So, what's the big plan?

One year on, Obama's foreign policy seems to be vacillating—allies both at home and abroad are proving uncooperative
October 21, 2009
ABOVE: Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao A year is a short time, and the problems of foreign policy that the Obama administration has inherited are both chronic and acute. They did not develop over months, but decades, and it is absurd to think that they will be solved in such little time. Three observations can be made, however, even at this early juncture. First, Obama has taken up a number of obvious initiatives, grasped them quickly and made them his own. Second, he has made excellent appointments. And third, his initial energy appears to have outrun the administration’s planning, so that he now finds himself confronting much more difficult choices with much less self-assurance.

Barely two days into office Obama ordered the closure of Guantánamo Bay and prohibited the use of torture in interrogations. A month later, in February, he announced the termination of the combat mission in Iraq, so that by the end of August 2010 US forces will be confined to training and advising Iraqi security forces; action which maintained fast-ebbing political support for the war. Next came a new strategy to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and the order that an additional 21,000 troops (almost a 50 per cent increase) be sent to the region—followed by a second strategy to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and begin reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

A series of addresses followed. The first, at the Persian new year, came in the form of a video message to the Iranian people in which Obama proposed negotiations with the Iranian government without preconditions. The following month, in Prague, he outlined a new strategy on nuclear proliferation, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In June, in Cairo, he pressed Israel to stop new West Bank settlements, emphasising that the “situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

Also in June, Obama told an interviewer that the US was effectively shifting its focus on North Korea away from either regime change or full integration with the west (the policies pursued by the Bush and Clinton administrations, respectively) towards preventing North Korean nuclear and missile sales. The following month, Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao launched a “strategic and economic dialogue,” making the issue of climate change a new priority. In September, Obama abandoned plans for a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a plan widely regarded as expensive and ineffective. Most recently, in October, he won the Nobel prize for peace. All in all, quite a year.

In terms of people, doubtless Obama’s two most important appointments were to make Hillary Clinton head of the department of state, and to retain the Bush administration’s secretary of defence, Robert Gates. We have come to expect this sort of surefootedness from Obama, but another president might have been afraid of a secretary of state with an independent political base, particularly after a bruising primary campaign. Or, having chosen someone with a vast public following, they might have pursued the petty sniping that characterised White House relations with Colin Powell. Neither has been the case. Appointments drawn from the military like James Jones (national security adviser) and Dennis Blair (director of national security) won early bipartisan praise. Just as important, however, is the second tier of appointments—Richard Holbrooke as US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry for southwest Asia, for example.

The first thing to note about these early successes, however, is that they are all unilateral. They don’t depend on the cooperation of other partners, including congress—allies or adversaries. And to some degree the fruits of each of these decisions are now in jeopardy. Plus, on some issues the administration appears to be vacillating, because political allies at home and potential partners abroad are uncooperative.

For example, the administration hasn’t been able to figure out what to do with the Guantánamo prisoners. Some can be tried; some can be let go. But some are quite dangerous, valuable to our deadliest enemies and, for various reasons out of the control of the administration, cannot be successfully charged and tried. Originally the president stated, in a brilliant and for the most part underrated address at the National Archives in May, that he would seek legislation from congress to provide for such detentions. Now that plan, unfortunately, has been abandoned. Originally, the administration said that all prisoners would be gone from the island by the end of the year. Now that seems unachievable, in part because various members of congress don’t want to import these prisoners to their constituencies.

Having announced a new strategy that recognized the Afghan theatre as essentially an Afghan/Pakistani theatre, the president appointed a new commander to execute this strategy and report to him. General McChrystal’s report was duly delivered on 20th September, and concluded that the mission would fail without the immediate infusion of at least 40,000 troops. But at present, the administration appears deeply divided—as perhaps it should be; the situation is a difficult one. On the one hand, some are urging a renewed focus on al Qaeda: kill al Qaeda leaders, negotiate with the Taliban, and draw down forces as quickly as possible to avoid becoming ensnared in the impossible mission of stabilising Afghanistan. On the other hand are partisans of the “Af-Pak” approach who want to stiffen resistance to the Taliban with a fresh infusion of American troops, on the basis that without these troops the Taliban will not be defeated, and a deep sanctuary for jihadist insurrection in Pakistan will be created.

The problem is that even if we were able to assure ourselves that a newly Talibanised Afghanistan would not end up training people to attack New York, it would still invite an acute threat to Pakistan (symbolised by a spate of recent attacks, including on Pakistan’s military headquarters during October). So, as other presidents have found, Obama faces two unpalatable options: he can disingenuously declare victory knowing that this undermines future US influence in the region and tempts disaster in the short term, or he can hunker down for the long haul, knowing that domestic support is ebbing and that he may be forced to withdraw anyway, with even greater loss of influence and lives.

There have been missteps over nuclear issues too. In September Obama came to New York to preside over a UN security council meeting—itself an unprecedented step—which unanimously adopted a resolution calling on all members of the UN’s nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to comply fully with its provisions, and on non-party states to accede to the treaty as “non-nuclear weapons states.” Almost immediately, however, the US was compelled to reassure India that the resolution—despite its language—would have no impact on the civil nuclear pact the two countries signed in 2008, which tacitly acknowledges India as a nuclear state, even though it has not signed the treaty. That same week, the president stood with the leaders of France and Britain, denouncing Iran on the basis of new evidence that it had an undeclared nuclear facility.

When talks began in October, Iran indicated a willingness “in principle” to ship much of its enriched uranium to Russia (for further enrichment suitable for medical purposes, but well below weapons-grade) and to permit inspectors at the new plant. If this plan works it will buy some time for the administration’s overtures to Iran. But what if Iran simply agrees to limited inspections, and continues enrichment to the point where weapons-grade nuclear material is created? What then? And Iran may also simply withdraw from the NPT, as North Korea has done. It is not clear whether these states that sign the treaty and then withdraw will then be in a different legal position from India, or Israel, who never joined in the first place.

Russia, meanwhile, even having seen the US retract its offer of missile defences to Poland and the Czech Republic, still appears unwilling to sign up to tougher sanctions against Iran. Even if we are unable to halt the Iranian weapons programme, it is unclear what Russia’s role would be. The worry remains that the Russians would welcome a systemic diplomatic breakdown over Iran, especially if it pushed up oil prices, damaged the Chinese economy, and further isolated the US among Muslims.

Relations with Israel have been equally tense. At the beginning of a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu in September, Obama rebuked the two leaders, saying “it is past time to stop talking about starting negotiations.” Even so, Israel has resumed the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and it seems clear that Abbas cannot sustain domestic support in the face of the challenge from Hamas if he goes back to the negotiating table without even a temporary freeze on settlement expansion. Obama has little leverage on this issue—as his predecessors also found—but has committed himself to the proposition that “talks must begin and begin soon.” Or what?

Elsewhere there are problems, too. Having previously announced it would not renew talks in the six-party format, North Korea has now indicated to the Chinese that it would re-engage in that forum, provided the US simultaneously opens bilateral talks. The US has insisted, quite sensibly, that regional multilateralism is the best way forward. But what if North Korea continues to refuse? The best hope is that the Chinese will make further efforts to bring North Korea back to the table, partly as payback for the US move to make the G20 (rather than the G8, from which China is excluded) the principal international forum for coordinating economic policy.

Ultimately, the president is now facing new contexts—partly the creation of his early successes—without a comprehensive strategy to deal with them. A good place to begin would be to create a G2, coordinating security policy with the EU. There is no reason why Nato sanctions against Iran cannot be effective and many reasons why US policy should not be hostage to Chinese and Russian vetoes.

Ultimately, however, there is simply no substitute for an overall American strategy that integrates the disparate theatres and competing crises that our globalised world has fused into a single, fibrillating network. Unless his administration can formulate a coherent approach to the security challenges of the 21st century, Obama will find himself, as did President Kennedy, another inspiring young leader, calling on his formidable skills mainly to extract himself from crises of his own making.