US foreign policy is at the crossroads today

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A 100 years ago, when a king, queen, or prime minister saw that the policies his or her government was following had outlived their purpose, changing them was relatively simple. Government was accepted as a preserve of the ruling class. The media was confined to print journalism with restricted circulation, largely within the same class. There was no television and, above all, no social networking sites, where anyone and everyone could express an opinion, issue a call for a protest, or incite people to active resistance. Leaders could, therefore, change policies without having to admit past mistakes and explain themselves at every step.

That age has vanished. Today no leader can afford to admit that he or she has made a mistake (even if they might have inadvertently done so). What the people of the mass media age now require of their leaders is that they never make a mistake. But since to err is human, this means that leaders of nations have forfeited the right to be human. In the process, they have also forfeited the right to learn from their past mistakes.

This is the impossible plight in which the age of mass media has placed every elected leader of a democratic country. The latest victim is none other than US President Barack Obama.

On 28 May, Obama delivered his annual commencement address to the graduates of West Point Military Academy. On the surface, his speech was little different from the one he had given in 2013 and Vice-President Joe Biden had given in 2012 — US power was unmatched, it was the hub of the global order, the one indispensable nation. Isolation was not, therefore, an option. But this time, it contained a significant change of emphasis that has brought a storm of criticism down on his head.

Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor of the influential neo-conservative journal, The Weekly Standard, wrote in the Financial Times: ‘The cadets in attendance appeared to be sitting on their hands. Obama’s doctrine is squeamish. It will be uninspiring to martial minds. Where most presidents go to West Point to speak of sacrifice and honour, he promised the assembled warriors ‘you will work as a team with diplomats and development experts’.”

Caldwell was not alone. CNN anchor Jim Clancy said the welcome was “pretty icy”, while The Daily Mail described the reception as “tepid applause and a short standing ovation from less than one-quarter of the audience upon his introduction”.

A careful parsing of the spate of comments that followed Obama’s speech failed to unearth a single one that praised him for his realism, his restraint and his willingness to turn his back on war, except as a weapon of last resort. Yet, that is precisely the change of course that Obama has set out to make. The reaction to his speech in the US, and over much of Europe, reveals how monumentally difficult his task is going to be.

After Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, it is difficult to remember that Obama began his rise to stardom at the Democratic convention in 2004 as the most outspoken critic of the US invasion of Iraq. Between then and 2008, as he came closer to the presidency, he moderated his opinions but remained firm on his intention to pull American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. But while Obama maintained his stance against unnecessary military intervention, he never formulated a clear-cut non-interventionist doctrine for ensuring America’s security.

Over five-and-a-half years of presidency, this ambivalence has become his Achilles’ heel, for it has not only deeply disappointed his most ardent supporters, but also failed to allay the mistrust of the right-wing hawks in the Republican Party and the Pentagon. He has, therefore, simultaneously been accused of starting more wars than George Bush, and of leading them “from behind”, thereby frittering away America’s hitherto unchallenged hegemony in world affairs.

But there could be another explanation for Obama’s seeming ‘weakness’ and ‘indecision’. This is the immense difficulty that an American president faces in making a radical — and publicly acknowledged — change of policy. For such a change immediately conveys an admission that America was on the wrong track before. It cannot, therefore, be relied upon not to go wrong again. This is the one admission that a hegemonic power cannot afford to make.

Hegemonic powers have made mistakes in the past. But they have been able to correct them relatively unobtrusively. Britain, for instance, quietly reneged on a defence treaty it had signed with the Shah of Iran in 1801 shortly after Napoleon invaded Egypt, when the Shah demanded help to fend of an invasion in 1804 by its European ally, Russia.

But the instant dissemination of news and instant analysis of motives that has become the norm in the media age, has made this close to impossible. Policy changes have, therefore, to be made surreptitiously, behind a wall of rhetoric that emphasises continuity, not change. That is the challenge that Obama has been facing, and the one that he has now, in his sixth year of presidency, openly taken up.

The paragraphs of his speech that signals the change of direction are the following: “But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures — without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or levelling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans….

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But US military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Obama’s message could not be clearer. Military force cannot be the first option in dealing with a security threat to the US, its allies, or interests. It must remain the weapon of last resort. He underlined this message by pointing out that a refusal to use force is not a sign of weakness: “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak…”

To the newly graduated officer cadets, this must have sounded somewhat like a CEO at the commencement of a business management school telling the graduates that making money for their companies and themselves was not the prime goal of their lives. It is hardly surprising that they seemed to want to sit on their hands.

What Obama announced at West Point was nothing less than a rejection of the new National Security Doctrine that George W Bush had announced, also at West Point, in June 2002, in the shadow of 9/11. In that momentous speech, Bush had explicitly rejected Clausewitz’s doctrine that war was an extension of diplomacy and could, therefore, be resorted to only after resolving conflict through every other means had failed.

He conceded that this had been the US’ security doctrine through all of the 20th century, but claimed that the rise of terrorism had made it impossible for it to wait to be attacked. The capacity of terrorists to nest themselves within weak States had made it necessary for the US to go pre-emptively into them whenever necessary, to root out and destroy the nests.

In June 2002, Bush may have intended pre-emptive strike to be exceptional: a weapon of last resort when weak or rogue states either could not, or would not, root out the terrorists nested in them. But within months, it became the excuse for the US to attack Iraq, and went on to acquire a life of its own. It was used by Israel to attack Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, by Russia to invade Georgia in 2008, by the US and NATO to attack Libya in 2011, and by them and the Gulf Sunni sheikhdoms to launch a so-called insurrection in Syria.

Each and every one of these has proved to be an unmitigated disaster not only for the US, not only for NATO, but also for Israel, which has quietly pulled every one of its numerous strings in the US and France, to make them happen. Today, 12 years after Bush unveiled it, the doctrine of pre-emptive strike has turned the 366-year-old Westphalian international order, on which the UN Charter is based, on its head, and brought the world close to a state of constant war.

It would be absurd to imagine that Obama, who was one of the very first, and the very few, to understand the full consequences of the invasion of Iraq, and who has been at the epicentre of the unfolding chaos that has followed, has not learned from the world’s experience.

Why has he found it so difficult to turn his perceptions into policy? And why, when he has made an effort to do so, has he met with so much incomprehension, not to mention hostility, within his own country?

The answer is the colossal pull of inertia. When he came to power, the Bush security doctrine had only been in place for seven years, but the philosophy that underpinned it had been a part of American strategic thinking for more than two decades. It had originated with a Defence Policy Planning Paper written by Paul Wolfowitz in 1987, whose burden was that after the Cold War ended in Victory for the West, the goal of US foreign policy should not be to stay ahead of future challenges to its hegemony, but to identify and destroy these threats before they had time to grow.

This was the seed from which the 2002 doctrine sprouted. It was taken up in the early ’90s by a neo-conservative group that metamorphosed in 1997 into The Project for the New American Century. In a key policy paper titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses “, they said: “[What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities… If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire.”

In the ’90s, this doctrine became the Bible of the American foreign policy. In it there were few gradations of the threat that the US could face from as yet not fully recognised enemies, and, therefore, there could virtually be no limit to its right to intervene. This effectively hijacked the foreign policy agenda from the Democrats and handed it to the Republicans of the Far Right.

By the time Obama came to power, the doctrine of pre-emptive strike had been in place for almost decades and had already embroiled America in ever-widening conflict.

The destruction of Iraq had opened a ‘Shia Muslim corridor’ from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and increased — instead of decreasing — Israel’s insecurity. When Hamas won the January 2006 elections in Palestine, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza and invaded Lebanon to destroy the Hezbollah.

This boomeranged badly and turned the Hezbollah into the most powerful and popular political force in Lebanon. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had staged a comeback; NATO casualties in 2009 were double of what they had been in the previous year, and Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continued to evade the US military.

Obama shared America’s perception of its central, hegemonic, place in the world but doubted whether relying on the pre-emptive use of force was the way to safeguard it. However, before he could even begin to think of changing course, he had to bring these inherited conflicts to an acceptable end.

But before he could do this, he was blind-sided by the Arab Spring. Mistaking it as an upsurge of democracy — the “fourth wave”, as Samuel Huntington might have called it — Obama saw in it a way of restoring American hegemony, and safeguarding American interests, in the Arab world and gave it his full support. It has taken him more than three years to learn that he made a mistake; that the driving force behind the Arab Spring was not democracy but Sunni- Salafi sectarianism; that the longer the conflict has lasted, the stronger the forces of Salafi-Jihadi Islam have become, and the greater the threat they pose to the rest of the world.

It is this belated realisation that has made him part company with Israel over bombing Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in August last year, and over opening a dialogue with Teheran to end the nuclear threat from Iran. It is also the reason why he has preferred to place his faith on a dialogue with the Russians over Iran and Syria, rather than on his traditional allies in Europe and the Gulf. This change of course, which is designed to restore diplomacy and negotiations to the place now occupied by the threat and use of force, is in its infancy and can easily be stalled. But it would have been far easier to accomplish in a less media-driven world. If Obama continues to turn an blind eye to the way that accepting the advice of his left-liberal advisers has turned Libya into a Jihad factory, if he continues to insist that Assad must first leave Syria after 73 percent of the peacetime electorate turned out to vote in the recent Syrian election, it is only because accepting the election’s result will expose the full magnitude of the US’ error in backing the so-called opposition in the country.

There is a point in any major course correction where the ship of State loses direction and momentum. That is where the US is today. Obama has the courage to recognise this. One can only hope that he will get the support he needs to complete it. In our interdependent world, that support needs to come from not only the American people but also from Russia and Iran.

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