationships with leaders of Germany, U.K. and France are cool to chilly. The President’s outreach to the Islamic world has achieved nothing: In fact, more anti-American terrorist plots were launched in 2009 than in any year since 2001. When a pro-Hugo Chavez president tried to hold power illegally in Honduras, the Obama administration backed the lawless president over a unanimous Honduran Supreme Court.

But on the other hand a lot has changed.

Peter Baker of the New York Times points to Obama’s “decision to send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan arguably returns America’s focus to what he considers the central front against Al Qaeda,” which was the reason why Obama opposed the war in Iraq even when he was a senator.

Talking to Iran, after years of Bush’s arrogant refusal, hasn’t caused a revolution, but a long term course of discursive arrangement is far preferable to full scale war, and could actually deter such an event, something Bush was almost definitely counting the days until – money permitting.

Francis Fukuyama, in his book After the Neocons, describes what he views as the four definitive American attitudes of foreign policy.

Firstly, neoconservative, whether rightly or wrongly, for the time being seen as a platform for regime change, belief that democracy can be imposed and as Fukuyama describes “benevolent hegemony”.

Secondly there are the “realists” of the Kissinger ilk, respecting of power and unfazed by nature of other regimes.

Thirdly liberal internationalists who want to transcend power politics and move to an order globally based on law and institutions.

Lastly, what Walter Russell Mead called “Jacksonian” American nationalists, narrow security based views, a distrust of multilateralism, and supportive of nativism and isolationism (which Obama stated America can no longer afford).

I think critics will want to include Obama in the third camp, on the grounds of his support for the war effort in Afghanistan, but this I feel is a most prominent misunderstanding of the war there. Afghanistan is not a colonial venture or a practice of imperial muscle, but a coalition to fight a present enemy.

This has not always been the case, and I don’t think all those involved will agree with me, but US/UK governments should not be messing around with the government structures as much as it appears they may have in the past, but promoting Afghanistan can protect itself from a homegrown enemy, flexing its own muscle on and around the border of Pakistan, where families are forced to send their only sons to join the Taliban through fear.

I think Obama has set up a fifth arm to Fukuyama’s perceptions of foreign policy. How it should be defined properly might take longer to work out.


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