Foreign Policy

Have Barack Obama’s initial forays onto the world stage communicated to the world weakness or merely restrained strength?  Personally, I am concerned.  Reports last week indicated that French President Sarkozy in casual conversations following the G20 summit expressed the opinion that President Obama was weak.  Obama’s recent visit to Latin America did nothing to dispel that image.  When treated rudely by foreign leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, he did nothing.  Perceived weakness on the international stage is always dangerous, but it is especially dangerous when that perception may encourage foreign states to explicitly test a new President’s mettle. 

There are three pieces, all appearing recently in the Washington Post that address this issue in one way or another.  They are Jackson Diehl’s A World of Trouble for Obama, Eugene Robinson’s When Slapped, Slap Back, and Dan Balz’s Obama’s Gripping Style Overseas.

The Jackson Diehl piece raises especially troubling concerns given that there are no shortage of nations which have reasons to exploit perceived presidential weakness.  The Dan Balz piece as well questions whether Obama’s style projects strength or weakness.  While changes from the arrogant approach of President Bush have been welcomed by most, including this writer, the question is being asked whether Obama is going too far in the opposite direction.  The Eugene Robinson piece is also noteworthy.  Eugene Robinson, it was announced yesterday, is the recipient of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.  His selection was apparently due to his commentary about Barack Obama on the 2008 campaign trail.  He knows Barack Obama and is certainly no critic.  Yet he is concerned.  Here is an excerpt from the cited column:

Chávez, Ortega and a few others, however, made a show of being rude. A flash of presidential anger from Obama would have been in order.

… Obama was right to show respect for the leaders of neighboring countries big and small at the Summit of the Americas. Those who were not gracious enough to show respect for him deserved to be given — metaphorically, of course, and in the spirit of hemispheric cooperation — the back of the presidential hand.

I would rather Obama exert a little more toughness now rather than when diplomatically or militarily tested by our enemies.  I fear that the President’s initial international forays and the weak image that he’s projected to date now make the test only a matter of time.   Unless the President can change that image and quickly, he’s going to have to be very tough when tested.  Far better to have projected more toughness in the beginning that having to do so in a crisis.  

There was a great piece on Russia by Anne Applebaum in yesterday morning’s Washington Post.  She explains that the issues with Russia are far more complex than can be solved by the U.S. and Russia “pressing the reset button.”   Unless Russia climbs down off of its high horse (my words here, not hers), no amount of resetting the tone is going to change the Russian government’s fundamental arrogance and desire to play bully on the world stage.  The danger here is that the Obama adminstration play too nice with the bully.  Her conclusion is that the administration’s first Russia move has been a bad one and that it’s time to live in the real world, not a virtual one.  The piece is entitled For Russia, More Than A ‘Reset’.   Apologies for not getting this posted yesterday as promised.     

For those interested in the United States’ Afghanistan policy, what it is and how it should evolve, there are two excellent Op-eds in today’s New York Times.  I will withhold personal comment.  Both provide excellent perspective, however.  One, by Leslie H. Gelb, is entitled How to Leave Afghanistan.  The other is authored by Max Boot, Frederick Kagan, and Kimberly Kagan and is entitled How To Surge The Taliban.   

While I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Charles W. Freeman’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, from what I’m reading I gather that a number of zealots had their hand in his political assassination.  I don’t like that single-issues constitutencies have the power to have their way so easily.  I sense that because of this and other faults in our system it is very difficult for this country to ever do the “right thing”.  Heaven forbid we offend a politically powerful special interest group along the way.  Offering information and perspective on this controversy, there is both a story and a column in this morning’s Washington Post.  The story is entitled Intelligence Pick Blames ‘Israel Lobby’ For Withdrawal.  The column, by David S. Broder is entitled The Country’s Loss.  

I am coming to conclude that this is just par for the course in how we do things in this country – half baked.  The problem with half baked is that it isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

There’s a very good piece by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post this morning.  It’s entitled A Week of Revelation.  It is Mr. Gerson’s take on the last week when America began to get a look at the real Barack Obama.  We hadn’t seen the Obama of last week in Candidate Obama but I think it’s safe to conclude that the cobwebs are finally falling away and the real Obama is emerging.  Here are the closing words to Mr. Gerson’s piece:

On defense policy, the peace candidate is not a radical. On economic policy, the post-partisan could hardly be more partisan. Obama does not want to cultivate conservatives; he wants to crush them. And that is a revelation.

I recommend giving the entire piece a read.  It is edifying. 

There was one more foreign policy perspective I should have added to my posting earlier today.  It is a piece by Jim Hoagland that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post.  It’s entitled Obama vs. Clenched Fists.  Again, it is somewhat critical.  There is a theme here.

One of primary reasons I registered as a Republican in 1972 and remained a Republican was foreign policy.  I have often found Democratic foreign policy to be weak and, often, dangerous.  While I have been impressed with Obama’s words that signal a less strident foreign policy than his immediate predecessor, there are signs his foreign policy could be more Jimmy Carter than Bill Clinton.  That would not be a good thing.

Two pieces in the Washington Post raise legitimate concern with early Obama foreign policy.  The first is Friday’s column by Charles Krauthammer entitled Obama’s Supine Diplomacy.  The second, by Jackson Diehl, in today’s Post is called A ‘Reset’ That Doesn’t Compute.  The piece by Jackson Diehl focuses on Russia while the Krauthammer piece is more global.  They are worth reading.

I am more inclined to a middle road on foreign policy that avoids both the stridency of a George Bush and the profound weakness and naivete of a Jimmy Carter.  I believe that neither Presidents Bush or Carter served this country well from a foreign policy standpoint.  I also believe that Bill Clinton’s foreign policy was far healthier and is a better model for Obama.  My own experience working at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Clinton years left me most impressed with Clinton foreign policy at least as it concerned the former Soviet Union.  (It likewise left me very unimpressed with Vice President Al Gore.) 

While on the subject of foreign policy, there was another interesting column in Friday’s Washington Post.  This one was by Dana Milbank and is entitled Prince of Darkness Denies Own Existence.  Apparently the father of neoconservatism, Richard Perle, is denying that there ever was “such a thing as a neoconservative foreign policy.”  All I can say is that it’s a good thing neoconservatism never existed as it obviously wouldn’t have worked very well.

There was a most insightful piece on Hugo Chavez in today’s Washington Post.  Venezuela is a mess and Hugo Chavez has been a disaster.  Yet, Edward Schumacher-Matos counsels us in his piece entitled Closing In On Hugo Chavez, that the United States should stand back and let Chavez self-destruct.  The U.S. needs to “ignore Chavez and let Venezuelans take care of him.”  Good advice indeed.  But then what?

There is little debate that South American governments have for too long failed to adequately address the overwhelming poverty in their countries.  The right either ignores or fails to take the problem seriously and the left, as might be expected, overreacts and most often makes matters worse.  Chavez certainly has.  I can only hope that Venezuela and indeed most of South America can begin to find the middle way that can achieve both economic health for the country and a better and more hopeful life for those who have been left behind.  But as Mr. Schumacher-Matos counsels us, it does indeed have to come from within.    

There were two pieces in the New York Times today on Gaza and the aftermath of the Israeli action there last month.  One is a story, In Shattered Gaza Town, Roots of Seething Split, that leaves the reader wondering if the wounds that Israel inflicted in this recent battle can ever be healed.  It is impossible not to wonder if Israel is in fact sewing the seeds of its own eventual destruction.  How can it not be? 

The second piece is a column by Thomas L. Friedman who’s obviously just visited the Middle East and gathered some first hand intelligence.  He paints a pretty hopeless picture of a path forward to Middle East peace.  He wonders if one man, designated special envoy George Mitchell, has a chance of tackling an assignment as daunting as the one he’s been handed by Secretary of State Clinton.  Here’s the closing paragraph of Friedman’s piece, entitled Don’t Try This At Home:  

Who in the world would want to try to repair this? I’d rather herd cats, or become John Thain’s image adviser, or have a colonoscopy, or become chairman of the “bad bank” that President Obama might create to hold all the toxic mortgages. Surely, any of those would be more fun. If Mitchell is still up for it, well, then God bless him.

It’s wonderful having opinions, especially if they’re not constrained by facts or reality.  It’s why I think it’s so important to have quality newspapers available to keep us informed through both stories, in theory just presenting us with factual information, and opinion pieces, which provide us with not only factual information but perspective.  While stories are important, it’s the opinion pieces where I really learn about the world.  It’s where I can begin to see the gray the exists between the black and the white.  The Washington Post’s Outlook section this Sunday was a wonderful case in point.  It provided with information that helped refine my picture of the world in a number or areas.  There was nary a piece that didn’t in some way change my opinion of the issue addressed.  I think I read Outlook cover to cover on Sunday.  I won’t link to all of the pieces today, but to a good number of them.  What did I learn?

I learned more about Israel’s dilemma in dealing with its neighbors where its decisions are often in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” category.  The piece, Israel Must Stop Fanning the Flames That Will Consume Us, by David Grossman explained why the author thinks the recent, and perhaps just postponed, war in Gaza has been a mistake and is likely to have done more harm than good.  It is valuable information on the road to meaningful “opinion.”  I really can’t imagine forming an relevant opinion without having this kind of perspective. 

On the financial crisis, in Sebastian Mallaby’s What OPEC Teaches China, I received a perspective on the relationship between the crisis and Chinease economic policy.  It was important new information.  Likewise in David Ignatius’ Scary Financial Movie I learned additional things about the damage being done to the banking system, and the role of that in our financial crisis, by the toxic assets that are corroding the system.  I received a perspective that supported my evolving view of what the developing economic “stimulus” plan should look like in a Washington Post editorial entitled Priming the Pump.  I agreed with the Post editorial staff that there is much that is good and some that is not in the House stimulus bill.  Unfortunately there is much that simply isn’t “stimulus”.  And, that is not or at least should not be a partisan issue.  Republicans are right to object.

In Teacher on a World Stage by Jim Hoagland I was given the opportunity to think about how President Obama is going to be received by the world and, particularly, other world leaders.  Most of these leaders are enthusiastic now, but will he ask too much of them?  As Hoagland puts it in his concluding sentence: “There is no reason to think that the political earthquake Obama launched in the United States three years ago will stop at the water’s edge or has already run its course.” 

Concerning Guantanamo, Karen J. Greenberg in a piece entitled When Gitmo Was (Relatively) Good, informs us that at its infancy, the Guantanamo facility as run by the original military task force under Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert had the makings of utilitarian facility to house enemy combatants.  This was because Gen. Lehnert felt he had little choice but to meticulously follow “the Uniform Code of Military Justice, other U.S. laws and, above all, the Geneva Conventions.”  He also invited in and worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross to improve conditions.  All that changed under directives from Donald Rumsfeld and the rest is history.  President Obama has announced that the facility will soon close.  The column leaves us with the impression, however, that the Guantanamo story could have been different had the original rules been followed.  In such an event President Obama might not have had to announce its closure in the first week of his presidency.  It could have remained an viable option for America to house “the worst of the worst”, which now must still be dealt with in some other workable and acceptable way.

Finally, there was a piece by George McGovern entitled Don’t Lose Your Way in Afghanistan, Mr. President.  While I’ve rarely ever agreed with George McGovern and credit him, more than anyone else, for my decision to become a Republican in 1972, he offers a perspective on Afghanistan that is important.  A similar perspective is also communicated in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War or the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  It is essentially a message that military might alone cannot win a war such as the war being waged in Afghanistan and the remote regions of Pakistan.  There must also be significant amounts of humanitarian assistance in the form of food and the building of educational facilities to come out on top.  While McGovern would argue for a complete end to military involvement, I would argue for both but with a much increased emphasis on the humanitarian side.  

Americans have a number of problems in staying adequately informed.  First, we don’t really care about much other than America-focused news and all too often that is of a superficial nature, overly-focused as it is on sports and entertainment.  Second, we don’t read newspapers, and the internet, while amazing, can’t substitute for a newspaper as a one-stop source of comprehensive and reliable information.  Third, the newspapers we do read in our small towns and even most of our large cities in America are pretty terrible when it comes to presenting important national news and opinion.  There are really only a handful of really good newspaper in the U.S. today and far too few Americans read any of them.  It is why I put such little stock in public opinion polls.  It is because the “opinion” that is reflected in these polls is so substantively deficient that it will rarely tell the country’s leadership what it should do or what the right thing to do is.  It will tell them what is “popular”.  It’s why at times I feel like throwing up my hands and screaming.  Yet I don’t and for now I persist in my Quixotic quest by writing this column.  What I am convinced of is that there is almost always a “right thing to do”.  Getting there is the challenge.  It takes abundant information and a good faith effort.  Our hope is that we seem to now have a president who seems genuinely inclined toward trying to achieve the right thing.  His challenge is in “leading” an America and indeed a Congress that doesn’t have enough information nor the desire to amass enough information to contribute to, let alone not sabotage, that effort.  We can only hope that Obama keeps aiming high and resists the temptations himself to do the politically expedient.            

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