Every time I’m about to pile on President Obama for his foreign policy errors, I have to check myself and recall his painful starting point. George W. Bush left him with the worst heap of inflammatory international garbage and country drownings in American history. The only problem Bush made better, in fact much better, was Libya. His deal with Colonel Qaddafi took the Libyan leader out of the weapons of mass destruction and terrorism business in return for Washington allowing him back into the international economy. As for Iraq, it only appeared to be healing in 2009, but as U.S. forces withdrew from battle as mandated by the Iraqis themselves, the deterioration inevitably set in.
Bush posted failing grades in North Korea and Iran. He threatened them for eight years if they proceeded toward a nuclear capability, and they proceeded anyway, without cost or incident. The only loss was in American credibility, but it was severe. Bush dithered in Afghanistan for seven years. He neither provided more troops to get the job done nor trained the Afghans to develop a U.S. exit strategy. There were also other woes in the Middle East and Africa that Bush permitted to fester. Most horrendously, Bush carelessly led the American economy—the bedrock of American democracy and the nation’s power in the world—from a substantial Federal budget surplus to disastrous deficits and, ultimately, to the edge of a depression.
It was in these dire circumstances that Obama began, and he hasn’t improved matters much. On the plus side, he has put Washington back in the international negotiating business. That’s good because, skillfully executed, negotiation is one of the primary means through which the United States can exercise its power. It is the most effective way to bring carrots and sticks to bear in the internal politics of targeted states without hectoring or lecturing them. It sure beats Bush’s chest-thumping and idle threats. To Obama’s additional credit, he has done this without relinquishing American pressure cards; most of those cards are still in play. It should be said on Bush’s behalf that he actually initiated negotiations with the bad guys in his last two years, especially with Iran and North Korea. Tellingly, he rarely took any credit for it.
Obama has also cleared the international air of a lot of anti-Americanism. His speeches demonstrated an awareness of foreign problems and perspectives. The speeches have convinced people around the world that Washington is not totally out of touch with post-Cold War realities. His words have prepared the ground for the subsequent application of real American power. The problem is that the power shoe still hasn’t dropped.
The non-dropping leaves the impression that Obama might confuse speeches with policy, that is, with the actual maneuvering and pressuring of foreign leaders to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. There is also the further feeling that Obama, who is obviously very bright, confuses policy with analysis and logic. Foreign policy, alas, doesn’t work much by analysis and logic. It entails gut and visceral reactions based on culture, history and personal political circumstances. Knowing these considerations requires not logic, but experience. If it were just logic, then Obama would have no trouble working with Pakistani leaders on combating the Taliban. After all, it’s obvious that if Pakistani leaders really understood that the Taliban were out to overthrow and kill them, Obama wouldn’t have to convince them to fight back. Similarly, if friendly Afghans truly wanted their freedom and were committed to protecting their women, they would fight at least as hard and as well as the Taliban. Where the devil did the Taliban learn how to fight? In Marine boot camp? America can’t supply that kind of motivation; it’s either there or it’s not. Is it possible that Obama thinks that if he sends one more special envoy, the problem of motivation (or ending corruption, or whatever) would be solved?
To be sure, this wishful thinking is an American disease not peculiar to Obama. The disease reflects the belief that “we Americans” can fix just about anything through more resources, good old American smarts and the sheer will and commitment to succeed. Americans think they can overcome foreign realities if they only stick to their guns and lock up liberal wimps. A few months back, a general called me after his congressional testimony on Afghanistan to ask what I thought about his utterances. I said I thought what he said was “terrible.” He said, “Everyone else thought it was great. What was wrong with it?” I said, “For four hours, you talked about what we would do to fix Afghan corruption, government, sewers, education, police, security on the borders, security in the cities. You said nothing about what they would do.” If one has any doubt about this phenomenon, just gaze upon the fact that after seven years of war in that country, the Afghan government, army and police have made little or no progress. In heaven’s name, what have American leaders been doing?
The big foreign policy question now is whether Obama will actually change this self-defeating dynamic. Whatever he may understand intellectually about the issue, nothing good will happen until he understands one central truth about fighting insurgencies and civil wars, and two central points about American power in the 21st century. Regarding military intervention in internal wars, the United States will eventually lose if it becomes and remains “our war”, and it can win only if the conflict is made “their” war. Policy has to be geared and directed almost exclusively to preparing the friendlies to take on primary responsibility for governmental reform and strengthening security forces. If they have the incentive to do these jobs, the United States can be of enormous help. If they don’t, the war is a waste.
Obama also needs to understand two global power realities: One is that the United States remains the sole nation capable of leadership on key world problems from security to trade to the environment. The second is that though we remain the strongest nation by far, we aren’t anywhere near powerful enough to solve any major problem on our own. We need power partners in almost every case. We’re the indispensable leader who needs equally indispensable partners. To conclude the wars successfully and cope with other threats and opportunities, we have to form power coalitions with other key states, especially with China, Russia, India, Britain, France, Germany, Brazil and Japan. This is not new-fashioned multilateralism, but old-fashioned power politics in modern realistic garb. Only when Obama puts into motion a strategy built on these two power realities can Americans be confident that our national security has fallen into capable hands.