President Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, will go down in history as one of America’s worst presidents, squandering diplomatic, international and economic assets that were bequeathed to him. As a result of the perfidy of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Obama inherited a great deal of low-hanging foreign policy fruit that he has been slow and even hesitant to pick.
Two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; policies of unilateralism and preemption, and a global war on terrorism that included torture and abuse, secret prisons and extraordinary renditions left US foreign and national security policy in a shambles and created numerous opportunities for creative diplomacy.
President Obama dramatically rejected in his inaugural speech the “false … choice between our safety and our ideals” and subsequently vowed to press the “reset button” in those bilateral relations that the Bush administration had worsened. Ten months later, we are still waiting for the genuine use of a reset button.
At the same time, the Obama administration is copying too many aspects of the Bush administration’s cover-up of abuses committed in the name of fighting terrorism, including blanket claims of national security to stop lawsuits; resisting orders to release photographs of torture and abuse, and threats to stop intelligence-sharing with Britain if a High Court Panel declassified intelligence documents relating to torture allegations.
There are numerous situations where the Obama administration has been halting in its efforts to arrange for genuine change in the international arena. Although President Obama has been creative in his use of diplomacy to get a handle on Iran’s nuclear program, it made no sense to hold a weeklong joint missile defense exercise with Israel as a deadline neared for Iran to accept or reject an export deal for Iran’s enriched uranium.
The United States is holding important talks with Russia on strategic nuclear weapons, but at the same time the Obama administration is holding out possible NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which merely adds to the long list of irritants that Washington has created in its bilateral relations with the Kremlin.
The United States has held joint military exercises with Georgia, which is a totally gratuitous affront to Moscow. The plan to shelve an unnecessary and unworkable missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was offset by the decision to deploy an even more extensive system in the Middle East and Europe over the next ten years.
President Obama promised a “new beginning” in Latin America, but continues to pursue the feckless 47-year embargo as a means of leverage to press for political change in Cuba.
The United States is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere without normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the United Nations has condemned the embargo for the past seventeen years, with the United States receiving support for its embargo only from Israel and Palau.
North Korea has obviously softened its policies toward the United States and South Korea in an effort to elicit one-on-one talks with Washington as a prelude to resuming the six-power talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Again, the Obama administration has turned a deaf ear to North Korea.
President Obama has contributed significantly to the problem by complicating the policy process with the appointment of foreign policy tsars as well as the selection of a weak cabinet in the area of international security. The tsars are a mixed group to begin with. There is a tsar for Iran and the Persian Gulf (Dennis Ross) who has not been heard from since his selection and has been forced to move his office from the State Department to the White House.
There is a tsar for Afghanistan and Pakistan (Richard Holbrooke) who failed to create a working relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which necessitated the selection of Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) to convince the Afghan president of the need to hold a run-off election.
And there is a tsar for the Middle East (George Mitchell) who is being diddled by Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu and even undercut by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who incredibly praised the Israelis for making “unprecedented” concessions in their settlement policy on the West Bank. (Earlier in her trip to Southwest Asia and the Middle East, Clinton irritated the Pakistani government by accusing the Pakistani intelligence service of concealing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, at a time when the Pakistani army has mounted a major offensive against the Taliban.)
Thus far, the three tsars have had no success in their so-called regions of expertise, and the State Department once again has proven feckless in playing a key diplomatic role.
The Obama cabinet is reminiscent of the weak Clinton cabinet in 1993, which was responsible for a series of errors in foreign policy that got President Clinton off to a weak start on national security. Clinton’s initial choices for secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser and CIA director were inadequate, and all were replaced before Clinton’s second term.
Obama’s choices also appear lacking, and there is no single adviser who appears to have a strategic command of the foreign policy agenda. As a result, more power is being centralized in the White House where domestic advisers, not international ones, are dominating decision-making on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Cuba.
President Obama could learn from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who resorted to “perestroika” and “glasnost” in order to reduce the Soviet military’s domination of resources and allocations and thus invest in the domestic infrastructure.
The Obama administration is spending far too much time and effort on its Afghan policy, when it really needs to address the larger issues of the expansion of military power (which has not led to success vis-à-vis Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) and the decline in economic power (growing deficits and debts).
We are spending more than the rest of the world on defense, intelligence and homeland security, with few perceptible benefits. The defense and intelligence budgets have more than doubled in the past ten years, and we have no answers for the ethnic conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and no coercive influence over the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. It is long past time to resort to the far less expensive and far less onerous policy of diplomacy and constructive engagement.