Sunday, June 22, 2014

Obama's Foreign Policy: The Tail Shouldn't Wag The Dog

I have been quite critical of Obama through the years, mostly about his performance rather than his ideas. He spent the whole first term domestically negotiating with himself, trying to figure out what proposals would have a chance of acceptance from the Republicans, and then being surprised when they upped the ante as he proposed what he thought they might accept. Or that's the way it seemed.

So it is with some sense of ruminative perplexity that I see I am agreeing with him pretty much across the board these days. Of course, now that he has screwed up the public relations and perceptions for so long, his chances are diminished, but maybe he's at his best coming from behind. Who knows.

Strangely, since he is taking his time and making sure he thinks clearly and doesn't just react, I think he is acting very bravely on Iraq. I also think he is acting in a way that my policy ideal at the Goldman School of Public Policy, Aaron Wildavsky, would approve, if he were still alive.

First, bravery in action and negotiation. Obama is getting pilloried for not keeping forces in Iraq. “They say” that if he had done that, somehow the ISIS forces would not be sweeping in from the northeast. Somehow the divisions of troops in the Iraq Army would not be melting away, abandoning their equipment and their uniforms. “They” are various, amazingly including the should-be discredited voices of the past – Cheney for God's sake, Wolfowitz, Bolton, everyone except Rumsfeld. But even the sober voices somehow allege that Obama was ball-less, and should have insisted on keeping troops there, although they don't say how he could have left troops there given the poor deal Maliki was offering for status of forces.

Now, maybe it's true that there was nothing Obama could have done to leave some forces in place, that Iran dictated that end result. Maybe that's the truth. But the way I look at it, the question is, how much is the US willing to give up in order to keep forces in place, which costs the US a lot, but which is nominally for the benefit of the host country? Are we begging to be of help to them? Certainly to ourselves as well, blocs not having been abolished in the world, and terrorism being exportable, but most directly, isn't it being helpful to them, the recipient countries? Are they children that we care for so much that we are begging to let us do something for them? Isn't this the tail wagging the US dog??

So, it's a negotiation. Obama says, this is our last, best offer. They say no. What should we do, revise the offer? Or should we say, OK, we both lose by not doing things together, but so be it. We'll see what happens. We think it will hurt both of us, but we can't accept your terms. What is wrong with that?

“Stay the course” was heard in Vietnam, and it has been heard here in Iraq, too. “They” say that if we don't stay the course, America will not be trusted in the future. What will it do to our “credibility?” Well, I think that's crap. It's more important for our credibility that we be seen as a country that has a decent negotiating position, a country that will help ourselves by helping others, but up to a point. That is the kind of credibility Obama is forging for us. He is being politically brave to do so, and being canny in not announcing it publicly. And he is being very brave in risking “failure.”

Now, about that “policy” business. There are the “planners,” and there are others, perhaps called those who “muddle through” (Lindblom's term.) “Planners” have to have everything set from the start. If this, then that; if something else, then another “that.” It is in some ways a very defensive strategy that seeks to eliminate risk by thinking of every contingency beforehand. “Muddlers,” on the other hand, take it one step at a time. They realize that the world is complex and that everything cannot be foreseen. So they take a step that seems to provide a good prospect for the future, understanding that assessments and decisions will have to be made. They have confidence in their future intelligence and capacity.

In a way, the “invade with overwhelming force” crowd is like the planners. In seeking to dominate, they are seeking to get their way, whatever it is, and not let the voice of others be heard, not let the choices of others intrude, and have it set up from the start. I think it was Crash Davis who said, “Strikeouts are fascist.” Our neocons are quite fascistic, in case no one noticed.

So I think Obama is being brave in saying, OK, the negotiation fell through, I think we're still in a good position, let's see what happens. I have confidence that we will find good options to take in the future, and that the wrongheadedness of Maliki will run its course, and we will find a way to ally with more enlightened forces. We'll find allies willing to make sure terrorists don't find a haven. It's brave.

I think Obama is pissed he's getting such a bad rap, and I think he's great at coming from behind. So I am belatedly rallying to him. I think he is pretty admirable right now.

Budd Shenkin

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