Obama’s Foreign Policy: Not Change But More of the Same

editorial in Journal of Political Criticism (Seoul), vol. 6 (May 2010)

Barack Obama was elected president on the promise of change. And in domestic policy he may deliver on some of that promise. But on foreign policy the record to date suggests that Obama means more of the same. The legal and other excesses associated with the “global war on terrorism” persist. The nuclear proliferation challenges posed by Iran and North Korean continue to baffle Washington. U.S. policymakers still stand aloof from serious international efforts to protect the environment. Israel remains an obstreperous ally whose lobbying operations all but paralyze U.S. policymakers. Washington is demonstrating a remarkable tendency to keep moving at the same pace and in the same direction regardless of who is in the White House.

Nowhere is this continuity in U.S. policy more evident or more consequential than in regard to Afghanistan and China. While each poses familiar and fundamental challenges to current U.S. policy in a key region, Washington seems to cling to old assumptions and conceptions no matter how questionable.

Obama’s focus on Afghanistan is not a surprise. During his election campaign, he promised to intensify his predecessor’s lagging effort there. True to his word, he has committed more troops and more assistance to the U.S.-back Kabul government. What is surprising are the stale, dubious conceptions behind the president’s decision. All too familiar language and logic were on display in his public explanation in early December 2009 for raising the bet in Afghanistan. He echoed a score of other statements delivered by presidents over the last sixty years justifying U.S. intervention in the third world. In its essential format the speech followed the well-established rhetorical template. It began with a rehearsal of origins — of a commitment made for reasons of national security so sound that the country had no choice but to continue and make it turn out right. It then turned to paint an alarmist picture of a cancerous threat to U.S. security, in this case posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in “the epicenter of violent extremism.” The President concluded with the required rehearsal of values — the ideals of freedom and the obligations of global leadership — that define Americans and that somehow require saving Afghanistan and shoring up Pakistan. Abandoning those objectives would implicitly put in question American identity and standing in the world. Predictably, this nationalist boilerplate and the accompanying bromides about wishing only for peace and prosperity for ourselves and for others drew the most applause from an otherwise subdued military audience.

Obama rests his hopes for success in Afghanistan on two tired Cold War doctrines. The more fundamental is “nation building.” The term, which took shape in the U.S. academy in the late 1940s and gained appeal in the policy establishment in the 1950s, is actually a misnomer. It does not aim at fostering in other countries a sense of national identity; rather, its goal is to put together a state strong enough to advance U.S. aims, which in most cases meant heading off or suppressing internal political forces deemed dangerous by Washington.

South Vietnam as the site of the most elaborate, sustained, and costly attempt at nation building offers a cautionary tale for the current Afghanistan project. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy built up a government in South Vietnam to stop communism. Lyndon Johnson went to war to save that government, and in early 1968, following the shock of the Tet Offensive, he gave fresh emphasis to training and supplying the South Vietnamese army. This renewed attention to Saigon’s strength known as Vietnamization became the linchpin of Richard Nixon’s push to transfer the burden of fighting from U.S. to South Vietnamese forces. At each stage, Saigon’s performance was critical to success. At each stage, presidents knew Saigon was falling seriously short of even minimal expectations. Kennedy schemed in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 precisely because of poor performance. The Johnson team had to work hard to halt the game of political musical chairs played by the Saigon generals and pressed in vain for them to play their assigned role in rural pacification. Instead they failed to secure political legitimacy, to develop military or administrative competence, or to stamp out profiteering and corruption.

The recent plunge deep into the affairs of the Middle East has brought nation-building back to life. While George W. Bush himself would have none of it during his 2000 election campaign and in the planning for the Iraq invasion, the chaos following the U.S. invasion forced a rapid reversal. Suddenly the administration and its supporters converted to the notion that they could do in Iraq what their predecessors had done in postwar Germany and Japan. The U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad embarked on a political, cultural, and economic remake of the country that included dissolving the Bathist state (including its army), purging its Bath party members, promoting war crimes trials, reforming the educational system, and unleashing the free market. While the occupation was stunning in its ambitions, the achievements of U.S. proconsuls were modest if not counterproductive. In a missionary fit, they tore down the old Iraqi state; constructing a new one is still a work in progress. Whether the new state will ever gain the competency and authority of the old and whether that state will be attuned to U.S. preferences remain to be seen.

Obama now seeks to extend nation building to Afghanistan even though the situation may bear parallels closer to Vietnam than Iraq. His ambassador in Kabul, a military man with considerable in-country experience, gave voice to a widely held skepticism among experts. Karl W. Eikenberry warned privately this past November that the prospects for success were poor in a country with neither an army nor a history of a centralized state authority and with significant ethnic divisions. “President [Hamid] Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. . . . Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. . . . Beyond Karzai himself, there is no political ruling class that provides an overarching national identity that transcends local affiliations and provides reliable partnership.”

Closely related to Obama’s embrace of nation building is his acceptance of the equally doubtful doctrine of counterinsurgency. Dubbed COIN, this doctrine exhibits a touching faith in the ability of a foreign military force to defeat an indigenous movement noted for its persistence or at least to win time to strengthen the Kabul regime and give it an effective national army. The military intellectuals who have convinced Obama draw their inspiration from several sources. They cite the ostensible success of the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq as a model despite disputes over this claim. They also draw inspiration from writings by French and British officers devoted to extracting lessons from their colonial wars. They dispel the shadow of failure in Vietnam by spinning a variety of nation-building might-have-beens over the course of U.S. involvement there. From this hodge podge of sources comes a generic, one-size fits all approach that is obtuse on history and the problems of state making in multi-ethnic populations.

The odds are strongly against success in Afghanistan. At home public patience with a prolonged commitment has already eroded, and rising discontent may well prove a political burden on the administration. In Afghanistan itself, as elsewhere in the greater Middle East, any attempt to assert U.S. influence is bound to give off a distinctly imperial odor. The president seems to assume he writes on a blank slate, ignoring the deep antipathy created by a history of colonialism and foreign invasion. Finally, on an ideological plane the U.S. project is at a disadvantage. Washington is compromised by close association with authoritarian regimes throughout the region, while its insistent, stark denunciation of terrorism and promotion of imported models compete poorly against indigenous and highly varied Islamist political views and programs. Complicating the Afghanistan enterprise is the involvement of a doubly dysfunctional Pakistan. According to one wag, it is not a country that has an army but an army that has a country. And that army has its own strong, distinct notion of Afghanistan’s future. Significant ethnic divisions within Pakistan and the pressures created by the U.S.-led military campaign along the border carry the risk of serious fracture (suggesting parallels with Cambodia destabilized and convulsed by the war in Vietnam).

China policy offers the second exhibit for the way the dead hand of the past weighs on the Obama administration. Even as China has grown more powerful and confident and even as the U.S.-China relationship has shifted in China’s favor, U.S. policy has remained trapped in a contradictory response. Far from resolving those contradictions, Obama gives every sign of embodying and perpetuating them.

Fundamental to the U.S. problem has been the return over the last sixty years of China as a major player on the world stage with an influential voice in major international issues. Mao Zedong and more broadly the revolution that he led to power in 1949 made indispensable contributions to the rise of China now so troubling to many Americans. At the heart of those contributions was recreating a strong Chinese state (successful nation building) and restoring China to a position of international eminence lost in the course of the nineteenth century. Whatever the excesses of the state made and controlled by Mao, it can lay claim to an impressive list of achievements. It recuperated Chinese territorial sovereignty after a prolonged period of foreign penetration and annexation. It eliminated foreign interference in the economy and regained control of development policy. It raised per capita income after more than a century of decline. It built up critical infrastructure such as education, health care, and communications that would prove critical to post-socialist growth. And it emerged quickly as a regional power able to project influence into frontier areas long of concern to Chinese leaders. Put differently, while many less developed countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East struggled in the postwar period, China did exceptionally well. It had, like the others, been a banana republic (a very large one to be sure) for decades down to 1949. While the others remained weak and poor, Mao set China on a trajectory toward realizing long-held aspirations for “wealth and power.”

Americans have understandably regarded the successes of this strong Chinese state with varying degrees of anxiety or hostility. And with good reason. China from the very start of its revival posed major challenges to U.S. ambitions in the region. Mao’s forces defeated a U.S. client regime in China in 1949, and then the next year moved into Korea to drive back American forces advancing toward the Chinese border. Mao’s China contributed in a major, material way to the defeat of an American ally in Vietnam between 1950 and 1954 and then repeated the performance when the Americans dispatched their own forces in 1965 to attempt what the French had failed to achieve.

Mao and his successors have challenged Americans in another way that is particularly troubling to prevailing neo-liberal attitudes. Americans assume that free markets and free men — the “natural” development path — bring the best of all possible worlds to anyone who has the good sense to embrace freedom. China hardly fits that model. Rather than getting in the way of prosperity, the strong state has generated it. Economic success got its start as a socialist revolution and has continued as a state-led, party-penetrated market economy. Any impulse toward democracy collides with long-standing hierarchical and authoritarian attitudes and the pretensions of politically-engaged intellectuals to special standing. Attachment to the world’s last major territorial empire makes freedom in any case seem a dangerous solvent.

Richard Nixon had the good sense to recognize that he faced in China a rising regional power with an impressive track record of success and a clear conception of its place in the world. Accordingly, he broke with Cold War hostility and accepted instead as a fait accompli China as a regional power with global aspirations. Washington had to take China seriously precisely because the United States lacked the means or will to reverse its achievements or to negate its aspirations. Striking agreements on matters of common interest and learning to live with major points of difference seemed the most promising way forward. Nixon saw what U.S. leaders even today are reluctant to acknowledge: that the notion of the United States as a superpower in a unipolar moment is an illusion and that the alternative is acceptance of regional diversity and collaboration with dominant powers within those regions.

While virtually every one of Nixon’s successors have accepted the logic behind his policy of accommodation, they have done so with personal or political reservations. They have invariably denounced Communist China when in campaign mode and then equally invariably once in office followed Nixon’s prudent concession to Chinese power. The same ambivalence is evident outside the executive branch. Strong voices within the foreign policy establishment have decried concessions to Beijing as a betrayal of U.S. values as well as a betrayal of an old ally on Taiwan. Those cries grew stronger after the violent suppression of the Spring 1989 demonstrations in Beijing. Critics claimed that a regime so morally wrong could not survive. And until the inevitable collapse, the United States should not, so they argued, be tainted by close ties to a government under the control of the Communist Party. Indeed the best course was to challenge its transgressions on every front from Taiwan to Tibet to pro-democracy activism and thus get on the right side of history.

Obama is caught between these two contending perspectives. He knows that he has to do business with Beijing on a host of issues — from the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, to trade, to the environment (to name the most obvious). But to judge from his public statements he is also drawn to a simple, principled stance shorn of any historical perspective on China’s rise and American limits. He told a Shanghai audience last November: “We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship — of access to information and political participation — we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities — whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.” He joined this declaration of faith to a fairytale version of U.S.-China relations that stressed friendship and cooperation and converted the frequent rough spots into occasional blips. Obama left unanswered the critical question: to what extent should U.S. policy focus on pushing its values on China? Perhaps to someone looking through rose-colored glasses, it doesn’t matter.

Obama is deluding himself or at least his public even as the circumstances that he has vowed to change diminish the U.S. global standing. He knows underinvestment and low educational standards have made the United States less economically competitive. He is sensitive to the irresponsible pattern of tax cuts and government deficits that have created the debt now held by China. He should understand that any U.S. claims as a democratic model are hard to square with low rates of voter participation and big money influence on elections and legislation. His priority ought to be changing America, not embarking on a fool’s errand of trying to change China.

Reinforcing the problematic relations with China is Washington’s static, sterile stance toward rich and strategically sensitive Northeast Asia on China’s periphery. The Obama administration’s approach to Korea and Japan is caught in a time warp. Now as earlier U.S. policymakers see regional developments through the prism of conventional military power and interstate conflict. Obama as much as George W. Bush has fixated on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, while also attributing to the alliance with Japan sweeping significance. That alliance was, Obama claimed while in Tokyo in November 2009 “a foundation for security and prosperity not just for our two countries but for the Asia Pacific region” and a vehicle that has “helped us become the world’s two largest economies.”12 His remarks suggest that the United States though an ocean away is not just a regional stake holder but one whose good intentions and robust capabilities give it a presiding security role.

The U.S. standing as the heavily-armed “indispensable nation” has its origins in the 1940s when the Pacific War projected U.S. forces deep into Northeast Asia and the Cold War justified keeping them there. A system of bases took shape in Japan and South Korea undergirded by bilateral security treaties and justified by fears of an expansionist China, an aggressive and unpredictable North Korea, and a resurgent Japan. Now some six decades later, Washington remains determined to preserve regional influence by holding on to its bases and shoring up those old treaties. American leaders follow anxiously developments that threaten the status quo, whether the fall of their long-time allies in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, anti-base demonstrations on Okinawa, or outbursts of anti-American sentiment in South Korea and the attendant calls for more restrictive status of forces agreements.

This militarized U.S. attempt to shape the future of Northeast Asia is out of date. Over several decades, regional powers have built up a system of cooperation built on loose economic and political arrangements based on consensus and tinctured by a nationalist-inspired resentment of outside interference. The most salient feature of this new Northeast Asia has been the divide between the dynamic economic powers of the region and a dysfunctional North Korea. South Korea and Japan along with China now define the center of regional gravity drawn together by diplomatic ties, substantial and intensifying intraregional trade, and shared concerns with the environment and other transnational problems. North Korea as odd man out has been diminished over the last two decades by severe economic decline and international isolation. Seen from the regional perspective, North Korea is an anomaly best handled by neighbors who have the most to lose or gain by developments on the peninsula. By making much of its bilateral security guarantees and the dangers of proliferation, Washington may do more to sow tensions and perpetuate discord.

The current U.S. approach to Northeast Asia suffers from an additional problem — a weak domestic base that policymakers are loathe to acknowledge. Those concerned with the worsening fiscal situation in the United States might well raise questions about this and other regional commitments backed by an expensive, muscle-bound foreign policy. Beyond the ongoing expense are the far higher, perhaps prohibitive costs involved in meeting any serious crisis in Northeast Asia. Always ready to make worst-case assumptions about others, officialdom might do well to think about their own vulnerabilities, especially now with U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the moment at least, policy goes virtually unchallenged for familiar reasons. What might regional actors do if left without “adult” supervision? What would a retreat mean symbolically to U.S. global prestige and to the already much diminished dreams of an American century in Asia? Finally, why abandon a region that allows such full scope to the one element of U.S. global power — the capacity to project military force — that remains unrivaled and on which the U.S. government lavishes abundant resources?

The positions taken in the course of Obama’s first year in office carry serious risk to his presidency and to the country. A failed or even prolonged Afghanistan commitment could distract the president and country from pressing domestic problems. It could drain Obama’s political capital and slowly eat his presidency alive. Finally, it could add death and suffering to a country far too familiar with both and in the bargain make Pakistan into a latter-day Cambodia. China tensions could be equally debilitating. They could hobble resolution of major international issues important to the United States, deepen resentments in both countries, and plant the seeds of long-term and possibly explosive difficulties. In Northeast Asia the U.S. contribution to peace and prosperity is debatable while carrying risks that Americans now less than ever can afford to run.

Obama’s record to date reveals how easily even keen leaders with fresh ideas and urgent new priorities get captured not just by the policies but the outlook of a previous generation and bygone era. The question puzzling to this historian even after decades of policy watching is how and why does this capture occur so that in this case “the way forward” into a “new era” ends up perpetuating the past. Why this inability to break with the past and chart a fresh course in a U.S. foreign policy? Is the answer in something simple like the White House drinking water or something broader and more complex? That question points to a host of considerations from Obama’s own lack of foreign policy experience, to the Clinton administration retreads surrounding him, to partisan political calculations, to bureaucratic pressures. Perhaps ultimately, the most important explanation of all is the firm grip on the American imagination — elite and popular — of the dominant version of U.S. nationalism. It holds that the only way to safeguard the American experiment is to transform the world in its image or at least keep a firm grip on developments in major regions around the world. This nationalism has spawned dreams of influence, prompted repeated interventions around the world, embroiled the country in a string of wars over the last century and into this one, and taken defeat or even resistance as an assault on core identity. Given this formidable set of constraints, it is hard to imagine Obama or any president breaking out of the general conceptual cage that they find their foreign policy in. So the obvious but almost impossible question that we are left with is what kind of development might provide the prod that would bring real change to U.S. foreign policy.

Notes included in the pdf version of this essay as well as in the Journal of Political Criticism.

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