Foreign Policy: The Liberal Ironist Rues what He Wished For

Fred Hiatt had a good, if dispiriting op-ed in the Washington Post today.  He rather modestly suggests that President Obama isn’t that into all this democracy-promotion stuff.  I’ve growled about the President’s distance from urgent matters 1 day, then averred that his passivity at times has suggested of a studied patience for the right time to leverage American political power most-efficiently.  Today I simply think that when it comes to international politics, the President cares more about consensus than about principle.  The distinction is crucial; I wouldn’t say he feels the same way about domestic politics.

I had agonized for a while how to give voice to the (constructive, but firm) criticism I’d offer for the President’s foreign policy.  In a previous iteration I’d thought to say the President was insufficiently Realist in foreign policy when dealing with black sheep states such as Libya, Syria, Russia, and possibly even Sudan or Iran where there are voluminous arguments for greater reticence.  Hiatt had a better explanation: President Obama has no lack of political acuity where great-power politics is concerned; instead, he suffers from a counterproductive lack of substantive vision where foreign policy is concerned.  The Liberalism of his domestic policy program isn’t matched by anything in foreign policy beyond his campaign pledges to shore-up our alliances, and to talk with the bad guys before shooting to see if we can get any concessions on the cheap.  I actually shifted my support to then-Senator Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton in June 2007 during the Democratic Presidential Primary over these pledges alone, and while I still clearly see the corrective to George W. Bush’s obtuse and wasteful foreign policy vision, it’s an overcompensation.  Of all things, the President’s recent overheard offer of concessions on missile defense brought this front-and-center in my mind.

The Liberal Ironist makes it a point of pride to rarely concern himself with the he-said, she-said of politics, but sometimes the optics seem pretty transparent.  I think there is something to President Obama’s “hot mic” comments to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. For those not in the know, following an otherwise low-key official talk with President Medvedev during a round of big meetings in Seoul, South Korea in late-March, President Obama leaned forward, confident his microphone had been turned off, and gave assurances to Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor and soon-to-be predecessor: “On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for (President-elect Putin) to give me space,” an obvious allusion to policy concessions that could only come after the November election, which will be President Obama’s last.

President Obama sought to explain these remarks the following day, though curiously, he really said less than he did unwittingly over the mic.  He referred to his desire to further reduce both our country’s nuclear arsenals—a meaningful goal on which he has already made historic strides–but his assurances to President Medvedev focused on the SDI defense system.  Is there really any doubt that this was what he was talking about?

I had real concerns when President Obama rescinded previous plans to locate the SDI system’s components in Poland and the Czech Republic.  I tentatively accepted the logic that there was something to be gained from a conciliatory gesture towards Russia, but in retrospect it isn’t clear that anything actually was gained from embarrassing the elected governments of 2 reliable allies in Eastern Europe.  (The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic had gone on a limb promoting the controversial missile defense deployment, and now quite suddenly they were being told not to expect it because the political successor to the military occupier of their traumatic past didn’t approve.)  About the closest we can come to really having conciliatory policy change on Russia’s part was their acquiescence in the UN mandate to intervene in Libya.  There they only agreed to a mission to protect civilians from a government that was obviously predisposed to slaughter them; the happy outcome of that intervention has been the deposition and death of Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi and his government of revolutionary terror, and the institution of a (factionalized, but apparently savvy) transitional government there.  But in Syria we see the same movement towards slaughter in slow motion, and Russia (and China) have adopted a “once bitten, twice shy” tack and consistently defended a mass murderer.

President Obama’s “Reset” of relations, extended to countries as different but as antagonistic to George W. Bush’s foreign policy as Russia, China, and Iran, has been the stuff of controversy for Conservatives from the start of his Presidency.  The controversy pertains to the apparent relinquishment of our advantage in episodes such as the June 2009 post-election uprising in Iran or President Obama’s decision to cancel our deployment of the SDI in Poland and the Czech Republic.  At times (at least with Russia), it appeared that this “reset” had brought some benefits–the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty, Russia’s participation in a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Russia’s acquiescence to the fateful UN Resolution instituting a “no-fly zone” over Libya that was interpreted to sanction NATO intervention to help the Rebels win that civil war.  The Liberal Ironist agreed that a conciliatory gesture towards Russia was prudent after George W. Bush’s unsustainable bellicose idealism–which from the 2005 election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had engendered massive opposition from the more-brutish governments of the World without being able to consolidate the democratic gains in the former Soviet Countries and the Middle East that we had hoped for.

Furthermore, I recall discussions about President Obama’s resignation during the June 2009 anti-regime riots in Tehran, which the government met with force.  Some on the Right–and many of my friends on the Left–said this was the turning point or that it was our opportunity to get involved and take out an illiberal and hostile regime; I disagreed, and though our complete lack of diplomatic progress with the Islamic Republic is revealing I still feel justified in my judgment that our strategic opportunity to aid the opposition at that time was an illusion.  My angriest grumbling with President Obama’s foreign policy to date was actually early last March, when he stalled on intervention in much-weaker Libya on the side of the Benghazi-based uprising.  Still, by mid-March we had our coalition, with the United Kingdom and France on-point, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates engaged such as their force projection would allow, and the United States lobbing a lot of missiles at Gaddafi’s Loyalist soldiers and mercenaries.  1 of the Middle East’s longest-ruling agents of violence was deposed, and on the cheap.  Weird, misguided phrases like “leading from behind” aside, the strategy clearly worked.

None of this means the President isn’t the wimp his Conservative opponents make him out to be.  The Liberal Ironist half-buys the narrative Conservatives have spun about President Obama’s conspiratorial reference to an electoral hiatus with President Medvedev: “Don’t worry about this missile defense stuff,” the President seems to be saying, “We’ll work something out after our elections in November.”

The cruder Conservative attacks have focused on the premise that the President has taken 1 policy position in public while promising another to a foreign leader in private.  (Such good Wilsonians these Republican populists are, assuming sound diplomacy can be conducted with all commitments being made in full view of the public, all interest groups having the chance to take a shot at them before any agreements are stricken!)  In keeping with my skepticism (alright, contempt) towards the Wikileaks ideology, my problem with President Obama’s attempt at a private comment to Medvedev isn’t the implied authoritarian conspiracy so much as the implied acquiescence; he mentioned an inclination to offer concessions on SDI to the outgoing leader of a government that has given him very little.

Maybe some good can come of this apparent plea of weakness.  New START was a major accomplishment–though it looks like Russia no less than China has decided to base its foreign policy strategy around the defense of the political mass murderers we intend to confront.  But as far as I can tell we have, as a friend recently put it, “a President who doesn’t seem to think strategically.”  We had a comparatively-mature foreign policy discourse before September 11th, when President Clinton could carry out limited but decisive humanitarian interventions that saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and even then-Governor George W. Bush, seeking to offer a contrast, could speak in mild tones against “nation-building.”  Then the latter underwent a total ideological Gestalt-switch following September 11th, and our foreign policy discourse (such as it is for public consumption) became divided between those who (like Governor Romney) like to call Russia and China our enemies from the campaign trail, and those who (like President Obama) are afraid of the optics of intervention even when the strategic exposure and moral stakes are quite clear–or who make concessions to competitors that are paranoid, implacable, and weak.

Forced between this choice I still prefer President Obama; he has proved a corrective to the costly and inconsistent schoolyard antics of George W. Bush’s Christianity-varnished foreign policy, and accomplishments such as New START, renewed ties to East Asian allies, the successful Libyan intervention and dramatic successes in our campaign against al-Qaeda are substantive and outshine my impression of the President as surprisingly-inarticulate when it comes time to defend our values on the international stage.  So much the State Legislator is still with him.

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