- By Peter Feaver
When I first posted my challenge to Obama partisans to step up and concede at least a few honest-to-goodness mistakes by their champion, I didn’t expect that the first Obama partisan to step to the plate would be FP’s own Blake Hounshell.
Besides being the Grand Vizier of FP‘s Web site, Hounshell is a decent and thoughtful fellow who has contributed some first-rate dispatches from the frontlines of the Arab Awakening over the past couple of years. He is the kind of Democrat who at least will entertain the possibility that Republicans might have interesting things to contribute to the debate, hence his willingness to give intellectual and political diversity a few electrons on his site, viz Shadow Government. For that, I am exceedingly grateful, but that doesn’t mean I am going to give his post a free pass. (At least, I don’t intend to…since he is the one who decides whether my posts actually make it on the site, I may draft this devastating riposte and it may never see the light of day…)
Hounshell grades my critique and seems to be more favorable than I expect Jentleson and Kupchan will be. Still, I think he misses some important things so below I reprint his grades, with my grade appeals interspersed….
"1. Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline along with Afghan surge. Dumb. Obama undercut his surge by declaring it would only be a temporary thing. The rationale here was twofold: reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party (and many others) that the president didn’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai et al that they’d better get their acts together in a hurry. The first part of the strategy worked, in the sense that it took the war off the table domestically. The second part? Meh, not so much. Maybe the impending 2014 withdrawal deadline will focus some minds in the Afghan government, but there are precious few signs that it has done so to date.
Verdict: Point to Feaver, but just barely. Why? Because staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever is a terrible idea that very few Americans support, which is why Romney has barely mentioned the war and didn’t even say the name of the country during his convention speech."
Surely I deserve better than "barely." I win running away, because the choice is not the false one Hounshell paints: between (a) undermining the surge by announcing an arbitrary timeline or (b) "staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever." There were other alternatives available to Obama, such as allowing the withdrawal timeline to be dictated by conditions on the ground or, if he wanted to leave regardless of conditions, simply not announcing that fact at the outset of the surge so as to give the surge the maximum chance at success. Undermining his own surge was a strategic blunder by Obama and the only way Hounshell can minimize the seriousness of it is by replacing my argument with a strawman.
"2. Failing to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime. Note here that Feaver is careful not to make the crazy, indefensible version of this charge: that Obama should have somehow embraced or helped the Green Movement overthrow the Iranian government. The Obama administration’s assessment was that coming out loudly in favor of the protesters would have made it even easier for the regime to crush them, and many Iran analysts agree. It’s worth noting here that the Green Movement was not actually about overthrowing the system, however (though its remnants may evolve in that more radical direction). It was about disputing the results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which was the common denominator consensus of the movement’s various different factions. The movement’s putative leaders, Mir Hossain Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Muhammad Khatami, were careful not to call for an end to Iran’s clerical system, and they never called for outside help as far as I can remember.
What about the case for ramping up more pressure on the regime? Well, that is exactly what Obama has done since then, getting the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese to sign up for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And, though arguably Obama has been pushed by Congress into enacting tougher unilateral sanctions than he wanted (or than many on the left thought were humane or wise), here we are.
Verdict: Unknowable, but I don’t see much to Feaver’s argument."
I don’t see much in Hounshell’s argument, but I do give him credit that at least he doesn’t pretend that critics of Obama’s handling of this episode were insisting that Obama invade Iran in June of 2009. However, he does repeat another common error, pretending that the critique hinges on the Green Movement inviting Western help or being anti-nuclear themselves.
The case for a squandered 2009 does not rest on hopes that the Green Movement would have begged for more sanctions or that a President McCain would have unleashed the 4thID in a made dash for Tehran. Rather, the squandered opportunities involve: an opportunity for the Obama Administration to get out of the bone-headed "unconditional bilateral talks" trap they set for themselves; and an opportunity to ramp up multilateral economic pressure years earlier than they did, thus simultaneously increasing the (small) chance that diplomacy might have succeeded and the (larger) chance that the program could be delayed on the right side of more defensible red-lines; and an opportunity to unambiguously align with Iranian society rather than with the mullahs.
Eventually, the Obama administration did follow the lead of Congress and the French and British in implementing tougher sanctions on Iran. But they did so after squandering two golden opportunities to ratchet up pressure in 2009: the Green Revolution and the September surprise announcement of the secret enrichment facility.
The extra year’s worth of pressure might not have worked. Obama partisans can always retreat to the counterfactual that Obama could have handled the Iranian file perfectly and we would still end up with the same dead-end confrontation we are heading to now. But that is like saying, throwing the interception did not cost us the game. Maybe, but it is still a turnover.
3. Imposing new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Israeli settlements — excuse me, "housing developments." If you believe Israel should not be making it harder to reach a permanent agreement, as U.S. presidents have for several decades now, then Obama was just hewing to a longstanding bipartisan consensus. It was probably a tactical error for Obama to make settlements the focus of discussions if he wasn’t prepared to stick to his guns. But look, folks: Neither side is willing to pay the price required for a lasting peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t believe in it (read his book — he says so explicitly), and Mahmoud Abbas is too weak and wrongly thinks time is on the Palestinians’ side.
Verdict: Meh. Basically, it’s hard to argue that course X or course Y would have led to a better result, because the peace process is a joke and very few people believe in it anymore. Obama’s real mistake was trying at all, given the circumstances and his fundamental gutlessness on this issue.
Give Hounshell credit for recognizing this was a tactical error. But since this is the clearest example of Obama promising and acting on his promise to do something very different from Bush on a foreign policy matter that he, Obama, claimed was of great strategic importance, and then having that whole matter fail spectacularly so that the president has to spend the next several years running in the opposite direction — well, I think in that case it merits a bit more than "meh." (Interestingly, in my private interactions with Obama administration officials, this is one of the few errors they are willing to acknowledge.) He goes on to slam Obama as "gutless" — I don’t go that far, but it may be because I don’t see much merit in the typical lefty critique of Obama as being too quick to compromise and not tough enough on "enemies" like Republicans in Congress or Israeli politicians.
4. The delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. So what? The South Korea FTA was fairly large, as these things go, but eventually it got done, as did Colombia. The opposition to the Colombia FTA was ridiculous given that it was fundamentally about ratifying a strong existing relationship and permanently opening the Colombian market to U.S. goods. But the Colombian market is just not very big.
Verdict: Weak sauce. I’m actually surprised that Feaver doesn’t level a far more serious and defensible charge, which is that Obama just isn’t a free trader at heart and has pandered to the left wing of his party by talking nonsense about outsourcing (when he really means offshoring) and failing to offer a Bill Clinton-like argument about why globalization is not only irreversible, but good for the United States. Obama has continued to explore things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced Russia’s long-overdue entry into the WTO. But in general, this isn’t a big priority for his administration and Republicans have rightly criticized him for it.
But here’s the problem: Free trade just isn’t very popular among voters, and especially not in the Democratic Party in the post-2008 era. Even economists like Alan Blinder have started to have their doubts about offshoring. Does anyone believe Obama could have fundamentally moved the needle on this?
P.S.: Remember when the Bush adminstration succeeded in finishing the Doha Round? Me neither.
So here Hounshell’s complaint is that my critique of Obama is too soft — "weak sauce." Hounshell says Obama deserves even greater criticism for being an anti-free-trader. But then Hounshell gives Obama a pass from this, his, critique by saying that free trade is just not popular with voters so the Obama administration should not be criticized for failing to secure another grand round of multi-lateral trade negotiations. But I didn’t criticize Obama for that. I criticized him for further politicizing trade and slow-rolling the two free-trade agreements (three if you count the smaller Panama FTA) that were handed to him on a silver platter. He didn’t need to move voters, he just needed to work with a bipartisan coalition in Congress ready to act.
So where does that leave the score? I identified four Obama errors and, after reading Hounshell’s discussion of them, I am more convinced than ever that they are obvious, unforced errors.
Does this mean that Obama is a terrible foreign policy president or that Romney is clearly the superior candidate on foreign policy? Both might be true, but I am not trying to argue either case right now. Rather, I am making the far more modest claim that there are a number of legitimate critiques of Obama’s handling of foreign policy from the Republican perspective. Hounshell’s interesting blogpost reminds us of how difficult it is for Obama partisans to concede that point.