Monday, January 16, 2012

Is the US being played?

Assessing US foreign policy in the past year, I cannot help but get the sense that the Obama administration is too easily swayed by external and internal forces.

Two situations lead me to this position.

First, in the decision to attack Libya last year, the US appears to be forced into its final position by its European allies. Forget the "leading from behind" rhetoric that followed the initiation of the massive air strike campaign, both diplomatically and militarily, Washington routinely fell in line with the decisions made in London and Paris.

In particular, while Sarkozy and Cameron pushed regime change (via bang bang) from the very beginning, Obama only came around to really asserting this objective later. The initial US position was far more cautious and seemed incongruent with the European approach, but then President Obama continuously adopted the European approach and decided to do best under new conditions until Sarkozy + Cameron issued an even stronger position. Every step of the way, the US only committed its support after UK or France posited a resolution. Even the military action was inaugurated by the French.

It is very likely that the White House had no intentions of being involved in another military conflict, but saw the unity of the "West" and the appearance of American leadership as higher priorities (For all those still trusting in Obama's human rights oriented doctrine, turn your attention to all the humanitarian crises that have quietly slipped to the back burner). Once these central objectives were established, the whole approach to Libya was open to a hijacking by Sarkozy and Cameron.

Washington is under pressure to reassert its leadership over its traditional sphere of influence which is slipping from its fingers (Thanks Bush II!). To appear uninvolved in such a major undertaking would symbolize loss of control/to prevent Europe from intervening would invite a firestorm of criticism over not preventing a grievous human rights violation. So maybe "easily swayed" is not the right word - but my point is that there are diplomatic means to control European prima donnas from going rogue. Key word here is diplomacy.

Alternatively, one can offer the explanation that the sensitivities surrounding the US spearheading another military operation in the Middle East lead to Washington's haphazard approach to the intervention. Indeed, the US was very insistent on involving the Arab countries in the process as much as possible.

Nonetheless, if the case of Libya was unclear or appears to be in the outfield of Obama administration's foreign policy behavior, then consider the current diplomatic actions against Iran.

The imposition of increased sanctions against Iran appears politically motivated and counter intuitive to Obama's stated policy aims for the United States. I am willing to hypothesize that the motivating factors are the rhetoric emanating from the Republican primaries and Israel's increasingly aggressive moves on Iran.

Democratic presidents have always been afflicted with the "weak on dealing with foreign countries" label by the Republicans. Invariably, throughout the Cold War, Democratic administrations preemptively acted more aggressively than they wanted to undercut such accusations from detractors and presidential hopefuls (the most egregious use of this being the infamous 1964 LBJ campaign ad where he turned the table on Goldwater and insinuated that the US will be nuked if the election did not go his way).

Likewise, in the current Republican primaries, the GOP presidential candidates have been increasingly pointing to Iran as Obama's weak spot. It will invariably rise as a key issue in the final rounds of the presidential debate (unless Ron Paul stands against the incumbent president). Therefore, the administration's drive to widen the sanctions and bring East Asia into the anti-Tehran coalition could very well be political. It's not unheard of.

In addition, the US has the added trouble of keeping enough pressure on Iran to ensure that Israel does not repeat its air strikes on Iraq in 1981 and on Syria in 2007 - the potential consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran are difficult to assess, but Washington will have a hard time keeping Iran from responding in one way or another. Obama may very well be doing damage control to convince Israel that the US will resolve the matter without needing to resort to direct Israeli intervention. Last time the US refused to undertake military action against a nuclear facility on behalf of Israel, Israel did the deed themselves (Syria, 2007). The White House probably feels pressured, especially now that Israel is clearly increasing operations in Iran.

This is a complete misallocation of US power and inconsistent with stated policy aims. In outlining the "Pivot," Obama clearly saw the need to bolster its alliance with the Asia-Pacific, but by pressuring Tokyo and Seoul to fall in line with the new sanctions regime, reminded the two allies why wholehearted alignment with US foreign policy sometimes has negative consequences. Japan buys 17% and South Korea 9% of the crude oil exported from Iran - asking these highly industrialized countries to reduce its reliance on Iranian supply by any margin is expending a lot of political capital.

This is why even politicians like Japanese diet member Taro Kono (Liberal Democratic Party), who is undoubtedly keen on maintaining close ties with the US, suggests that Tokyo should have a separate foreign policy from Washington in regards to Iran. South Korea which is even less reliant on Iranian oil than Japan has not even responded to the US on its decision yet (and Seoul will not respond until it is sure South Korea has an alternative channel).

It's important to recognize that this is more than mere deficit of political courage - the 8 years of the Bush administration have done a lot to reduce US influence abroad and the range of options have narrowed ever since. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has been incredibly obtuse in building the right ties to prevent the escalation of predictable problems around the world. This has made the besieged president even more vulnerable to forces that inevitably influence the making of decisions that are often contrary to state interests.

How about them changes now, Mr. Obama?

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