Thursday, November 13, 2008

What I want from an Obama Administration - Part 1, Foreign Policy

When you are the dominant power in the world, you can dictate terms to everybody else.

When your currency is the dominant measure of value and forms the basis for the world economy, you can dictate terms - and then the threat of economic isolation is a very real threat indeed.

When your military is the dominant force worldwide and you have a strong alliance with like minded nations and the resolute backing of their forces, you can dictate terms - and then the threat of military force is a very real threat indeed.

When you have control of every asset needed to power your national economy and infrastructure and you are not dependent on outside supply of critical resources - i.e. energy, raw materials, food stocks, technology, knowledge, manufacturing, and etc. - you can dictate terms to the rest of the world without concern and there is little your adversaries can do to threaten you.

And for brief time in the mid part of last century the United States of America enjoyed exactly that position in the world - and our current foreign policy was born during that time and continues to reflect its origin.  In reality, this concept is long out of date - and frankly doesn't work and has not in a very long, long time. I want to avoid the rhetoric of third world dictators, but the truth of the matter is that much of the world sees our foreign policy as arrogant and imperialistic - and from their perspective, well, they're right.

Yes, this is a criticism of the United States. So what? All people, and therefor all nations, have flaws.  Those that are admired and respected, both people and nations, are the ones who can identify the flaws, admit their mistakes, and take action to fix them. Those that are not admired or respected, those that are hated and despised, both people and nations, are the ones who arrogantly proclaim themselves perfect and set about to impose that perceived perfection on everybody else. And in an increasingly large part of the world, America and Americans are hated and despised. We can either continue on the road we're on, or we can do something about it. Recovered alcoholics have a saying, "The first step is to admit you have a problem." Those that refuse to face this simple fact, never stop drinking - and in many cases it destroys them.

The first step is to admit we have a problem with foreign policy. There's nothing unpatriotic about this criticism. The world changes and so do we.  The American dollar is no longer dominant in the world, and is a much less potent threat diplomatically.  The American military, while still the most powerful weapon on the planet, is engaged up to its neck and stretched thin. America is no longer the arsenal of democracy, far too many of our resources come at the end of long and vulnerable supply lines.  America may be the only remaining superpower, but it is not the only power on the planet and new economic forces are in ascension.

And it is long past time to recognize this simple fact: we cannot dictate terms, not effectively anyway.  The world has changed, and we must change with it - and so must our foreign policy.

Take Cuba, for example.  Cuba is the epitome of failed US foreign policy.  There was a time, a century ago, when Americans were heroes on the Island of Cuba. There was time, a century ago, when some Cubans even spoke of joining the Union. There was a time, a century ago, when the American Flag flew over the USS Maine Memorial in Malecon, Havana Harbor and Cubans looked upon it with gratitude and profound thanks for their freedom from Spain. There was time, little more than half a century ago, when America and Cuba were allies, and American military men looked forward to liberty and R&R in that island paradise, and Americans from Miami, New York, and Washington vacationed there - some even owned homes and businesses there.

It wasn't all idyllic paradise though, there was corruption and crushing poverty and the mafia and the Coup. No, not that coup, the other one, the one that brought a corrupt and greedy dictator to power, Ruben Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar.  Bastista suspended the Constitution, and set about making himself and his cronies rich at the expense of everybody else in the country - it's an old story and one we've seen many, many times.  Rather than set matters right, the US embraced Bastista, and helped him rape his country - which in turn paved the way for Fidel Castro and his revolucion.  Strangely, despite the fact the Castro visited the US after his assumption of power and sought to continue close ties with America, he was rebuffed by the Eisenhower administration - and so he turned to the USSR. 

You know what happened and what the results were and are to this day - and if you don't, you can easily find out. Economic and political isolation, embargo, and threats of military force. We don't talk to them and they don't talk to us. Screw 'em.  And so it has stood for the last fifty years. 

There's just one little problem with this foreign policy - it doesn't work. It has never worked, and is even less likely to work in the future as other powers such as China, India, South America, and the European Economic Union increasingly move away from the desires and dictates of the United States.

Despite everything the US threw at Cuba, political isolation, economic embargo, and half-assed attempts at military force and CIA black operations, Castro remained in power. He found other sources of support, he turned American foreign policy into a rallying point for his population, and despite his pariah status - or maybe because of it - he became a source of inspiration to others who felt they were getting the short end of US foreign relations. And he left office on his own terms due to the infirmity of age, and not because of our machinations and foreign policy.

The logic behind our continued position regarding Cuba simply doesn't hold water - despite the continued vehement outcries of the Cuban expats living in Miami to the contrary.  We don't deal with dictators? Nonsense. Look around. If Cuba had oil we'd deal with Fidel and make no bones about it just as we do with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Venezuela. We don't deal with communists? Nonsense.  If Cuba manufactured consumer goods for dirt cheap prices we'd deal with Fidel and make no bones about it, just as we do with China.  We don't deal with rigidly oppressive societies? Nonsense, if Cubans provided dirt cheap off-shore labor and spoke reasonable English we be getting our tech support from them, just as we do from India.  We don't deal with corrupt governments? Nonsense. If Cubans had dirt cheap manufacturing we'd be getting our car parts from them, just as we do from Mexico. We don't deal with our former enemies? Nonsense. That particular list is endless, staring with England and ending with Russia and Vietnam.  Despite the fact that our foreign policy has availed us nothing in sixty years with regards to Cuba, and in point of fact can be definitively shown to have decreased our security rather significantly in many cases, we continue to hold the course.

Then there's the rest of it. When, the gloved fist of economic and political isolation doesn't work, we remove the glove to expose the mailed fist underneath - i.e. military action.  Isaac Asimov once wrote, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent (from the character Salvor Hardin, Foundation), and while I don't entirely agree with this sentiment (sometimes violent military action is entirely the correct option, for a number of reasons) I do think that the use of military force often provides politicians with a far too easy alternative to aggressive diplomacy and compromise.  From Korea to Vietnam, to Beirut and Somali, to the Bay of Pigs, to Iraq and Afghanistan, the examples of why military action as foreign policy is a mistake are plentiful.

And then there's the current administration with it's policy of preemptive military action.  If there's anything more counter productive than our current foreign policy, it's the addition of the so-called Bush Doctrine to it.  Invasion of Iraq may have removed an annoying petty pissant of a dictator, but the overall damage to America's reputation, economy, alliances, military, and position in the world are a pretty poor return on that investment.

Insanity has been defined as repeating the same action and expecting different results despite all evidence to the contrary. Over and over and over.  And this concept, more than anything else, defines our current foreign policy.  It's insane.

One of the reason's I voted for Barrack Obama is his stance on opening negotiations with Iran.

The current situation with Iran is untenable, and it will come to a head sooner or later if left unchecked.  As someone who is extremely experienced in military operations, as someone is extremely experienced in the Middle East, and as someone who is knowledgeable of Iran, its government, its people, its terrain, and its military strength - I say with confidence, military action should be the very, very, very last thing we think about - unless we are willing to either give up all military operations everywhere else in the world, or make a concerted national effort on the order of the sacrifice needed to win WWII.  Economic isolation of Iran isn't working - and has not, ever. We simply do not have the backing of the rest of the world. Maybe we could have achieved a united economic global front against Iran in the days following 9/11, but not now and I shouldn't have to explain why. And without that united front, economic isolation, embargo, and sanctions are an empty threat. The only entity suffering from it is us.  Political isolation? Give me a break. If you think political pariah status bothers the rulers of Iran, you don't know enough about the subject to even be in the conversation.

What's that leave us?


A complete and immediate overhaul of our foreign policy would do more to pull us out of the current recession, stabilize the market, and remove the underlying causes of anti-American terrorism then any military or economic action. But that overhaul needs to be based on common sense and a recognition of reality.

I want President Obama to make good on his promise.  I want him to invite the leaders of our enemies to a meeting, here, there, on neutral ground I don't care.  I want him to sit down and at least try to reach common ground. Something we can all live with, and prosper under. And if it doesn't work out? So what of it? How would we be worse off than we are right now?

Israelis and Palestinians have been at each others' throats for sixty years, and yet they still keep trying, and they get a little closer all the time - they're not there yet, and probably won't be for a long, long time, but they keep talking, keep trying, and they're reaching a point now where the reasonable people are at least equal in number to the unreasonable ones. Sooner or later they'll find common ground and a lasting peace. We need to do the same.

The world changes, and we must change with it.  Twenty years ago, I would never have believed that Americans would fly to the International Space Station onboard Russian made ships, or that cosmonauts would fly into orbit on American shuttles.  Twenty years ago I would never have believed that Berlin would be united again in my lifetime. Ten years ago I wouldn't have believed that Israelis would even consider a Palestinian homeland. A year ago I wouldn't have believed that Americans could elect an African American president.

I've come to believe in a number of things I never thought possible. 

And I believe it's time for a change.


  1. Well said, Jim.

    A comment about the position we were in fifty years ago: one of the mistakes we made at the time (and are still paying for) is a habit of confusing what could be done with what should be done. That we were able to dictate terms was frequently used as sufficient excuse to do so--even if sowing resentments was a foreseeable result. We often remember T. Roosevelt's famous adage, "Speak softly but carry a big stick" without understanding it: yes, you have the stick, and that's great, but the first half of that is speak softly. Don't go around yelling about your damn stick all the time, or worse yet just go around whomping the hell out of everything that moves.

    Of course, you said that when you pointed out that dictating terms doesn't work, but it's worth repeating.

    And it's worth mentioning that you should never overestimate your power. Vietnam is the classic example: we didn't lose because of inferior force (obviously) and (contrary to what some people seem to think) we didn't lose because of domestic politics. We lost because we were going to lose regardless, because (as somebody at the time pointed out) they lived there and sooner or later we would have to go home. Another subject, perhaps, for another time--but I think the President-Elect seems to be somebody who understands that even economic and military superiority isn't always sufficient even if it's practically uncontested.

    Anyway, great piece, Jim. Thanks.

  2. When Yitzhak Rabin was being raked over the coals for who he was willing to sit down with, he said, "You don't make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies. "

  3. I wish I'd have thought of that quote, Nathan, when I wrote the post. That's just exactly outstanding.

    And it's worth pointing out, especially to the neocons, there is an enormous difference between what Rabin did (and what I've said in this post) and the type of Neville Chamberlain appeasement that republicans attempted to pin on Obama for his stated willingness to at least talk to our adversaries - strangely, I think most Americans understood that - at least the non-ultra conservatives anyway.

  4. Nor is Chamberlain understood all that well by the neocons and conservatives to start with: a case can be made (c.f. Overy and Wheatcroft's Road To War) that Chamberlain (1) reacted to Hitler the only way the leader of a war-weary democracy could have (the British public didn't want a war in '39 and would have voted in actual pacifists had Chamberlain tried to confront Hitler) and (2) managed, intentionally or not, to buy Britain valuable time to modernize the RAF and build up their military strength. I say "the case can be made" because this subject is a matter of ongoing debate and will be, and arguing both sides is easy (and fun!)--but the point is that it's pretty naive to take a matter that is really that controversial and use it to level what is meant to be an ugly attack. An intelligent student of history would consider that whether appeasement was right or wrong is not merely a moral question, but a complicated tangle of the military planning, domestic politics and economics of '30s Britain.

  5. Well said Jim. Brits and French have been fighiting each other for centuries in the middle ages, Germans have been fighting everyone else. And all of that happened on a much smaller territory.

    True that some might still despite each other, but it's more of the despite that Bears fans feel towards Packer fans, and vice-a-versa.

    They live and work together now, peacefuly for a long time, even creating some sort of Unified Europe. And these are the people that have been fighting each other MUCH LONGER than the US existed. How can such a young country CREATE for themselves so many enemies in such a short time?

    I think we can do it. I hope we can do it.


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