abbottabad, afghanistan, anglo-american relations, arab spring, barack obama, bert, boromir, Britain, china, chuffed to bits, david cameron, david petraeus, falklands, foreign policy, george w. bush, harvey dent, imperialism, joe biden, john mccain, leon panetta, libya, lockerbie bomber, luchadores, monroe doctrine, muammar qaddafi, navy seals, newt gingrich, nuclear weapons, osama bin laden, pakistan, rey mysterio, robert gates, rolling stone, samantha power, saudi arabia, special relationship, stanley mcchrystal, strategy, surge, table tennis, taliban, united states, yemen
Barack Obama isn’t easy to explain. At least, his over-arching ideology and policies aren’t. Perhaps he wants it that way – styling himself as a sort of enlightened pragmatist, he predisposes himself to avoid classification. Obama’s personal brand in terms of foreign policy doesn’t look the same as it did two months ago. You could argue continuity vs. change in various degrees, but the fact is that he’s produced some unexpected outcomes recently. I feel compelled to try to make sense of them here not least because I’ve already tried a couple of times in the past, but also because there are useful points of comparison with those pieces as well. I’ll bring them up as we go.
Briefly, a list of things that have changed Obama’s foreign policy landscape recently:
- The “Arab Spring” began*
- Osama bin Laden ended up here
- A startlingly chummy state visit to the United Kingdom occurred
*This term is somewhere between problematic and plain-ole stupid. For one thing, it implies that the events unfolding in the Middle East will have beneficial durable outcomes, and that is not yet apparent. Also, for those that actually pay attention to history, naming something after Prague Spring, a Czech liberalization that was brutally crushed by the Soviets, is a sort of head-scratcher. Freudian slip?
Early on, some expected Barack Obama to be a left-leaning, war-averse President who would mark a sharp departure from his predecessor, George W. Bush. They were very quickly disappointed. One of his most important early foreign policy decisions was to commit to the war in Afghanistan, and authorize a surge of over 3o,000 troops there from the winter of 2009. I feel compelled to pause a moment and comment on the brilliance of using “surge” to classify these specific war plans. How different would the reception be if the administration had said “We plan to escalate – temporarily of course – the war to gain an advantage over our enemies.” “Surge,” meanwhile, conveys both temporality and overwhelming power (like an electrical surge). Props to whichever staffer suggested that one. I’d like to think I would do well at that if I was a White House staffer. “Jesse suggested we phrase it as ‘unbuilding’ Tripoli until Qaddafi surrenders.”
Zombie Bush aside, anti-war types can give up on their hopes of having less war under Obama’s first term than we did with W. Which made it all the more perplexing that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in autumn 2009, without having done much of anything in the foreign sphere since taking office, much less achieve international peace. Obama acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech when he said “I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek…” In other words, we’re stopping the one that is our fault and reluctantly carrying on with the one that isn’t our fault. Keep in mind that Senator Obama voted against the “surge” that happened in Iraq before it turned out to be largely successful, so this move on Afghanistan, even though it was supported by most of the Cabinet and military higher-ups, was not entirely expectable.
Strategically, the President looked cool on our relationship with Britain, arguably the most important to our geostrategic position in the world. Around a year ago, I wondered whether our “Special Relationship” wasn’t losing its specialness. With the Left out of power in Britain and Obama, as Newt Gingrich never tires of pointing out, holding an “anti-colonial worldview,” the oily waters of Louisiana looked like the burial-at-sea for the alliance forged by Roosevelt and Churchill.
Afghanistan: Empire’s Graveyard
If Afghanistan was a professional wrestler, it would specialize in taking out the Luchadores that are empires: it lulls them into a false sense of security, writhing on the mat and waiting for the inevitable high-flying, top-of-the-turnbuckle slam. It bides its time, and at the last second it rolls away and BAM! Luchador lands face first. It was always going to be a headache for this President in terms of policy. When Obama authorized the surge, insofar as we can discern his intentions, it said that he believed a military resolution to the Afghan conflict was possible.
It didn’t help that last summer, Obama had to fire commanding General Stanley McChrystal after the general gave an off-color interview to Rolling Stone. McChrystal, who seems to have been generally well-liked by the military establishment, was making progress in Afghanistan implementing the Petraeus brand of counterinsurgency. When asked about Vice President Joe Biden, outspokenly against military escalation there, McChrystal and his boys were openly disparaging. Coming from a Special-Ops background which thrives on an elite, insular mindset, this is not surprising, but in the form of a national magazine article, it was unacceptable. The firing was a huge headache for the administration, as not only did it expose its strategic schism, it provoked a redistribution of talent: Petraeus, instead of mopping up in Iraq, had to take over in Afghanistan (with the impending departure of SecDef Bob Gates and promotion of CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace him, Petraeus is moving to Langley, meaning we will need to replace his military command yet again.)
Fast-forward to today: Obama’s speech on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is being widely hailed as a victory for the Biden Camp. In basic terms, it calls for removing around 10k troops by the end of the year, and a total of 30k by the end of 2012 (we have around 100k on the ground right now). You could critique this from both sides: with 70k troops remaining, the withdrawal hardly signals the end of our major military ops in Afghanistan. However, does 30k less soldiers make an operational difference on the ground? Fuckin’-a-right it does. We might surmise from this that the decision was not made with military criteria in mind. Foreign Policy’s Kori Schake rightly points out that Obama criticized Bush II for “under-resourcing” the war in Afghanistan. The hawkish-Right, especially McCain, have attacked Obama’s decision as contravening the wishes of General Petraeus (who at this point enjoys an assumed 100% trust on military matters) for only a token drawdown. The Economist’s Lexington sees an electoral motive behind all of this, and that’s certainly the most logical hypothesis. It raises questions about our democracy: our leadership changes, our democratic short-termism, and so forth. Americans find it healthy to politicize everything (if not to capitalize everything), but this sentiment is far from common in the rest of the world or in history.
And then there’s this. I don’t mean the complicity of puppets with terrorism, at least, not only that. So long as we’re talking about electoral issues, Obama gave himself a gigantic boost last month when the SEALs managed to bag bin Laden and provoke a night of nationwide jubilation. As great a domestic political windfall as it was, on the international level it delivered mixed results. The news that ole’ OBL was chillaxing in the outskirts of Pakistan’s most important military city, Abbottabad, was easily the most electric detail of OBL’s exeunt. As a sort of note on Pakistan’s “military cities,” the British turned the entire region into a network of military installations back in the nineteenth century, as evidenced by the fact that Abbottabad got its name from British General Sir James Abbott. Needless to say, some questions needed answering.
In reality, it’s rather daft to think of this conflict as exclusively concerning Afghanistan (or Pakistan). The problem in the first place is that there are regions spanning both states that neither can control because they’re in the hands of intractable Islamist tribal authorities. In fact, you might recall from the 2008 elections that Obama insisted he would enter Pakistan and pursue high-opportunity targets if he thought it was a good idea. Mark that down as one promise he kept. While we occupy one of these countries, one does not simply walk into nuclear-armed Pakistan. Sure, there were never enough Pakistanis that poll approval of the United States to change a lightbulb, but fewer of them support their own government intervening against the Taliban since we started flying crazy alien helicopters into their territory without consent. Another problem with alienating Pakistan is that it’s accelerating the rise of China as a rival world hegemon, as the Pakistanis increasingly view them as an alternative sponsor in security matters.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity
The sequence of events in North Africa and the Middle East is in many ways more surprising and less predictable. The President’s response – to hang back for a month on Libya while France and Britain dragged us reluctantly along on a NATO bombing campaign – again leaves him vulnerable to criticism from both sides. I broke it down here. While many accuse him of dragging us into yet another war, in comparison to the mission’s allies he’s acted cool on the idea from the start, but with Americans running NATO’s military ops, we have to lie in the bed we made. Oh, and did I mention that we’re also running a secret war in Yemen?
Clearly, the Obama administration thinks we have a stake in the outcomes of the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Between the strategic resources in the area and our key allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to see why. Furthermore, with perennial humanitarian-liberal-interventionist Samantha Power on Obama’s team from the beginning, it’s not surprising to see us dropping in on potential cases of mass-killing. Getting Muammar Qaddafi is also a way of dealing with some outstanding tensions over Lockerbie that I also discussed in my post on Anglo-American relations. Speaking of which…
Reunited and it feels so good
It was a huge Spring for enthusiasts of British culture. Apart from the Royal Wedding(!), Obama went on a whirlwind tour of Britain and Ireland, first stopping in to milk his Irish heritage and chug Guinness, then continuing on to London for bilateral talks with David Cameron, and the first ever official state visit by an American President to Britain. Yep, you heard that right. He played up, played up, and played the game (of table tennis) with Cameron. He pranced about with the Queen. He delivered a brilliant and rousing speech on our shared Anglo-American values in Westminster Hall before both Houses of Parliament. I watched the whole thing in a kind of disbelieving haze. All the animosity and mutual suspicion I discussed in my previous post seemed lightyears away. Well, except for the whole “Falklands-Monroe-Doctrine-Eff-You” thing I also covered, which is still going strong.
So much for the whole “anti-colonial” Anglophobic psychology. Supposedly, from a standpoint of policy, Cameron’s people love Obama, which should tell you something about the present jankiness of the political spectrum in both countries. At any rate, this escapade of symbolic Anglo-American revelry might have “chuffed me to bits,” but as before, it was in no way expectable at this point last year.
In Part II I’ll look at some of the implications of these unexpected outcomes, and try to nail down what Obama’s strategic foreign policy identity really is.