International Relations, Obama Administration

Serious Times Call For More Serious Analysis

Foreign Policy has two perspectives on Fareed Zakaria’s latest piece in Newsweek. Both are interesting critiques of both Zakaria and the Obama foreign policy.

First, Christian Brose finds Zakaria’s thinking too reflective of the “Washington establishment”:

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Obama administration’s plans to talk to adversaries — Iran, Russia, Syria, the Taliban, etc. But we’ve heard preciously little about how the administration intends to create conditions of strength that are the requirement for diplomatic success. Everyone knows Obama is willing to talk. The question is what new leverage he will bring to bear to make that talk effective. Will we use the military forces we are withdrawing from Iraq to exert greater pressure on Iran? Are we asking our European allies to take any bold new steps on financial coercion? What exactly is Russia willing and able to do to change Iran’s decision-making? So far, answers to questions like these have not exactly been forthcoming, and in their absence, it’s not at all off-base to think that talking without leverage could harm U.S. interests. (And all of this is assuming that Iran hasn’t just said, screw it, we’re getting the bomb, and damn the torpedoes, which opens up a whole new world of problems.)

Second, Peter Feaver argues that Zakaria doesn’t have a serious critique of American foreign policy:

A more balanced perspective on Bush — some positive, some negative — would pave the way for Fareed to offer a more balanced perspective on Obama. I agree with Fareed that some of the critiques of Obama have been exaggerated, almost as exaggerated as, well, the conventional wisdom on Bush. But surely in a column calling for a reasonable perspective on Obama’s foreign policy performance, Fareed could have found space to at least discuss some of the missteps and rookie mistakes: perhaps a mention of the ham-handed personnel decisions (like this one or this one) or the needless insults to allies (such as this one or this one). If these are dismissed as minor peccadilloes, how about a candid admission that, as Fareed himself recommended, Obama has more often than not continued Bush’s foreign policies while claiming to make bold dramatic changes?

In the end, I don’t think that the Obama Administration cares all that much about foreign policy. Obama is not a foreign-policy oriented President. He’s much more concerned with the U.S. economy, which is (rightly or wrongly) popularly conceived as much more important than what’s going on abroad. Obama’s view of American power is not fully formed. He had almost no foreign policy experience when he took office, and he’s displayed little interest in foreign policy now—other than largely staying the course from the Bush Administration.

Obama’s idea is that if somehow everyone gets together and talks somehow everyone will come to a consensus. That model barely works in faculty meetings, and it won’t work in international diplomacy. Iran will not give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Why should they? The US can talk all they want, but there’s nothing we can offer that will give Iran a reasonable incentive to stop. The Iranians are doing what a rational state would do in their shoes: develop a nuclear deterrent to Israel. That they may be insane enough to use that deterrent is a problem, but even if the Iranian regime were perfectly rational, they’d still be developing nuclear weapons.

There’s no “consensus” there. Iran wants nuclear weapons, we want to deny them the opportunity. There’s no amount of carrots that can dissuade them otherwise, and the Iranians know damned well that Barack Obama does not have the political will to stop them. They have no fear of President Obama, and there’s no reason they should fear him. That is a problem for us.

On the other hand, I suspect that Tehran is frightened of Binyamin Netanyahu. He will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and he’s the only world leader who would do something to stop them. But even that seems a less than likely circumstance.

What should Obama do? He has to face facts: the world is not a peaceable place. If he chooses to negotiate it must be with the full understanding that negotiation may be pointless. That means understanding that players like Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela may not have any interest in so much as throwing us a bone. That means being willing to be both smart and tough. All the tough rhetoric in the world is worthless. Nobody fears Vladimir Putin because he talks tough, they fear Putin because he’s perfectly capable of killing dissidents, invading countries, and playing hardball to get what he wants.

That doesn’t mean that Obama should emulate Putin, but that does mean that he needs to learn to play hardball. That means being willing to engage Central Asian states on the same terms that Russia does: and they’ve become far better than us at offering tasty carrots and brutal sticks. We can’t pretend that Tashkent works the same way as Washington D.C. It doesn’t, and we have to learn to play by the regions rules.

Obama has shown some promise—he has been less radical in foreign policy than some had predicted. But he still has a long way to go. He can’t keep alienating allies like he did with his shameful performance with Gordon Brown. He has to face the realities of a harsh and unforgiving world. Obama has the benefit of being intelligent and articulate, which counts for a lot. But it will never be enough, and unless the world fears him just a little, America will never truly be respected.


Don’t Pop Open The Champagne Yet

Don Surber argues that the war in Iraq has been won as the US and the Iraqis work together on a bilateral accord that would see the majority of US troops out of Iraq by the beginning of 2009.

I think that the changes in Iraq are sustainable and that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been largely driven out of the country. What we have achieved in Iraq this year is one of the most crucial and least understood military victories in history. It’s easy to think that the war is over.

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Another attack like the one against the Golden Mosque in Samarra could launch another set of recriminations. AQI is beaten, but there are still “dead enders” who won’t go without a fight. We are entering a new phase in this conflict, but it won’t be the sort of victory we saw at the end of World War II in which the belligerent power is forced to sign an unconditional surrender on the deck of an American battleship. There won’t be a V-I day like there was a V-E Day and a V-J Day in World War II. There won’t even necessarily be a signal like the fall of the Berlin Wall to note the monumental nature of this change.

The war in Iraq isn’t necessarily over, it’s just entering a new phase. In this phase, Iraqis will be doing most of the work, with the help of the US when requested. The Iraqis will have the make the political compromises necessary to bring Iraq forward. They will be on the front lines against terrorism for some time, and they will still face attacks by those who are threatened by the very idea of a representative democracy taking wing in the Arab world.

Our troops are still at risk, and the situation in Iraq remains far too fluid to call this a victory. We won the first war in Iraq when Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, and what has followed is part of a global war on terrorism that will more fade into a series of police actions than end in the conventional sense.

We should be extremely proud of what has been done in Iraq, by the Multinational Forces – Iraq and the people of Iraq, all of whom have put their lives on the line to give Iraq a chance. The battle isn’t yet over, and too many false victories have been declared as it is to repeat the same mistake. Iraq is stabilizing, and we are making more progress than ever, but it is simply too soon to declare victory in a war that is still ongoing.


Why We Won’t Attack Iran Anytime Soon

The Financial Times takes a skeptical look at claims that there’s an imminent plan to retaliate against Iran. They examine the political and military difficulties of such a strike and find that it’s unlikely to happen.

At the same time, Barry Rubin reiterates why it is we should be worried about Iran’s nuclear program. Even though the military option isn’t going to be played out soon, the time for the diplomatic option is running out. We don’t know when Iran might be able to produce a nuclear bomb. It could be as soon as 2009. We do know that its in nobody’s interest for that to happen. If diplomacy fails, then and only then will the military option become truly viable—and even then we can’t be sure whether it would be effective or not.

All the furor on Capitol Hill over the mere possibility of an attack paradoxically makes such an attack more likely. If Iran knows that the United States would not hesitate to massively retaliate against an Iranian nuclear test or against Iran’s nuclear program should we even suspect they have a bomb, that creates a powerful incentive not to take that final step. However, if they think that the US will roll over and let them obtain nuclear weapons, they will do so. In a time when we need to present a united diplomatic front that makes it clear that Iranian nukes are unacceptable, Democrats are playing politics. This is another key example of why the majority of the Democratic Party still can’t be trusted on national security issues—a party so willing to sacrifice the broad national interest for partisan gain is not sufficiently responsible to lead.

We cannot allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. An unstable regime with that kind of power is a threat to everyone’s security. The world has a choice: either stand united or face worse consequences down the road. There is a slim chance that diplomatic and political pressure can stall Tehran’s run towards the bomb. So long as that chance remains, it’s unlikely that either the US or Israel will risk an attack. However, if Tehran remains intransigent, the clock will eventually run down and we’ll have no choice.

We have one last chance to prevent the necessity of attacking Iran. However, we can’t do that in an environment where our own politicians are preemptively rolling over to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. We have to be strong and united on this issue to forestall a war: and when partisan politics is trumping national security it only makes the necessity of military conflict that much greater.