Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy

Expending some time covering the options and likely outcomes of the incoming Obama presidency, this is my first installment of what will be his probable actions with regards to foreign policy.

The problem with Barack Obama and foreign policy is that what little is known does not look very good. Granted, the campaign turned on domestic economic issues, but so much of America's global prestige, or the lack thereof these days, is a product of US foreign policy. This is not to diminish the importance of the domestic economy, or its repercussions on international markets, but intermestic issues tend to be tied more to trade than whether or not GM is going to be bailed out by the American taxpayer.

With that in mind, the issue of trade is one are we are not going to be seeing any major change on. President-elect Obama has made it clear during the campaign that he supports NAFTA and GATT, even going so far as to reassure the Canadian government through one of this advisers (which damaged his campaign immensely right before the Ohio primary [in my view costing him that state to Hillary]). If anyone in the labor movement of this country, or what constitutes it, believes we are pulling out of the WTO or will begin to seriously assert the importance of implementing the ignored labor and environmental side agreements in NAFTA, they will be sorely disappointed. Still, as a candidate, Obama did give some voice to supporting a re-negotiation of free trade agreements on the grounds that they have hurt the American worker. I would not count on him following through on this anymore than Bill Clinton when he promised to pass a striker replacement bill, which he not only refused to support but spent his first year as President lobbying Congress on the passage of NAFTA (the precursor of GATT and the death knell of the American industrial worker).

On Iraq, again, I am not as hopeful as I once was. To be sure, Obama opposed the war from the beginning, or so he claims. And he has been very critical of it on those occasions when it was mentioned during the campaign. Nevertheless, as Senator he voted to maintain war funding, and he has given multiple timetables for when he would like to see the US leave Iraq (almost all of them beyond 2010). If one looks at history, it is not a good sign. The US still has troops in most of the countries it has fought against/for over the past several decades. We still have troops in South Korea, Japan, Germany, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Macedonia (and we did not even go to war over Macedonia). Certainly, the troops in most of these countries are there for logistics and not occupation, although this is debatable in the Balkans, but it illustrates that even if President Obama follows through on his promise and disembarks from Iraq we will still have a military contingency of some kind in the country. This would be a grave mistake, especially when he opposed the introduction of those troops back in 2002-2003 (it is worth noting that he did not vote on the Iraq War resolution back in 2002 because he was not a member of the US Senate).

On Afghanistan, I am sorry to say, what reduction and possible elimination of our military presence in Iraq will be more than made up for with a militarization of this sad and defeated land. Since our invasion and quasi occupation of Afghanistan, following 9/11, the Taliban has come back in the last couple of years and taken over 15-20% of Afghanistan's territory, mostly in the Kandahar and surrounding provinces (a stronghold of the Taliban even before the American invasion). And unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no real national tradition or a history of being a unified state of any kind. It has always been a collection of ethnic groups whose federal polity existed at the familial and tribal level. The monarchy and central governments that followed it were mostly figureheads. The only two times in Afghanistan's history in which this almost changed was during its early years as a Communist republic and when the subsequent Taliban was in power. And even then, there were sizable opposition groups who did not accept the legitimacy of those governments (leading in part to their eventual fall, with outside assistance, of course).

Taking into consideration Afghanistan's history, one would have to be fairly deluded to believe that increasing the number of US military troops will stabilize the situation. If anything, it will make things worse because the locals will always look at foreign armies as invaders of their country, landed traditions, and culture, particularly when those troops come from societies whose values seem to contradict their own (and Russian and American troops are as foreign to this society as the British were in the 19th century). Indeed, it is one of the reasons why the Taliban has as much sympathy from as many Afghans as it does, in spite of its unpopular rule back in the '90s.

In addition, Obama's threat to introduce American troops into Pakistan, even without the government's invitation, will only exacerbate the situation. It will cause a direct diplomatic conflict with one of the few Muslim majority allies of the US, and become fodder for recruitment for both al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the western provinces. People sometimes forget that there is a precedence for this type of behavior. Back in 1998, right around the time that Bill Clinton's impeachment was being debated by Congressional Republicans, the US bombed several suspected hideouts and camps of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the Sudan (the intelligence was dubious on both accounts, especially the pharmaceutical plant we bombed in Khartoum). It aroused such sympathy for bin Laden that there was a spurt of babies being named after Osama that year, in Pakistan.

To be sure, it is understandable to want to punish and go after bin Laden and his cohorts following 9/11, but it would be preferable for the Pakistani military to carry out such an operation over US special forces, and even if it required the US military it would be even more preferable still to have the support of the Pakistani government for any operation within its territory. If the US isolates itself from the Pakistani government, there is no one left it can rely on, and Mullah Omar and bin Laden will have a free reign to live without being touched. One can only be hopeful that a President Obama would see this. He may well come to this view, when he is in office, so it is too early to say. Campaign rhetoric will oftentimes betray a very different policy path once in power.

With regards to the promise to rely more on diplomacy over force in international relations, this is an area where Barack Obama has his greatest political capital and goodwill internationally. I cannot understate this. The response of my foreign friends to this election was almost as, if not more, jubilant than in Grant Park on the evening of November 4th. And it was based almost exclusively on the perception that an Obama presidency would stress diplomacy more than the Bush and a likely McCain presidency. This goodwill gives Obama some leeway that no other President-elect could have obtained, as a critic of Bush's foreign policy and as the first African American President in this country's history (yes, it is tribal, but peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, who view US politics historically as a place for white men only are going to at least be initially more inclined to a presidency that breaks this color barrier).

A President Obama can use this goodwill to potentially resolve conflicts in both Iraq and maybe Afghanistan, if he so chooses. Even under the Bush presidency, the US-backed Afghan government has attempted to negotiate with the Taliban. Assuming we could secure those responsible for 9/11, and assuming that Afghan democracy is not a top priority, a fantasy anyway (with a government almost as orthodox in its practice of Islam as Saudi Arabia), would it not be more advantageous just to get a peace? This is a country that has been at war with itself and outsiders for over three decades now. Over a million people have died. It has over 10 million landmines sprinkled throughout its land. Its cities and villages reduced to rubble. Conflict resolution should take precedence in Afghanistan, even before politics, ideology, and military necessity. Iraq is even a greater possibility because there is a consensus on the part of the Iraqi government as well as the incoming President.

There could be no greater accomplishment of this presidency than ending these two wars. I wish I could be hopeful, but one only needs to remember the number of countries that Bill Clinton was responsible for bombing (Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria [yes, Bulgaria], Afghanistan, and the Sudan) to remain cautious. If the foreign policies of our Presidents have taught us anything in the post-Cold War era, it is this: only trust results.

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