Now that “Leading from Behind” is smoldering in Benghazi and his “Reset” of Israeli relations is burning in Gaza and Israel, what will the next four years of American foreign policy look like?
We still have global interests but no global strategy. Our game plans in the Middle East and on the Arab Spring have now been discredited. Our “pivot” to the Western Pacific in the light of a dwindling Navy will leave us choosing what theater to abandon. And don’t forget a teetering and fragmenting Europe. Equatorial Africa still can’t feed itself. Does anyone know what’s happening in South America?
We have a president who has outlived his expertise – running for office. He spent his time in the Illinois Senate running for the US Senate; he spent his time in the US Senate running for President; and he spent his first term running for a second term. He’s outrun his coverage: there’s nothing left to run for. He’s stuck with governing now, and increasingly that’s going to involve the rest of the world: foreign policy.
Ideas matter, and an administration without ideas will drift from one tactical fix to another with no overall direction, no strategic concept, and no understanding of unintended consequences. That pretty much describes our current course. It would be fruitful for the president to give some thought to a view of America that can be articulated, and our place in the world, before merely continuing his whack-a-mole approach to foreign policy. This shouldn’t be surprising. Today’s liberals are bored by foreign policy – it doesn’t involve people who can vote for them, foreign countries aren’t manipulable by social engineering, and the world works according to Realist principles rather than those of Liberal Internationalism. But ignoring the rest of the world won’t make it go away, and Mr Obama’s second term will be increasingly occupied by issues ignored or mishandled during his first.
The epicenter of the withering of American influence is the Greater Middle East – Egypt, actually. During the popular uprising in Tahrir Square [Cairo] in January 2011, President Obama sent former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner bearing a defined settlement to work out with Mubarak. In outline, Mubarak would agree not to run for office in September so as to facilitate an orderly peaceful transition to a new regime. Ambassador Wisner swiftly accomplished his mission. Meanwhile, back in Washington, in a press conference, Mr Obama publicly called on Mubarak to resign, and to resign “now.” Wisner left Egypt in dismay. His own president had cut the ground out from under him, and we lost a settlement that would have been far more constructive for American interests than what was to transpire.
The lesson wasn’t lost on the Arab world. Mubarak was our longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. He worked with us on every counterterrorism measure over the last 30 years; he kept the Suez Canal open; he supported the Camp David Accords arranged by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat; and he continued to support efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and to that end he even helped blockade Hamas in Gaza. Yet in the first week that Mubarak was in trouble, we backstabed him. What all the regional leaders in the Middle East now believe is that “the minute I get into trouble the same will happen to me.” A prominent Saudi official told an American friend: “Do you think we are ever going to rely on the United States again?”
Well, now the Muslim Brotherhood, who spawned Hamas and from whom al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri comes, is in charge of Egypt and they’re staging demonstrations at our embassy over an artfully-timed airing of “the video” on state television. One shudders to think of the Damoclean Sword of our president’s post-election “flexibility” with ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin.
Iran and Israel
Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have discussed their “Red Lines,” beyond which they “would not allow Iran to cross” in their nuclear program. Understandably, the Red Lines are in different places (and therefore are closing at different rates). Mr Obama has said that our Red Line is “Their decision to make nuclear weapons.” Mr Netanyahu’s Red Line “Their ability to produce a nuclear weapon.”
Basing our stop-gap at the Mullahs’ decision to make nuclear weapons supposes that we will know when the Mullahs decide. That’s a fantasy. What we are really saying is that this administration is committed to allowing Iran to nuclearize, and we will use deterrence and containment – a la the Cold War – to nullify them. There is so much wrong with this approach as to be reckless.
The nuclear threat to Israel is existential – President Ahmadinejad has stated, on many occasions, that it is his desire to destroy Israel – to “wipe it off the map.” So the mere ability to produce a nuclear weapon adds means to the motive-means-opportunity triad of the decision loop. Opportunity then becomes arbitrarily assignable.
“Ability” is defined, by Mr Netanyahu, as having enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to produce enough high enriched uranium (HEU) to produce a bomb. The ancillary skills required have been in-process for a decade or more. At that point, Iran just requires enough time to enrich their LEU, and that’s largely a function of the number of centrifuge-arrays in use.
This difference has import to us because Mr Netanyahu will strike Iran before Mossad thinks their level of LEU is sufficient. Any Israeli strike on Iran will be interpreted by Iranian leadership as a joint American-Israeli operation, whether it is or not. The retaliation will be against all Western interests, focusing on Jewish and American interests. There must be some actual work done between us and the Israelis to put our Iranian policies in sync with one another. I don’t think Team Obama thinks this is necessary, or if they do, their idea of compromise is that Israel adopt our view. There is so much wrong with this approach as to be dangerous.
Iraq and Afghanistan
Barack Obama arrived in office needing only to solidify the post-surge gains made in Iraq, lead in the “nationalizing” of the tribal-oriented population, and bring the Iraqi military up to being able to defend the country. Instead, Mr Obama couldn’t get out of Iraq fast enough (it was the “bad” war, remember?). So, we have al Qaeda re-inserting itself into western Iraq and Iran co-opting the east. Iraq is being used as a highway facilitating the radicalization of the anti-Assad effort in Syria (where Saddam sent his chemical WMD before the invasion). Fractionalization of the Shi’ite, Kurdish and Sunni communities in Iraq is increasing. Mr Obama’s inexperience prevented him from “hitting the ground running” as he entered office, and by intent or ignorance, his fledgling administration has allowed Iraq to slip back into near-anarchy. Our efforts in Iraq have been rendered wasted.
The administration is preparing to duplicate this outcome in Afghanistan (the “good” war, remember?). His own Inspector General for Afghanistan has said that indigenous forces will not be able to cope by 2014, yet we will cut and run anyway, turning the country back over to the Taliban, who have been waiting in the wings since Mr Obama told them that we were leaving on a date-certain in the same speech that he announced the surge. Stupid.
This highlights only two situations in one region (the Greater Middle East) that will require non-trivial attention during the next administration. Don’t hold your breath. I don’t see any desire to replace whack-a-mole with anything more substantive. Four more years of being blindsided by events overseas.
 That is to say, balances of power tend to drive national behavior rather than seeking to be constrained by webs of treaties, organizations and yielding sovereignty to committees of foreigners. See, for example, the dysfunctional United Nations and the fragmenting European Union.
 Micro shaped-charges used to focus the implosion of the core; necessary metallurgy to metalicize the HEU into a machinable state; neutron initiator (nuclear trigger); sequencing electronics, and so forth.
 And, as my father loved to point out, “Ignorance can be fixed, stupid is forever.”