Imperial Restoration? Barack Obama and American Foreign Policy



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Syria

Despite what were obvious cosmetic attempts to alter the image of the government of Hafez al-Assad by simply trading in military fatigues for well-tailored European suits, the family regime in Syria was no less reprehensible than that of Qaddafi in Libya, and this was not to change when Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. But in the case of al-Assad, Syria has some regional political support in Iran, Hezbollah, and the Russian Federation; it also has enemies in Israel and to some extent elements in Iraq. As far as the United States and many European partners are concerned Qaddafi’s relative political isolation made intervention much simpler. Which is why the internal Syrian conflict drags on month after bloody month and why outside support for the rebels is limited; the identity and political intentions of these rebels is also a contributing factor. It is quite possible elements of al-Qa’ida have already moved into Syria, and al-Assad’s connections with Iran and Hezbollah complicate the issue, as does the arsenal of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime. The nature of a Western intervention or whether such a scenario is possible had created serious questions for the Obama Administration. Senator John McCain (R., Arizona), for one, made this a significant part of his criticism of Obama during the 2012 election and since then. It is not likely that Bashar al-Assad will survive in power, but for the time being political expediency will limit the Obama Administration to rhetorical support for human rights and liberties, with stern warnings about chemical weapons in place of arms or possible intervention. More subtle efforts to convince al-Assad to step down will certainly take place (or continue), but the end of this regime seems to be in the hands of the Syrian people in a very painful struggle. This may eventually favor certain radical elements in Syria, but for the time being that may be unavoidable though in the long-term it may prove costly.



The Benghazi Affair

One of the expected results of the Arab Spring was the possibility of increased political instability through the region, an accepted trade-off for political progress something strongly urged in Obama’s Cairo speech, and clearly this did occur but in ways that could not have been imagined. Again the unexpected occurred in September 2012 when a YouTube presentation of a distasteful anti-Islam video went viral resulting in rampant anti-Western demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. In a number of cases embassies and related offices were attacked, including the American Embassy in Cairo. Initially it was reported that a similarly inspired demonstration had occurred in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 resulting in the death of the American Ambassador to Libya and three other American nationals. It soon became painfully clear that the attack was the result of one of the armed groups that had emerged following the fall of Qaddafi. Confusion and misstatements regarding the nature of the attack and the possible identity of the attackers quickly became a political issue. On September 15, Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations, made a statement based on talking points given her by American intelligence that described the incident as part of the general demonstrations against the video in the region, which proved not to be the case. Critical comments followed demanding to know why no mention of a terrorist act were made, suggesting a political cover-up in an election year and incompetence on the part of the UN Ambassador. President Obama, himself, was denigrated for similar omissions in his Rose Garden remarks following the original event which were unfounded given his clear identification of the attackers as terrorists. As one would expect, a political firestorm resulted. Leading the attack were senators Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain who would carry their criticism over to Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, CIA Director and Secretary of State, the latter involving Rice who finally withdrew her name from consideration. Benghazi became a rallying point for criticism of Obama’s foreign policy during the election and still begs for a clearer statement of what actually happened and why. Retiring Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton defended the Department of State and Susan Rice by taking full responsibility for the incident before a Senate panel but noted that the vital point after the fact was the identification of the attackers and efforts to bring them to justice. Still, in questioning Secretary Clinton before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 23, 2013, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) referred the to attack at Benghazi as the “worst tragedy since 9/11.” Presumably Senator Paul had forgotten Iraq and numerous domestic tragedies. Clarity (something that is all too often rare in foreign affairs) in the description of what happened at Benghazi remains an issue, but its significance is itself dubious as noted rather dramatically by Secretary Clinton,

With all due respect, the fact is that we had four dead Americans…Was it

because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who

decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does

it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can

to prevent it from ever happening again.64


Political posturing aside, some facts, some of them uncomfortable, have since been made known, or at least suggested. First of all embassies, consulates and other minor offices utilized as part of a country’s ambassadorial and consular apparatus are not designed to be fortresses. They do not all have a U.S. Marine Corps guard or at least one intended for a significant military defense of the compound, that is the responsibility of the host country. Even so, the State Department had recently made formal requests for additional funds from Congress to augment security for diplomatic and consular offices abroad which were summarily denied, in some cases by the very people who proved most critical of the State Department, Clinton and Rice. And put simply, despite numerous warnings that September 11, 2012 might be the focal point of dramatic anti-American activity in the Muslim World; sufficient resources were not available for every embassy or consulate. Actually, even in the case of a formidable incursion of the embassy grounds in Cairo, security proved ample in every case except the actual protection of the American ambassador who was in Benghazi. Here it should be noted that the offices in Benghazi did not constitute an embassy or a consulate, they were secondary mission offices for the occasional use of the ambassador and other diplomatic staff and therefore would not have been expected to have the limited security of the embassy or consulate, and indeed did not. In fact, American forces were alerted to the Benghazi situation and reacted to it in a timely fashion, and successfully protected and extracted Americans found there, escorting them to the Benghazi airport where they (and the ambassador’s body) were flown safely out of the country early the next morning. They could not immediately locate the ambassador and proved too late to prevent the death of the ambassador and his meager security team.65 The primary blame rested with the nature of the office, and the other vital fact that the new government in Libya was not yet prepared to offer normal services to foreign missions, or its own security, truth be known. Another and a very uncomfortable part of the affair involved the American Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens who was a capable, very well liked governmental servant who had quickly made his posting his own. He was knowledgeable about the country, its local cultures, its immediate problems; he was fluent in the national language including some local dialects, and was very comfortable in his charge, perhaps too comfortable. Stevens was also described as a “cowboy,” that is a diplomat that often did not take proper security precautions because he believed they were not necessary. With only three personal security guards beyond the capital and main embassy, at a dangerous time, Stevens was in an untenable position. How the attackers knew of this or anticipated this instance of vulnerability should be the real issue, that and their identity.

In the final analysis it may be seen that fault did not lie with the State Department, Ambassador Stevens, or the Libyan government; unexpected opportunity for a radical group was realized and acted upon. In all probability, a so-called reinforced Marine guard may not have proven enough to prevent this tragedy given that an alerted reinforced security team that did arrive was forced to stand up to heavy fire and withdrew with Americans from the mission under their protection, but such a guard would not have been normal, even on this particular date.

Ultimately, the full effect of the Arab Spring is likely to prove beneficial for the people of the region. It has already played a part in downfall of several autocratic regimes, while inspiring necessary governmental reforms in several other states, not entirely without support of the Obama Administration. This has not proved to be totally positive for American interests or President Obama, however; indeed it proved very costly and tragic in Benghazi. But dealing with unexpected challenges is very much the stuff of foreign affairs. It is also quite clear that Obama has recognized that the Arab Spring is an important movement, too important to be used as a domestic political football to achieve much less significant ends.

China

On November 17, 2011 Barack Obama spoke to the Australian Parliament, and more or less announced the beginning of what has come to be called his Asia Pivot in terms that were clearly taken as a challenge by Beijing, “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.” This was probably good news for Australia, New Zealand, the countries of South Asia, as well as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, but also served to reinforce Chinese anxieties about American intentions toward Beijing. Whether or not it was meant to be threatening, the move was a timely and dramatic reassertion of an American presence in the Western Pacific rim,

In this context, President Obama’s bold strategic pivot to Asia, announced in

November 2011, clearly sought to generate confidence in America’s future

leadership in this region and respect for Washington’s capacity to orchestrate

this very impressive diplomatic tour de force. Many in Asia have been

worrying about American decline. President Obama projected American

optimism, principles, determination and leadership.66


The People’s Republic of China is one of a number of rising states that may vie for the title of superpower at some time. There are questions about this group often referred to as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which include China.67 But there is also no doubt that the PRC must be considered a great power, and one that is enormously significant concerning American foreign policy. Additionally, there is no doubt that the United States had something to do with awakening this dragon for its own ends, as well as a necessary recognition of reality.68 China is a major economic/financial partner of the United States, but that is a sword that cuts two ways because this has not been the most comfortable of relationships.69 And, as suggested, the rise of China has not been without issues. China’s rise has come with great cost to environmental issues, especially pollution, and to be blunt a dramatic and growing gap between its very rich and very poor. Ironically, it could be said that modern China has been built on the backs of its poor, not unlike the building of the Great Wall, and yes it has blatantly exploited its impoverished workers; Chairman Mao where are you? China’s rise has also had much to do with profitable partnerships with Western industrial states (especially the United States) and by profiting from their misfortunes (including the United States). Relations with China presented President Obama with daunting challenges that may have long-term effects for both countries, “…the crisis catapulted China into the forefront of economic powers as Beijing adopted the world’s largest stimulus package and helped fuel the global economic recovery.”70 The symbolic image of a rising China and a challenged United States was undeniable and had an impact on how these powers viewed each other. Regardless, it is clear each country views the other in very different ways and that these relations include issues on a number of levels.71

On the one hand, there is the China that appears put out that American foreign policy tends to be overly aggressive, if not hostile to Beijing.72 In this vein, Hillary Clinton was not all that popular in Beijing. But then as recent headlines hold, China should not be regarded as friendly either.73 In this case there needs be a stern but engaged policy.74 For over two decades the United States has embraced a positive policy of trade and engagement with regular “balancing,” meaning that now and again issues have had to be addressed, “China’s massive bilateral trade surplus with the United States and Beijing’s accumulation of dollar-denominated assets are thus worrisome for reasons that transcend economics.”75 Thus a significant part of Obama’s Asia Pivot is an attempt to improve relations with China by encouraging her to be more open to being an equal player in the global economy, but also note this policy included a movement of American naval strength to Asia.76

China clearly wants to be accorded the status and respect that it feels it has earned by becoming a great power, American policy towards China had recognized China’s new power and obviously has given Beijing warranted diplomatic attention, but Obama has also suggested that China needs to be a better partner in global affairs. China has complained that it has done its fair share, but their actions prove it is obvious that everything Beijing does is carefully calculated to serve its own interests first across the board. China sees the United States as power they have learned much from and owe a lot to, but they also see Washington as purposely trying to keep China from gaining power and prestige.77 Obama has devoted a tremendous amount of energy to relations with China on many levels noting its growing importance in relations with North Korea, Iran, India, and anything that comes up in the United Nations Security Council. Obama’s intentions were summed up rather neatly by Walter Russell Mead,

The Obama administration has taken on the delicate and difficult task of restoring

balance to the region, attempting to check Chinese assertiveness without stumbling

into an awkward containment policy against Beijing.78


China’s economic importance goes without saying, and it is vital to understand the level of interdependence that exists here. But there are bound to be issues that depict growing rivalry as well. Perhaps they are over-emphasized. But they certainly must not be ignored either.79

The Nuclear Question: North Korea and Iran

It could be said that at best Barack Obama held serve in dealing with the prospects of nuclear arms and North Korea and Iran. The former retained the capability, and indeed has detonated a third nuclear test, while speculation remained about whether Iran’s nuclear program had progressed sufficiently to produce a nuclear weapon, or if that state would in fact actually take that step. Sanctions were implemented and tightened in each case, and the president suggested that no reaction was off the table. Perhaps most importantly, the PRC seemed to be losing patience with Pyongyang, while Obama was able to keep Israel from launching pre-emptive air strikes at Iran. Overall, failure to achieve significant success with North Korea and Iran did tend to reduce the impact of the successful efforts with Moscow regarding the nuclear question.



North Korea

The mixed record of the Bush Administration with North Korea offered little hope that the Obama Administration would have an easier time dealing with Pyongyang. On the one hand, the government in Pyongyang was an important part of any serious effort at non-proliferation, on the other, there seemed little likelihood that North Korea would play a constructive part in Obama’s Asia Pivot. Making matters much worse, North Korea challenged the sensibilities of the world community on two dramatic occasions: on April 5, 2009 it tested, with only mixed results, a three-stage, long-range missile, then on May 25, 2009 it tested a nuclear weapon. Both events irritated Beijing, but aside from a behind the scene dressing down, China seemed unwilling to take a major hand regarding its historic neighbor, much to the frustration of Obama.80 North Korea posed two problems for the United States: it presented a severe issue regarding the proliferation issue, and it did little to help with American-Chinese relations, indeed it complicated them; and the prospects for any positive change were elusive at best.81 Sanctions have not had a great effect, and China seemed unwilling to make a demonstrative move here, which it will surely have to do at some time. North Korea does little to promote China’s economic interests and is fast becoming a potential threat to regional stability which is also counter to Beijing’s long-term interests. Moreover, North Korea seems less and less concerned about China’s sensibilities.



Iran

Beyond a good deal of political show, Iran has remained something of a paradox. It became abundantly clear that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s power was in decline, leaving the nuclear issue in the hands of Iran’s mullahs, particularly Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is itself both good news and bad news.82 The faqih (“supreme leader”) of Iran on several occasions emphasized that nuclear weapons would be violation of Islamic law but also rebuffed American offers for direct talks as being useless.83 And it is clear that the sanctions have succeeded in imposing great hardships on the Iranian people, and it is significant that Obama has moved both Russia and China to be supportive of economic sanctions. Thus Obama has been willing to give the sanctions time to work. Pressure was leveled by the political right that Obama should make specific warnings about surgical, preemptive air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. While Obama has noted that nothing is off the table, he did not show any sign of seriously considering such an action, part of this is due to the limited likelihood of success given that many of these facilities have been built deep underground. The more likely problem came from Israel where Prime Minister Netanyahu was quite bellicose about this possibility. It is almost certain that George W. Bush, and Barack Obama talked Netanyahu out of this on several occasions. Clearly, the possibility of more dramatic action against Iran was also put off until after the 2012 American Presidential Election and the 2013 Iranian Presidential Election despite clamoring from the right to take more dramatic, possibly military, action.84



Failure at Gitmo?

A significant disappointment in Obama’s first term of office involved the issue of the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba which has come to be known simply as Gitmo, and the legal status of the detainees held there. Technically this is a domestic issue, but it certainly has international ramifications given its part in the so-called war on terror inherited from the Bush Administration. Obamas’ efforts to fulfill promises made during the 2008 election to close this facility and apply some element of due process of law to the detainees held there have, on several occasions, run into a stone wall largely in Congress; and the prospects for the future are not particularly bright. In late January 2013, Daniel Fried, who had been appointed by Obama with the task of conducting a program to close the facility, was reassigned with no immediate indication that his position would be filled. The president was, and remains adamant about the use of extraordinary, international rendition, enhanced interrogation techniques, and torture, but an apparent inability to deal with Gitmo leaves a major question mark in the analysis of his first term of office.85



The Paradigm of Imperial Decline or the Beginning of

An Imperial Restoration?
As spring struggled to emerge in 2011, the United States found itself embroiled in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite some trends that suggested end games in each one, involved in a new intervention in Libya, and was very anxious about events throughout the Islamic world in political turmoil, and still struggled economically. Given these realities even with some critical weaknesses Paul Kennedy’s thesis based on the over-extension of great powers, what he called imperial overstretch and what could more generally be referred to as the paradigm of imperial decline, which was once again of interest. On the one hand, there was sound cause for criticism when Kennedy published his work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. He speculated as to events from 1987 to 2000 and proved to be off target as far as the United States was concerned (as pointed out by Samuel P. Huntington in his important counterpoint regarding the United States as shall be discussed below) but was fairly accurate with the Soviet Union.86 The United States made significant strides towards economic stability under President Clinton who balanced the national budget (indeed, produced surpluses) and began a process to pay off the national debt. Lest it be forgotten it was essentially the years between 1991 and 1999 that inspired reference to the “American moment.” On the other hand, it became quite tempting to reconsider Kennedy from 2006 on. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 it became all too clear that the United States was overextended militarily, politically, and economically. Embroiled in essentially three wars, an unprecedented event, the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, failing international coalitions and associations, growing trade deficits, and what would amount to a doubling of the national deficit and debt, by 2008, the Empire of Liberty was on the verge of catastrophe. Three years later, one could add crises across the Islamic realm including Libya, which involved direct American military intervention. Perhaps Kennedy was just a bit premature in his analysis. Indeed, much of what Kennedy had warned about in his notion of imperial overstretch seemed to be coming about.87

There is little argument that Kennedy was fairly prescient in forecasting the demise of Soviet power, though he could not have foreseen the unexpected details of that stunning event. Essentially he hit the major point and was so much closer to the truth than the later Reagan won the Cold War scenario. Overextended militarily, politically and economically the Soviet Union was hardly in a position to make the dramatic transitions called for by Mikhail Gorbachev to compete in a world that had come to demand a much higher degree of financial and economic competition than the Soviet state was capable of. Gorbachev’s bold efforts at reform failed and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Certainly, this was a case of imperial overstretch. The irony, of course, was in how the evil empire came to an end, a failed coup, the simple refusal to sign the Treaty of Union, and a presidential resignation on Christmas day, “Never before has there been a case of an empire that caved in without a war, revolution, or invasion.”88 Or as George C. Herring described it, “…an event as momentous in its ramifications as it was anticlimactic in its occurrence.”89

True, Kennedy couched his comments about the United States at the time in reference to the long-term and what he emphasized by longevity, still, events raised questions about his case for the United States which actually grew in power, and seemed to validate Samuel P. Huntington’s critique of the Kennedy paradigm in 1988/1989.90 In 2012, it was Huntington’s notion of a dynamic United States that unlike other great powers possesses the ability to renew its power that came into question.


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