At Large

Foreign Policy With Empty Pockets

Obama's big plans will have to wait -- though the world financial crisis could accelarate withdrawal from Iraq.

By 12.5.08

Send to Kindle

The world financial crisis is going to have a major impact on the foreign policy of the incoming Democrat Administration -- and not for the first time. Thirty years ago in a different but not dissimilar economic crisis, with the powerful Democrat Speaker Tip O'Neill pressing him at every step (just as Speaker Pelosi is doing to today's president-elect) Jimmy Carter sought to cut back in foreign and defense spending in a post-Vietnam War catharsis.

The ambitious claims of the Obama election campaign in regard to foreign aid and cooperative international programs will have to be revised substantially. Developing countries looking toward the U.S. for assistance will find the Democrat-controlled Congress not eager to share America's reduced wealth. European aid activities will be similarly constrained.

Perhaps even more important is the possible impact on American military commitments. No administration likes to admit it, but the cost of military operations abroad is enormously expensive and has a direct political impact on funds available for domestic spending. With the Democratic Party liberal mindset, military expenditure has to be one of the first areas of cutback reviewed by the Obama Administration. Even the suggestion of such a reduction of financial commitment will have a strong effect on an Obama foreign policy.

It is possible that the already planned withdrawal of U.S. military in Iraq will be accelerated in the Obama first term just because of the financial burden. In the same fashion, American efforts to “internationalize" the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan will face increasing excuses from already recalcitrant NATO countries that are facing their own economic problems. Even the U.K. that has been such a stalwart ally, along with the Canadians, Australians, Dutch, Danes and Poles, will find it financially difficult to justify their continued expenditures in pursuing the Afghan war.

Interestingly, Moscow finds itself in somewhat the same position. President Medvedev has just completed his highly publicized tour of Latin America, with special emphasis on Venezuela and Cuba. When the high-flown rhetoric is stripped away, what is left is the usual desire by these left-wing governments for economic and military assistance from Russia.

They will soon find out in Caracas and Havana that some obsolescent weaponry is available, but serious economic aid is just not in the cards in times of a world recession and severe reduction of oil income. The display of Russian naval power currently under way with the Venezuelans may be the last in a long while. It costs a great deal of money to steam around the globe puffing out Moscow's aging naval chest.

On the other hand, Chinese military involvement around the world has always been of limited nature. The Chinese have specialized in offering basic military assistance in the form of training and non-sophisticated conventional equipment and weaponry. This has been an extremely economic way to use military aid to gain eventual economic and political entrée. The Chinese will be quick to take advantage of openings created by withdrawal of Western military assistance in the developing world.

The administration of Barack Obama will be placed in the position of having to consider altering U.S. military commitments for economic reasons rather than the political justifications made during the election. This is where General Jim Jones, USMC Ret. as National Security Advisor will have a major role -- and influence. It can be foreseen that the position he will hold will return once again as a principal operational factor in White House decision-making rather than the strictly advisory character of recent years.

It is hard to overlook the conflict of President-elect Obama's desire to sharply increase spending on various social programs, most particularly in health services, and his oft-stated ambition to reduce poverty and disease among the world's less developed nations. From a political as well as practical standpoint, domestic needs must be the first addressed. The Speaker of the House, among others, will make sure that point is pressed home.

It is hard to underestimate the pressure from American organizations that expect an Obama White House to take the lead in providing the broad-based health care on which the Democratic Party has so fervently campaigned and Barack Obama has emphasized. In these difficult economic times foreign aid that is seen as detracting from increased social programs at home will certainly come under severe political pressure from the new administration's own supporters.

Barack Obama has a great number of surprises awaiting him as he takes office in these perilous economic times. His personal ambitions as an anointed world leader, so obviously implied during the election campaign, may be considerably financially constrained.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.