Can Obama complete his foreign-policy legacy?

Weekly Comment, 23-30 Oct 2015

There is little more than a year remaining in which President Obama can hope to cement his foreign policy legacy.  The Obama doctrine — a reaction against the neo-con hankering after Empire, by tempering it according to the shifting constraints on US power — largely rests on the narrow pillar of the Iran nuclear accord. But President Putin now is holding out to the US President the tempting prospect of something better: that he just might be able to seal the Iran deal with a possible settlement in Syria (thanks, paradoxically, to Russian and Iranian military intervention).  Something at least, for Obama to set against his inability to fulfil his pledge to end America’s long-running Afghan war, and to wind down America’s unhappy Middle East experience.

Should Obama takes up the Russian offer however, it may do more than offer him another legacy achievement: It could knock back the neo-con agenda by decisively shifting away from their embrace of a path of escalating confrontation with China and Russia (and sizeable other states) towards de-confliction.

It is a gamble: potentially it could change the course of history (aligning America more closely to the political and economic changes that have taken effect since WW2, rather than to a “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity”). But it is, too, an undertaking with no certainty of producing a clear-cut identifiable US success (such as recasting the US posture in the Middle East tied to states whose interests differ substantially from those of the US). But indeed, as Obama surveys the statements emanating from his putative Presidential successors, he must wonder how long-lived any such ‘re-set’ might prove to be – or whether it is possible at all.

As Jim Lobe has noted:

“A mostly neoconservative group of national-security analysts have published perhaps the first comprehensive outline of what they believe a Republican foreign policy should look like as of Inauguration Day 2017. It’s titled Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World …. If you sense a rebirth of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), you’re probably not far off, although Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol, who co-founded PNAC, are not among the large number of its contributors. [PNAC published two volumes, Present Dangers and Rebuilding American Defenses that together formed a neocon manifesto for the Republican presidential candidate in the 2000 election, in which the organization initially backed John McCain.]”

Unsurprisingly, in this latest manifesto, there is barely a ‘nod’ of apology for any earlier neo-con ‘mistakes’ (Stephen Walt has previously noted how “the neoconservatives keep staging comebacks because they simply don’t care how often they have been wrong, and because they remain willing to do or say anything to stay in the public eye”). The thrust of this latest document is that with the right leadership in place, and the right policies pursued, the US can (and should) continue to lead the world, and extend the ‘unipolar’ moment. In brief, the gist is that there is no reason why, in the 21st century, America should not also continue to “provide the leadership”, and be the “guarantor of [the] global order” too.

“Thus, [the authors] deem Beijing’s [and Russia and Iran’s] aspirations unacceptable, and decry “replac[ing] the American-shaped order that enabled China’s ‘peaceful rise’ with a system in which we [i.e. America] are only one of multiple, equal participants”, notes Jim Lobe. It is a pretty blatant call for ‘Empire’, which Kristol and others have explicitly likened to the Star Wars films. Kristol articulated his sympathies for the ‘Dark Side’ — a phrase subsequently taken up and used by Dick Cheney in connection with America’s foreign policy.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg notes:

“So many GOP [Presidential] candidates seem to be well-prepared [sic], yet uncannily in sync when it comes to foreign policy: Most of them have tapped the same group of experts for guidance, a shadow foreign policy campaign infrastructure just waiting for a nominee to emerge”.

Ever since Mitt Romney lost the race in 2012, his foreign policy team has been working to remain intact, become a resource for as many primary candidates as possible, and position itself to influence the next president, if he or she is a Republican. For candidates who haven’t the time or resources to build their own foreign policy staffs at this stage, the project, called the John Hay Initiative, is a handy tool to get smart fast on complicated subjects and even hand off some heavy lifting on national security issues.

For the party itself, the group’s omnipresence behind the scenes is shaping a hawkish, right-of-Hillary-Clinton foreign policy agenda that is quickly becoming the established position of the party hopefuls going into 2016.”

Choosing to Lead is this group’s manifesto. “Hay Initiative leaders say they see their project not only as a foreign policy campaign shop, but also the beginnings of a foreign policy staff for a future president.” [following the precedent set by PNAC], Rogin writes.

But even other bi-partisan and esteemed foreign policy institutes, such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) take a rather similar position – especially in respect to China. As Conflicts Forum noted in an earlier Comment (May 2015): “The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has just released a remarkably frank policy document [that] … makes no bones about its aims, but rather it says it flatly:  China must be defeated, since it threatens US global hegemony:

“Since its founding, the United States has consistently pursued a grand strategy focused on acquiring and maintaining preeminent power over various rivals, first on the North American continent, then in the Western hemisphere, and finally globally.” It goes on to praise the George H.W. Bush administration for presciently contended that its ‘strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.

“China’s sustained economic success over the past thirty-odd years has enabled it to aggregate formidable power, making it the nation most capable of dominating the Asian continent and thus undermining the traditional U.S. geopolitical objective of ensuring that this arena remains free of [competitive] hegemonic control.” 

The CFR report, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, is introduced by Richard Haass, CFR’s President, who writes in his introduction that the authors “also argue that China has not evolved into the ‘responsible stakeholder’ that many in the United States hoped it would … what flows from this assessment is nothing less than a call on their part [the report’s authors] for a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy … Stated somewhat differently, the authors recommend a new U.S. policy of balancing China that would in effect change the balance of current U.S. policy – in the process placing less emphasis on support and cooperation and more on pressure and competition. There would be less hedging and more active countering.” Or, as the report’s authors put it, through “intense U.S.-China strategic competition.”

The need for a shift in America’s foreign policy adduced in a parallel book penned by Haass, Foreign Policy Begins at Home argues that America’s earlier unjustified wars of choice made “no strategic sense at the best of times; [and would be] even less defensible now, when the United States faces difficult challenges to its solvency”.

Hass continues that the US is “in a position of high vulnerability to forces or actions beyond its control. Right now the US government requires an inflow of more than $1billion a day to support a gross federal debt that stands at about $16 trillion and increases by more than $1 trillion a year. We can look to our own history to see what can happen when foreign governments obtain this kind of leverage. In 1956, the US government, furious over Great Britain’s participation in the invasion of Egypt after Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, blocked international loans the British needed to avert a collapse of their currency. The British government of the day was forced to back down. Now imagine what might happen were China to threaten a similar action against the United States amid a crisis over Taiwan or the South China Sea”.

In short, the neo-conservatives are re-grouping, with support from many non neo-cons, and they intend to roll-back Obama’s ‘doctrine’, which they view as having a self-fulfilling emphasis on America’s ‘declining power’.

Nor, as it happens is there much gap between these institutions, and the four academic experts called to give evidence before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 22 October. Professor Eliot Cohen, (co-chair of the Hay Initiative and a charter member of PNAC) was the only true neo-con witness, but all witnesses, explicitly or implicitly, denied that America was in decline (though now it might need to be ‘more prudent’ about exercising power), and none dissented from the general (neo-con coined) notion that America’s ‘benevolent hegemony’ “omelette” cannot be made without breaking a few eggs (a formulation created by a follower of William Kristol, who coined the term America’s ‘benevolent global hegemony’ in 1996).

What is China and Russia (and Iran and others) to make of all this?  The Republicans seemingly are lined up behind the Hay Initiative (with perhaps, the exception of Trump), and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate presumptive, is the lady who gave us: “We came; we saw: he died” [in reference to the lynching of Ghadafi – an encapsulation of doctrine of which Bill Kristol or Wolfowitz would have been proud].

No wonder there is pessimism in Russia (and China) about prospects for ultimately avoiding confrontation. Clearly, they, (China and Russia), would surmise that they are cast to be the ‘broken eggs’ in the hegemonic omelette.  See here for one Russian Presidential adviser’s ideas on “urgent [economic] measures” to counter the existential threat to Russia (text in Russian).

As a contemporary example of the renewed neo-con thrust, Matthew Continetti in The Washington Free Beacon, wrote a pieceA Reagan Doctrine for the Twenty-First Century, which plainly is intended as a contemporary reformulation of Kristol’s and Kagan’s Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy. According to Continetti, the Russian “Evil Empire” [Reagan’s infamous campaign phrase] was not defeated after all: only temporarily dormant. And so, Continetti’s updated Reaganite manifesto is subtitledHow to confront Vladimir Putin. Continetti falls in with the calls for a ‘new American century’: Reaganism is needed now, just as much as in 1996, he avers: in fact, doubly so, for Russia has re-emerged as “…the greatest military and ideological threat to the United States and to the world order [that] it has built over decades, as guarantor of international security.”

No surprise either then, that Putin should have opted for the gamble to ‘force’ Obama’s hand in Syria as a pre-emptive initiative to forestall the prospect of a more confrontational Administration emerging in 2016. Obama’s gamble is different: to achieve a more substantial legacy, he needs to leave office with America’s Middle Eastern posture – and its array of  allies (increasingly seen in Washington as detrimental to US interests), revamped. The Iran accord was a first step, but the re-shaping of America’s alliances and posture is not easily achieved because American Middle East policy has ‘a history’, an enduring legacy, which the still prominent neo-con ‘party’ will not easily relinquish.

In the wake of the first Gulf War (1991), General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, recalled:

“In 1991, [Wolfowitz] was the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy — the number 3 position at the Pentagon. And I had gone to see him when I was a 1-Star General commanding the National Training Center (…)

And I said, “Mr. Secretary, you must be pretty happy with the performance of the troops in Desert Storm.”

And he said: “Yeah, but not really, because the truth is we should have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, and we didn’t … But one thing we did learn is that we can use our military in the region — in the Middle East — and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about 5 or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet client regimes — Syria, Iran, Iraq — before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.”

Wolfowitz’s sentiments were taken up explicitly by David Wurmser in his 1996 document, Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant (this followed on from his earlier infamous Clean Break policy strategy paper written for Bibi Netanyahu earlier in the same year). Daniel Sanchez has noted with respect to the former document:

“Wurmser characterized regime change in Iraq and Syria (both ruled by Baathist regimes) as “expediting the chaotic collapse” of secular-Arab nationalism in general, and Baathism in particular. He concurred with King Hussein of Jordan that, “the phenomenon of Baathism,” was, from the very beginning, “an agent of foreign, namely Soviet policy.”… Wurmser argued that: “…the battle over Iraq represents a desperate attempt by residual Soviet bloc allies in the Middle East to block the extension into the Middle East of the impending collapse that the rest of the Soviet bloc faced in 1989.”

Wurmser further derided Baathism in Iraq and Syria as an ideology in a state of “crumbling descent and missing its Soviet patron” and “no more than a Cold War enemy relic on probation.”

Wurmser advised the West to put this anachronistic adversary out of its misery, and to thus, in Kristolian fashion, press America’s Cold War victory on toward its final culmination. Baathism should be supplanted by what he called the “Hashemite option.” After their chaotic collapse, Iraq and Syria would be Hashemite possessions once again. Both would be dominated by the royal house of Jordan, which in turn, happens to be dominated by the US and Israel.”

Wurmser stressed that demolishing Baathism must be the foremost priority in the region. Secular-Arab nationalism should be given no quarter – not even – he added, for the sake of stemming the tide of Islamic fundamentalism”. (Emphasis added by CF).

This tract, which together with Clean Break was to have a major impact on Washington’s thinking during the G.W. Bush Administration (in which David Wurmser would serve). It is the legacy, against which Obama is battling. In a sense, these policy papers sum up everything:  With the ‘Evil Empire’ in disintegration, America had the chance to re-make the Middle East; to assert uni-polar power globally (through military bases); to destroy Iraq, Iran – and “roll-back Syria” (as Clean Break advocated) – in order to secure Israel.

What aroused the deep-seated neo-con ire in respect to the secular-Arab nationalist states was not just that they were, in the neo-con view, crumbling relics of the ‘evil’ USSR, but that from 1953 onwards, Russia sided with these secular-nationalist states in all their conflicts regarding Israel.  This was something the neo-cons could neither tolerate, nor forgive.

So this is what Obama faces in taking his Middle East policy to its logical conclusion of distancing America from the sometimes damaging consequences of its ties to its principal client states (and their disparate agendas): Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States. Primarily, President Obama crosses the main neo-con ‘red lines’ by potentially risking America’s ability to project global power (in the case that these states retaliate by refusing use of the necklace of American bases stretched across their territory).

Risking security and intelligence links similarly would be perceived by neo-conservatives to be an invitation to American ‘decline’ – and therefore to its loss of global hegemony, and the chance to make the 21st century another ‘American century’. Further, any loosening of links to the client states crosses the ‘red line’ of weakening Israel’s regional pre-eminence, and of eroding America’s global financial power (for example by Gulf States abandoning the pricing of oil in dollars, or of curtailing their financial positions in Wall Street and in Europe).

These are the inherited ‘facts’ of US foreign policy: When the neo-cons shaped G.W. Bush’s policies by taking aim at the secular-nationalist states, they also explicitly tied America to the kings and Emirs of the Gulf (as Wurmser explicitly acknowledges). More seriously, they also left Obama with the complicated legacy of ambivalency towards radical Sunni Islam: On the one hand, a bogey to be feared, and on the other, a tool to be used against the Ba’athists, Nasserists, Soviets and Iranians et alii. It is this ambivalence, its feeble war on ‘terrorism’, which is so embarrassing the US in Syria today.

But what really drives the neo-con faction nuts, is that it is Russia that is displacing American power in the Middle East, and is even inviting Obama to join with them in this project. Obama knows too, that though the neo-cons are diminished in influence, they still carry considerable clout. As we have seen, Kristol and Kagan’s subtle projection of the notion of America as somehow a ‘benevolent global hegemon’ who has to occasionally break eggs, and as the ‘guarantor of a global order which has provided the world with stability and security’, has a resonance amongst Americans (and some Europeans too) that should not be under-estimated.  Can Obama risk entering a confrontation with the neo-cons, to save America from prospective confrontation with China and Russia?  We shall see.


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