Obama’s foreign policy can still surprise

Monday President Obama defended his foreign policy by emphasizing his reluctance to use force, except as a last resort.  Here is the press conference at which he spoke in the Philippines (the relevant remarks begin about minute 33 and go on for six more):

Knowledgeable defenders are also out in force:  Steven Cook and Michael Brooks absolve him of responsibility for what ails the Middle East, while Heather Hurlburt ponders his legacy.

I think it is too early to make definitive judgments about Obama’s foreign policy.  As we know only too well from the history of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, early judgments of success or failure are often premature.  The President is right to emphasize that foreign policy requires lots of singles and doubles (not to mention walks) as well as home runs.  It also takes the full nine innnings.  Certainly on Ukraine it will be a decade or more to see how things work out.  Ditto Egypt.

But that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to suspend judgment when the Administration strikes out.  That’s what is happening in Syria.  Somehow the President sees no viable options there besides American boots on the ground and arming the opposition.  The former he correctly rules out as unacceptable to virtually everyone.  The latter he pooh-poohs, but there are ample signs he is doing it, or at least more of it, than in the past.

But that does not exhaust the options in Syria.  As Fred Hof points out, we could recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate government of Syria and provide the resources required to help it govern.  We could play a stronger role in coordinating and marshalling international assistance.  We could also ground the Syrian air force, which is a major factor in preventing liberated areas from governing effectively.

In Egypt, too, the Administration is swinging and missing.  It continues to pretend that there is a democratic transition in progress.  That is far from true.  Egypt’s election next month will coronate Field Marshall Sisi as president, restoring the military autocracy.  His secular and Islamist opponents are jailed, hundreds condemned to death in one-day trials for which “show” would be a compliment.  The media is under his control.   The election, while “free and fair” at the polls, will be conducted in an atmosphere that does not allow open political competition.  The Administration needs to find a way to acknowledge reality, even if it thinks continuing aid to Egypt is necessary for national security reasons.

The much-predicted failure of John Kerry’s efforts to revive the Israel/Palestine peace process does not, in my way of thinking, count heavily against the Administration.  He was right to try.  The stars were not well aligned on either side:  the split between Hamas and the Palestinian authority as well as the heavy representation of settler and other right-wing interests in Netanyahu’s coalition militated against an agreement from the first.  The supposed unity coalition on the Palestinian side–yet to emerge–will not improve the situation, so long as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and Netanyahu insists that the recognition be of an explicitly “Jewish” state.

One key to Obama’s foreign policy legacy lies in the talks with Iran.  If he is able to push Tehran back from nuclear weapons, putting at least a year between a decision to make them and an actual bomb, that will be a big achievement, provided there is iron-clad verification.  Whether the Congress will go along with lifting sanctions in exchange is still a big question.

Another big piece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy could come from an unexpected direction:  trade talks.  In his first term, the president contented himself with ratification of free trade pacts that had been negotiated by his predecessor (with the Republic of Korea, Colombia and Panama).  That was small beer compared to the two massive free trade negotiations he has pursued in the second term:  the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Dwarfing even the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, these are giant trade deals, involving dozens of countries with potentially big impacts on trade, economic growth, and international relations.

Trade folks agree that President Obama has not yet demonstrated the kind of strong commitment to these negotiations that will be required to complete them and get them approved in Congress.  But if he wants to have a serious legacy, he will turn to them as soon as the mid-term elections are over in November and try to conclude at least TTIP well before campaigning starts for the 2016 presidential contest.  That would shore up America’s alliance with Europe (among other things by facilitating US energy exports), make the TTP more likely to happen, and align most of the world with the US as challenges arise from Russia and China.

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