Day: September 24, 2012

Obama’s second term international priorities

I admit to being cheered last weekend looking at the TPM Electoral Scoreboard.  It has President Obama over the 270 electoral votes needed to win, counting only the states that strongly favor, favor or lean in his direction.  All the toss-up states save North Carolina are showing thin margins in favor of the President. Key Senate races in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Virginia are likewise showing small margins for the Democratic contenders.  It is still a long time (and three nationally televised debates) to election day, but the drift for the moment is clear.

The President is also getting over 50 per cent approval for his handling of foreign policy.  Far be it from me to want to rain on his parade, but I think he should do more and better on international issues in the future.

The President hasn’t had much to say about what he would do on foreign policy in a second term, apart from completing the U.S. turnover of security responsibility to the Afghans (as well as withdrawing more troops) and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, preferably by diplomatic means but if necessary using force.  He hasn’t said much on the Middle East peace process (such as it isn’t), maintained silence on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s re-concentration of power, showed reluctance to do anything about Syria, hesitated to challenge China, and lacks new ideas on Pakistan and Russia.

I don’t say all this is wrong.  Hesitation with China definitely beats Romney’s bellicosity, which will create the animosity we need to avoid.  China has already revalued its currency significantly, something the President might want to take more credit for.  It is not at all clear to me what he can do about Pakistan or Russia at this point.  Maybe let them stew in its own juices for a while, until they soften up.  The choices in Syria are difficult ones.  Doing anything more will have real costs.

America needs, as the President never fails to say, to put its own house in order.  Nation-building at home he calls it.  But I would still like to know what his foreign policy priorities will be in 2013-17.  The fact that Mitt Romney has failed to force Obama to specify more clearly his future foreign policy priorities is just one of the many shortcomings in a Republican campaign that will be remembered for its many unforced errors and lapses in good judgment.

But there are a few things even a convinced Obamista like me would like to see the President do or say.  With no need to worry about re-election after November 6, I hope he’ll get tough with both Israelis and Palestinians.  Admittedly he tried during the first term, insisting on a complete settlement freeze.  But this was an ill-conceived formulation that led to intransigence on both sides rather than progress.  The situation in Syria has deteriorated so badly that it may be worth another run in the Security Council at a no-fly zone.  Once the Americans are down to whatever minimum numbers are required in Afghanistan, I hope Obama will find ways to toughen his stance with Pakistan.  Iraq, too, needs a bit tougher love.

But none of these things comes close to the big one:  avoiding a nuclear Iran and the proliferation of nuclear weapons it will precipitate. This is the overwhelming first priority, as it threatens a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East and a sharp increase in the risks of war, even nuclear war, there.  Israel lacks the means to do serious and permanent damage to Iran’s nuclear program with conventional weapons, but it has all it needs to obliterate Iran with nuclear weapons.

If we fail to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, the prospects are grim.  What do you think Israel is likely to do if it perceives that Iran is getting ready to launch a nuclear weapon targeted on Tel Aviv?  Will it wait and see whether the Iranians are, as many people think, “rational actors”?  Or will it try to ensure that none of Iran’s missiles will ever get to launch?  Launch on warning, which is what the Israelis will most likely do, is inherently unstable.

Lots of my colleagues are having second looks at containment, because the prospects for conventional military action against the Iranian nuclear program look so limited.  Admittedly, containment is the fallback position.

But containment with two convincing rational actors who have the better part of an hour to make decisions, the best conceivable communications with each other and no serious threat to regime survival other than a single adversary is one thing.  Containment with two actors who each believe the other is irrational (both could even be right), one of whom has less than full confidence in regime survivability even without a war, maybe 10 minutes to make decisions, and no reliable communications is something else.  Yes, India and Pakistan have survived almost 15 years without using nuclear weapons on each other, and the increasing trade between the two creates disincentives to war.  But a nuclear exchange between the two is still far more likely than war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  And we are a long way from trade between Iran and Israel as a barrier to conflict.

Andrew Sullivan, in a fit of hopefulness, comments:

To date, Obama’s response has been like Reagan’s: provide unprecedented military defense systems for Israel, deploy our best technology against Iran, inflict crippling sanctions, and yet stay prepared, as Reagan did, to deal with the first signs of sanity from Tehran. Could Obama find an Iranian Gorbachev? Unlikely. But no one expected the Soviet Union to collapse as Reagan went into his second campaign either, and it had not experienced a mass revolt in his first term, as Iran did in Obama’s. And yet by isolation, patience, allied unity, and then compromise, the unthinkable happened. I cannot say I am optimistic—but who saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1984?

Hope however is not a policy.  What should Obama do to try to resolve the Iran nuclear issue in a second term?

The Administration has been understandably reluctant to put a serious package of incentives for Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon on the table before the U.S. election.   Negotiating a deal with Iran is not going to help on November 6.  But I hope after November 6 the Administration will make a direct and convincing offer to Tehran:  temporary suspension of enrichment, a full accounting of past activities, tight and unfettered safeguards, no enrichment ever above 20%, no stockpiles of enriched uranium in a form that can be further enriched, and a permanent commitment not to seek nuclear weapons in exchange for full sanctions relief.  That would be a policy, not a hope.


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