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Obama’s Foreign Policy Problems, Personified

He has seized on the fecklessness of his predecessors and run with it to the far, far left.

By From the November 2009 issue

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This fall, as Barack Obama reveled at the UN in the adulation of governments, such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Syria, to which his administration has made so many concessions and in which it has invested so many hopes, and as these very governments stepped up their anti-American efforts, it became all too clear that his administration's approach to international affairs is based equally on the Democratic Party's now dominant ideology and on an unrealistic assessment of the world. But every one of Obama's violations of statecraft's canons -- trying to propitiate enemies at the expense of friends, pursuing negotiations as ends in themselves while adversaries strengthen their positions, believing in the power of one's own words, denaturing our armed forces (especially missile defense), and mistaking the chimera of nation-building for war -- is but a more extreme version of what has long passed for wisdom in Washington. Hence as we look at the ways in which the Obama administration has merited the world's contempt and contemplate the wages of which Americans will have to pay, it will not do to think, "If only we had Republicans in office!" Rather, we should take each blunder as an occasion to remind ourselves of standards of statecraft that have long lacked among Republicans as well as Democrats.

Not even Obama's most characteristic and most dysfunctional acts on the international scene -- apologizing for his country, or rather for Americans who differ from him and his friends -- is new. Jimmy Carter just as famously began his presidency in 1977 by rejoicing that America's defeat in Vietnam had brought it back to its best values, namely his party's rule. But at least Carter spoke at Notre Dame, to a domestic audience. Bill Clinton also used the "apology bomb" in his domestic wars. But when Obama apologized to Europeans for his predecessors' failure to listen to them and learn from them, when he disclaimed a "war on Islam" that none of his countrymen had declared, when he asserted a special American responsibility for nuclear disarmament because his country used nuclear weapons to win a war before he was born, he resembled nothing so much as the Pharisee who thanked God that he was better than his fellow men.

While confessing the sins of domestic opponents passes for cleverness in Obama's circles, it is dysfunctional because it leaves no doubt in foreigners' minds that he represents only one part of his country, and advertises that he is playing a partisan hand domestic support for which can only weaken. Because professionals in international affairs note that Obama's chief interest lies in marshaling foreign support in domestic quarrels, they discount whatever pressures he pretends to bring to bear on foreigners. In short, Obama diminishes America and himself.

Enemies Over Friends

Nor is there much new about Obama's attempt to propitiate America's enemies at its friends' expense -- as Henry Kissinger used to quip, while being America's enemy may be inconvenient, being America's ally is often fatal. Kissinger knew, having traded thousands of Kurdish lives to Iran, and millions of Southeast Asian lives to North Vietnam. George H. W. Bush sold Lebanon to Syria, Jimmy Carter threw Iran's shah under Ayatollah Khomeini's bus hoping to gain favor with him thereby, and most U.S. administrations' Mideast policy has consisted of pressuring Israel to give in to Arab demands ("taking chances for peace") in exchange for a lessening of Arab terrorism against Americans. This incompetent Machiavellism has gained us nothing and ended up costing American lives.

Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia has consisted of seconding Vladimir Putin's paramount goal: to reconquer the Soviet empire by isolating and constraining the former parts of it. Obama has quietly withdrawn support for Georgia's claim to two of its regions that Russia occupied. As Ukraine deals with Russia's daily attempts to destabilize its central government and to exercise sovereignty over the Crimea, it can no longer rely on U.S. support. Worse, by giving in to Russian demands that the U.S. not station anti-missile equipment in Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama made it clear to all of Eastern Europe that he will not let its deepest concerns stand in the way of appeasing Russia.

Make no mistake. The Poles and Czechs were eager for U.S. bases on their soil for the same reason that they have supported the U.S. with soldiers and diplomacy ever since regaining their independence: to cement America's support for that independence against Russia's constant attempts to pull them into its sphere of influence. Conversely, Russia's objection to U.S. missile defenses in these countries had nothing to do with these devices' very limited capabilities (more on this below) and everything to do with expanding its sphere of influence. Few Europeans can doubt that Obama now has effectively recognized the primacy of Russia's influence in Eastern Europe. Because Europeans now know that Obama will sacrifice their interests to the hope of Vladimir Putin's cooperation, Europe's character will change as governments and factions vie to make their deals with Moscow at our expense.

The countries formerly subject to the Soviet empire now divide into three categories: The Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Balts are fully part of the democratic West. Belarus and the Central Asian states have already slid into Moscow's orbit. Quite a few more -- Ukraine, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova, as well as the Balkan states -- are balancing undemocratic, pro-Russian elements with Western ones. Obama's missile decision will push the undecideds toward the Russian camp and put in play the Westernized countries' orientation and character.

The administration's claim that "broader geo-political considerations about kick-starting arms reduction talks or gaining cooperation on Iranian aggression had played no part" in their decision to cancel the U.S. project in these countries is trans-parently insincere. But its approach to Russia has proved as vain as it is disingenuous. Russia left no doubt that it will counter any U.S. economic or diplomatic attempt to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Why? Because Iran is Russia's ally for the purpose of excluding America from the Old World. Yet Russia works to reduce America's role in the New World. It is selling high-tech military equipment to Venezuela's anti-American dictator Hugo Chavez and is promising Soviet-style aid to anti-American regimes that Chavez is working to establish in our hemisphere. Not only does Obama not try to counter any of this: he has imposed sanctions on Honduras for resisting a Chavez-backed attempt to establish a Chavista regime in that country.

Obama's Middle East policy consists of single-minded pressure on Israel to stop building houses in the West Bank in the hope that Saudi Arabia will lead other Arab states to engage in "land for peace" negotiations. Saudi spokesman Prince Turki bin Faisal's response in the New York Times was more stark than usual: first make Israel give us land; once we have it, we'll talk about peace. As well, Obama removed any opposition to Syria's resumption of control over Lebanon through Hezbollah, and redoubled pressure on Israel to surrender the Golan Heights in the hope that Syria might substitute U.S. patronage for Iran's. But Syrian-Iranian ties have only grown. Why should any country value Iran's patronage less, since Obama is doing nothing that stands in the way of Iran's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons? Indeed Obama made his desire to accommodate Iran's regime all too clear even as the Iranian people were rising up against it.

Minimizing Missile Defense

Whether or not Israel ends up bombing Iran's nuclear program, Obama's decision to cancel a system directed against Iranian missiles, leaving Poles and Czechs in the lurch, pushes the Israelis to protect themselves by striking Iran's nukes -- alas starting a war that no one has thought how to finish. In short, and contrary to the view now dominant in Washington, America's neglect of missile defense is a factor for instability and war, not peace and harmony.

But while the sentiment that Obama is diminishing and endangering us is widespread, there is precious little public understanding of why and how our government leaves Americans as well as Europeans undefended against missiles by misusing the abundant technology we have. Obama eliminated missile defense in Europe not just to please Moscow but also because opposition to defending America or anyone associated with us against missiles is part of the American left wing's DNA. How it became so, and how Republican leaders have benefited politically from loud support for missile defense while being complicit in steering U.S. missile defense programs into unproductive activities, is beyond our scope. (See Prof. Joseph Constance's Ballistic Missile Defense in American Politics.) If Obama were the problem rather than just a more visible manifestation thereof, America would be better off. Here we look at this bipartisan problem's practical results.

The East European system that Obama scrapped was not terribly valuable militarily because its components, high-tech ground-based radars, computers, and optically guided interceptors, had been crippled congenitally to provide strictly marginal protection against just a few medium-range Iranian missiles. Had the radar not had its field of view restricted, and had the system used the long-range interceptors now deployed in Alaska, in meaningful numbers instead of a token 10 newly developed shorter-range ones, it would have been able to defend America as well as Europe against missiles from anywhere in Eurasia, including Iran. But because using the technology to its proper effect would have defended against Russia as well, the Bush administration crippled it at conception and Obama aborted it.

For the same reason, the system that Obama proposed substituting, based on the Navy's excellent AEGIS computers and interceptors, is similarly crippled. It has always been clear that were the AEGIS interceptors programmed and launched on the basis of information from satellites, they could easily defend against warheads in late midcourse coming from anywhere. But, to make sure AEGIS cannot possibly defend America against Russia, administration after administration has restricted AEGIS interceptors to information (except for terminal homing) provided by the ship's radar. Since small surface-based radars cannot see terribly far and AEGIS interceptors are launched only after the radar sees the target, the system is limited to tail-chasing warheads in early midcourse -- provided its ship can get close to the launch site, which it cannot do in most cases. And so, AEGIS ships deployed in the Persian Gulf may do a little to protect against Iran, depending on whence Iran launches its missiles and on their trajectory. But surely they cannot defend against, and thus will not offend, Russia.

These are but the least examples of how the U.S. government, whose ideology is set by the left and whose practices are shaped by bureaucratic self-interest, has trumped technology by distorting its applications. Defending against ballistic missiles existing at any given time is not now and has not been a technical mystery since 1958, when the U.S. Army accompanied its first IRBM test with a mock intercept by the rudimentary Nike system. By the time Lyndon Johnson started his full term, the two-layer Nike X system based on phased array radars, IBM 360 computers, and interceptors both exo- and endo-atmospheric was ready to protect America. By the 1970s, our Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was designing optical devices that made it technically possible to transcend radars by programming ground-based interceptors with precise discrimination and targeting data from space, and launching them long before incoming warheads came into view of radars. Since the 1980s it also has been technically feasible to place interceptors and laser weapons in orbit, from which vantage point they could strike down missiles as they rise. But while technology can overcome missiles and warheads, it cannot dent the "scientific technological elite's" (recall Eisenhower's warning) self-interest in current programs. Nor can it affect the left's proclivities. And so billions of dollars plus wonders in computers, miniaturization, infrared sensors, optics, and lasers have produced only devices such as our Alaska-based radars and interceptors that apply new technology to 1950s notions of missile defense and are deployed in token quantities, or in devices conceived for exemplary impotence.

For an example of technical crippling, look at something originally called THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) and later Skyguard, intended to defend northern Galilee against terrorist Katyusha rockets. Cobbled together starting in 1996 from parts of the U.S. space laser program, by 1998 the prototype was blowing up Katyushas, in flight at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. Building the ground-based version involved far more technical complications than developing the space version in the first place: while the space version needed to move only a few degrees to track distant ICBMs, the ground version's pointer-tracker had to move fast and far to deal with nearby Katyushas, and while the space version used the negative pressures of space to turn chemical combustion into light, the ground version had to produce vacuum exhausts for each shot. It took a lot of work to turn a weapon capable of defending against ballistic missiles from anywhere to anywhere into one that serves very limited purposes. The technical challenge lay in raising the technology's capacities in order to perform a lesser mission while disabling it against the missiles that matter most. THEL makes clear how much more difficult it is to use technology sub-optimally than to use it optimally.

The Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) is an even clearer example of the efforts the U.S. government makes to detour technology onto less productive paths. Essentially an attempt to fit the space-based laser into an airplane, the ABL uses its technology in a way that may shoot down some missiles but will surely have no chance whatever of hitting missiles coming out of the Old World's depths, including Russia, Iran, and China. But the ABL is unlikely ever to defend anyone against anything, even were it able to project energy reliably to destroy missiles a hundred miles away, which is technically impossible since its beam creates an inherently unmanageable atmospheric microenvironment. That is because to defend against missiles coming from any given location, the ABL's modified Boeing 747 would have to hover near those locations, which is operationally impossible. Adapting the space laser's elements for an airplane adds serious problems of vibration and safety to all the difficulties of reconfiguring it for ground use -- all for essentially naught. According to the Government Accountability Office, ABL has wasted some $2.5 billion so far on a bad idea.

But note well that this idea's main attraction is the same as that of every other U.S. anti-missile program since the 1960s: it uses new technology in a way that will have arguably something to do with missile defense, thereby satisfying Republicans in particular and the American people in general. And it spends a lot of money -- which satisfies bureaucratic and industrial interest groups -- while avoiding defending the United States, which satisfies so many sophisticated notions of statecraft in Washington and academe.

Pretend missile defense is by no means Obama's and the Democratic Party's exclusive responsibility. The Republicans who rose to responsibility for these matters either advocated exemplarily the ideology that equates defending America with warmongering and pleasing Russia with statesmanship, as did Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft; or shared it in pectore, as did Condoleezza Rice; or challenged it only rhetorically while not daring to dispute it de facto, as did the G. W. Bush administration when it withdrew officially from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty while quietly observing its key provisions and above all its spirit. In the end, however, responsibility matters less than results.

The chief result is that the U.S. government's pretend missile defense fits all too well with Obama's reduction in the number of high-tech conventional weapons systems and planned drastic reduction in U.S. nuclear strike forces. Reducing the U.S. armed forces' capacity to protect Americans and strike our enemies' capacity leaves them configured mostly for occupations. This is military malpractice.

Military Malpractice

In Afghanistan, Obama is taking the late 20th-century American Way of War to new depths of un-seriousness. Since Korea, and especially beginning in Vietnam, American statesmen have sent our armed forces to kill and die for ever-hazier ends and with ever less regard for the means to achieve any end at all. With a few changes in proper nouns, the Obama administration's explanations of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would read exactly like those of previous presidents for spending lives and treasure in Vietnam and Iraq, or Somalia and Haiti: U.S. armed forces are there to reform a state whose corruption, lack of democracy, and ancient quarrels prevent it from standing up to largely self-financed extremists whose success would endanger our security. So don't even mention that these trigger pullers serve the causes of states, and don't even think of making war on the problem's sources, whether they be in Moscow, as was the case in Vietnam, or in the Arab states. Once we have protected the villagers, instituted an impartial central government, built up its security forces and taught them human rights, once we have built schools, hospitals, roads, once we have breathed life into the economy, we will have won. We know how to build nations. In the meantime, we will not designate any set of people whose death will stop the violence, and kill them.

Hence American soldiers, prohibited from making war on everyone connected with those who shoot at them, and forbidden even to think of undoing the regimes whence come the armed enemies' money and inspiration, are sentenced to strike out at whatever targets present themselves while living and dying in replenished minefields. As they bleed, they read that their generals and U.S. officials are negotiating in air-conditioned safety to empower precisely the people who are blowing them up. This reversal of ancient wisdom about war under the pretense of sophistication was criminally dumb in Vietnam, dumber in Iraq, and nuts in Afghanistan. Madness is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.

Diplomatic Malpractice

The pursuit of negotiations as ends in themselves has brought America much grief for many years. More Americans died in Korea and Vietnam after "peace talks" began than before. More people in the Middle East (and in the U.S.) have died at the hands of terrorists since the "Middle East Peace Process" began than before. North Korea got its nuclear bombs and Iran is getting its nukes in the course of negotiations intended by American statesmen to stop them. American statesmen seem ignorant of the elementary fact that governments so inclined (and there are lots of them) use negotiations to gain time, weaken the opponent's will, deceive, forestall the opponent's moves, affect third parties, etc. The Obama administration seems even less competent than its predecessors in this regard. Thus its goal in the Middle East is to restart Arab-Israeli negotiations, and it presses Israel to make preemptive concessions, effectively to pay a cover charge, to get to the table. By the same token, Obama claimed success when Iran agreed to face-to-face negotiations. But his administration took no notice that Iran's letter of acceptance rejected contemptuously any discussion of Iran's nuclear programs, and pledged that Iranians would talk only about what America must do for them. Such talks serve Iran by eliminating the chance of serious U.S. moves as it completes its nukes. But what American purpose do they serve? In sum, believing that words do anything other than represent reality is a prime example of diplomatic malpractice. Alas, there are many others.

Just Words

Obama's words, even more than his predecessors', have been both grandiloquent and instantly self-discrediting. For example, Obama's response to North Korea's launch of a missile in violation of UN resolutions and of his own warnings -- "rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something" -- advertised his unseriousness. He could have said nothing, or just deplored the event, or promised to announce serious consequences at a later date, perhaps calling for a conference on "regime change" in North Korea. Mere Kissingerian cleverness would have veiled (lightly) his unseriousness by separating his words from the realities that discredit them. But Obama chose to sound tough, with words that were self-evidently empty. Anyone reading them asked: What punishments does he suggest to make what rules binding? What actions does he propose to give meaning to his words? He suggested none. Worse, because his words implied referring North Korea to the UN, whose acts all sentient persons know are meaningless, they made him a laughingstock among serious people.

Obama's speech to the Muslim world was his greatest rhetorical overreach. After a thousand years during which Islam and Western civilization trod diverging paths in philosophy, science, and the most basic attitudes toward the sexes and the role of work in life, after a half-century during which Muslims murdered Western ambassadors and Olympians as millions of their own cheered, suddenly Obama conjured up in words a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." How? With yet other words: "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end." Must? Who will make it stop? How? He did not say. He urged his audience to "abandon violence," because "resistance through violence and killing does not succeed." But his audience knew perfectly well that Obama was speaking to them so, and that the U.S. government had given billions of dollars to the Muslim world, precisely because so many Muslims had killed so many Americans. Of course they had succeeded. Obama's words were self-discrediting.

Obama is not the only president to discredit America and himself by using the word "must" promiscuously. George W. Bush famously told "the great and proud nation of Egypt" that now it must lead the Muslim world to the promised land of democracy. Must? Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, gratuitously and impotently telling foreign countries what to do advertises your (and your country's) unseriousness. If you cannot speak seriously, better shut up.

Why?

Barack Obama was not born yesterday ex nihilo, without intellectual or political predecessors. He is scion, part and parcel of the left wing  of the American left and identifies with its view of America at home and internationally. His theoretical foundation in foreign affairs is William Appleman Williams's The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the point of which is that the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro were on history's correct side while the American people should be dragged there. His practical templates are Anthony Lake, who wrote Carter's celebration of American guilt and defeat in Vietnam, and Morton Halperin, who wrote that the whole world had a stake in defeating America because had the American people prevailed in Vietnam they likely would have started a nuclear war. That iswhy Obama, like the people with whom he spent his formative years, whose language he speaks, whose assumptions he shares, has been concerned not with making the world safe for America, but with making America safe for the world.

That is why Obama apologizes for America to its enemies and favors them over its friends: because
he shares their and his domestic friends' sense that the rest of us have much to apologize for, that we need to be changed, reformed, restricted. That is why he speaks as he does: because he believes that
by pretending to foreigners that America is just like he and his friends are, that it shares their loves and hates, he can persuade them to be nice, at least to him. That is why he is incapable of understanding war -- at least against non-American enemies.

Our problems in dealing with the rest of the world, however, are far bigger than one man or one party. They even transcend the rise of an influential class of people who value America for what they might make of it but disdain it for what it is. Rather, our problems lie in the broad-based loss of a culture of seriousness in international affairs. All of us will have to pay for that.

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About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.