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Why Obama’s second term foreign policy priorities are misguided
Yesterday’s column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration’s reelection campaign’s strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to ...
Yesterday’s column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration’s reelection campaign’s strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he’s hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration’s mindset. No doubt Obama’s experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration’s message in the article’s closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration’s current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don’t help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House’s own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin’s conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration’s optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer — what is the administration’s contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden’s boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama’s time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration’s optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration’s own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration’s current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia — the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration’s previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration’s foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration’s hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government’s modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.