After Metternich and Kissinger, Dr. Phil?

One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don’t think we’re going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that ...

580813_090917_rothb2.jpg
580813_090917_rothb2.jpg

One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don't think we're going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that three messages?)

It is of course, my hope that this is all inadvertent or better yet, part of some grand plan that can't be understood without the proper security clearances. Or maybe it is just "learning curve behavior." But in any case, the facts to date are unsettling.

One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don’t think we’re going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that three messages?)

It is of course, my hope that this is all inadvertent or better yet, part of some grand plan that can’t be understood without the proper security clearances. Or maybe it is just “learning curve behavior.” But in any case, the facts to date are unsettling.

Russia undercuts our efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Our response: dismantle the missile shield we had contemplated for Eastern Europe.

Hamid Karzai diddles the elections, abuses his people, and is openly corrupt. Our response: let’s discuss how many more troops we want to send in to Afghanistan to help strengthen his power base and while we’re at it, let’s spend billions on doing work building his nation.

Pakistan limits our ability to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda within their borders, limits our ability to gain credit for aid flows to the country while promoting the interests of radical muslim donors and we open the spigots wider.

North Korea pushes forward with weapons programs and rattles its saber regularly and we seek new channels to discuss ways we can deepen our relationship after each calculated taunt.

Myanmar extends the prison term of Aung San Suu Kyi on trumped up charges and we send a high level emissary.

Iran crushes legitimate opposition, the regime steals and election, it lies for decades about its nuclear program, it strengthens its military capability and calls for destruction of Israel and we announce further talks despite their insistence none of the issues most important for us to discuss are open to discussion. Push us harder through arms collaboration with Russia and we remove the threat of that missile defense.

Meanwhile, our one dependable ally in the Middle East, Israel, faces an unprecedented squeeze, our most dependable ally on Venezuela’s border, Colombia, can’t get even a modest trade deal finalized, the Poles and the Czechs get the rug pulled out from under them, and so on. We need China more than ever to help with Iran after Russia has gone on the record as seeking a divergent outcome … not to mention needing movement from them on issues like climate and global economic cooperation … and what do we do? Slap them with unnecessary, hard-to-defend duties on imported tires.

It’s the same here at home. No one fears crossing the Obama administration because the two most likely outcomes are either no retaliation or rewards. (Ask Senator Grassley, who gets concessions by the boatload but still refuses to play along, to name just one.)

I’m just sayin’…

Engagement is a worthy goal. The missile shield was probably of dubious value at best (especially when we started to define it in terms of our own sham cover story that it was all about Iran and not about the real longer term threat, Russia). Defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and seeking greater stability in Pakistan or Afghanistan … or Israel and neighboring regions. Indeed, I am a pretty enthusiastic supporter of what I understand the outlines and objectives of the Obama administration’s foreign policy to be.

But after a while, independent or uncoordinated actions become patterns and patterns send messages. Are we so isolated from Russia today that we have pushed from memory Pavlov and all that smart stuff he and his dog taught us about conditioned response? Even if that’s the case, I thought this team was close to Oprah. Couldn’t she or her house shrink Dr. Phil point out what happens when abusive behavior is rewarded?

I know it’s still early in the administration. And I remain resolutely hopeful. But as a general rule, I take it as a warning sign when Dr. Phil is in any position to offer useful insights regarding U.S. foreign policy. Worse still, we know what happens to people who fail to heed his advice. They end up on the Maury show. That’s no place for a U.S. foreign policy … all toothless and disoriented, throwing chairs and being accused of fathering outcomes we don’t want any part of.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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