Obama Abroad: Liberal, Moderate, Careful

by A. Jay Adler on December 8, 2009
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President Obama is being excoriated by some on the left for his Afghanistan escalation, and by some on the right too, though the right, after months of impatience with the kind of thoughtful policy making the Bush years trained it to abhor, is mostly happier about the decision. I’ve already written about both the decision making in Afghanistan: Reading the Evidence and the decision in Complex Issue, Simple Minds. The New York Times offered its lengthy account of the process. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen, in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee offered his own striking support for the process, all the more outstanding because of the spoken alterations to Mullen’s prepared text to which James Fallow alerts us. Said Mullen:

I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues — especially over the course of these last two years. [Eg, including the Iraq "surge." (This is Fallows.)] And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one….

And given the stakes in Afghanistan for our own national security – as well as that of our partners around the world – I believe the time we took was well worth it.

Fallows points out the implicit, critical comparison to Bush. Apparently Mullen’s musculature can stand profound and careful considerations.

We see in the process on Afghanistan Obama’s care in foreign policy. He does not rush in. He doesn’t posture excessively. We see, too, in the parameters he set – particular to the history and the circumstances of the situation – his moderation. Not much opportunity in this setting to observe the liberalism of his foreign policy vision, but, of course, it has been apparent elsewhere, to the ridicule of the right.

On a variety of occasions during his first year in office, Obama has made statements that have acknowledged historic errors in U.S. policy and relations to other nations and regions. The Heritage Foundation has compiled a top ten list of Obama’s “apologies” and how they have “humiliated a superpower.” This is an essential distinction between liberal and conservative conceptions of U.S. foreign policy procedure, in general, and more pointedly, in how the U.S. at a now two-decade-long transition period in its existence as a world super power projects itself to the rest of the world in relation to the factual record and perceptions of its historic role.

The right will couch the issue in terms of the realpolitik of power politics. It is not wrong to do so. Sincerity, including sincere regrets, not joined with shrewd, forceful policy, is a weak currency. But politicians are people too (most of the time) and certainly those they represent possess the usual human qualities, and people do respond to what they perceive as the genuine and the fair, and apologies, or simple admissions of error, offered in the right context, can serve a purpose. However, the right conceives of an unwillingness to acknowledge error in American foreign policy as the strength of strength – the “never explain” part only of the stoic homily, because the right complains constantly.

All of this is the point of principle 10 in my Principia Liberalis: “Accountability for the past is policy for the future.” Of course, it is the deeds that matter most, but there is no better way to enable a change in relations that to express the ideas that presage the deeds. Latin America offers a prime example.

Though the U.S., in its just and justly-concluded long, cold war against Soviet and Chinese supported Marxist totalitarianism, made errors in other regions of the world – Vietnam, of course, most famously, Iran, with longstanding consequences – nowhere was the strategic sacrifice of democracy and justice for others in that war more pervasive than in Latin America. Jimmy Carter made an honorable start in changing the dynamic of Latin American relations, including the Panama Canal treaty, which the right received with the usual dire Chicken Little calls. Unfortunately, the many failures of Carter’s presidency ushered in a complete Reagan reversal, and reversion to previous policy. The right will tell itself that the contra-themed Central American wars of the 80’s and early 90’s saved the hemisphere – and there is no reason to wish any of the particular insurgencies had themselves come to power – but the various resolutions to those wars, in Honduras and Guatemala, for instance, offered only a veneer of democracy while the edifice of oligarchy still stands and feeds political developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and perhaps more to come.

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And U.S. denial of history does not mean that others forget.

In Guatemala, the Historical Clarification Commission, established by the 1994 Oslo Accords that brought an end to three decades of war, found that with 42,275 identified victims, 93% of the atrocities were committed by the U.S. supported government forces and not the rebels. (Of this number, 83% were Mayan.) This is the historical record. Guatemalans know it. What are the policy consequences of pretending otherwise?

The liberalism, then, of Obama’s foreign policy, begins in these acknowledgments. Of Latin America, he made the following observation:

Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My Administration is committed to the promise of a new day. We will renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security.

This is, actually, rather meager, but The Heritage Foundation, ever sensitive, feels humiliated.

Despite Obama’s various liberal historical reckonings, he proceeds quite moderately. He has not advocated reversing the course of NATO’s provocative expansion toward Russia, or scrapping the poorly executed diplomatic preparations for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe; he has modified the nature of the system in a manner that earned credit with Russia. Conservatives complained that he got nothing for the concession (which was not, based on the truly-required, modified technology, even really a concession), but now it appears that Russia’s willingness, thus far, to co-sponsor with China the IAEA’s rebuke of Iran for non-cooperation, may be part of the payoff.

During his China visit, Obama did not grandstand. He did not lecture on human rights. Conservatives once again declared him and the U.S. humiliated by China’s stage-managed visit. (Their stage, no?) But Obama proceeds with moderation and care. Though it appeared at the time that the visit achieved nothing for the U.S., since the visit China cosponsored that IAEA resolution, and comes to Copenhagen offering some level of cooperation, and not mere resistance. Read James Fallows, beginning with November 17 and working your way forward, who commented many times, at length, on the total misreading by critics of Obama’s visit. The liberal Obama understands China’s evolving position in the world, and what will be the increasingly counterproductive character of any imperious, which is not to say leading, U.S. role.

Similarly, the right has had fits ever since Obama said he would talk to Iran. Talking, to conservatives, had to mean naiveté, weakness, and capitulation. But Obama approached Iran, like all else on his foreign policy agenda, in the context of the Bush record of behavior. Signals needed to be sent, to many parties, of a willingness to proceed with caution and care, of a desire to practice real diplomacy, which entails among much else the exercise of patience with that which causes impatience. And it is true, too, that even our malignant adversaries have interests that might somehow be engineered as part of a resolution. If the time comes to pursue more drastic measures, the path will have been cleared to them more persuasively, if only to some, than would ever have been managed by the more arrogantly, ideologically rash Bush administration.

We can observe the Obama moderation and care, to return to Latin America, in the below-the-radar-response to the Honduran coup. I have followed events carefully ever since I wrote about the coup in Reporting on the Honduran Coup. The ironies have been many. The administration did not needlessly bring popular attention to the matter, which would have, in fact, unsteadied the hand of U.S. needle threading. The final determination of the U.S. position – was it a coup or a military coup, the latter entailing greater consequences in U.S. reaction – was laboriously drawn out as the Honduran players, others Latin nations, and the OAS attempted to play their roles, and as the date for the scheduled election, now past – and the default resolution to the crisis – approached.

The default conservative position (see DeMint, Jim) – because deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was perceived as a nascent Hugo Chavez – was to support (even with no Soviet Union around anymore to rationalize it) the oligarchic forces behind the coup. The Obama administration did not support the coup, even when it had wind of it beforehand, and it officially opposed it and called for a legal resolution. At the same time, there was no desire to play any strong, sure-to-be-regrettable role in returning an apparent Chavezista to power. So the State Department threaded its needle throughout.

There would never be any pleasing the far left, which tried at first to claim a U.S. role in the coup, and reverted – actually – to criticizing the U.S. for not using its power to ensure Zelaya’s return to office. How wheels do turn. So far, few nations having yet recognized the legitimacy of the elections, the careful, moderate, liberal Obama administration has had it all ways. It had declared the intention to chart a new course in Latin America. It opposed the coup, but played no part in returning a potentially troublesome populist demagogue to power. The right considered it wrong to oppose the coup; the left was unhappy that the administration did not use its leverage to reverse it.

This is the manner. Will it succeed? That remains to be seen. Obama has many balls in the air that have yet to come down. Israel-Palestine received a bad toss, which is receiving some English in the air, but a year has been lost. Some balls may never come down. Some may be deftly caught. But Obama is revealing himself, in foreign policy, to be what neither the extremes of the left or right could see, though it was there all along: liberal in vision, moderate in pursuing the vision, careful in practice.

AJA


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