City of Brass

City of Brass

Obama’s foreign policy record: beyond the waters’ edge

Whatever happened to the Bush-era adoration by Republicans of the wise adage by Senator Arthur Vandenberg in the Truman era, that “politics stops at the water’s edge” ?

Well, that is a naive question, of course. The only real theme to partisan Republican crticism of Obama is reflexive, unthinking opposition. Daniel Larison sums it up well:

The only thing I can think of that conservative critics have had right is that the administration’s treatment of Honduras really has been deplorable. Mainstream conservatives are right that penalizing the transitional government and calling for Zelaya’s return to power have contributed to the current unrest there, but these objections gain no traction in part because they come from people who no longer have any credibility when it coms to foreign policy. They happen to have been right on one issue because they are reflexively opposing anything and everything Obama does, and it was inevitable that Obama was going to blunder at some point. There is also every reason to think that if Obama had taken a diametrically opposed position, embraced the Micheletti government and opposed Zelaya at every turn, we would have never heard the end of his “coddling” of coup leaders and his “betrayal” of democratic principles. The common theme in all of this criticism is that Obama must be weak and every decision he makes reflects that weakness, but these criticisms persuade no one because they are obviously, embarrassingly driven by partisan obsession and not substantive concerns about national security or America’s reputation abroad.


Apart from the quibble that the Honduras situation is really not as cut and dried as Daniel makes it out to be, this is really a very solid – and authentically conservative – critique. One need only look at Republican bastion for evidence that the GOP is unserious on foreign policy, such as this typically incoherent argument that wanting America to be respected around the world is a “leftist delusion” while simultaneously blaming Obama for a loss of that respect… in Russia, where earlier they were hyperventilating about Obama’s “cave” on the missile defense issue, on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland. The ideological whiplash about Russia is nicely instructive of the complete lack of any principle of actual national security, just recycled cold-war rhetoric. It’s embarassing.


There’s more serious critique of the lack of serious critique by the GOP on Obama’s foreign policy, from Fareed Zakaria (the Desi Thomas Friedman) and Andrew Sullivan. Both are a little too enthusiastic about declaring Obama’s foreign policy a success; at best we can really say that Obama has certainly improved things, but labeling competence as success is setting a low bar. Success is a term I’d reserve for outcomes, not process: a peace agreement in Israel-Palestine, detente with Iran, a major blow to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, etc. Arguing that Obama’s policy has brought us closer is fine, but let’s not declare victory just yet. There’s a lot of work to do. Daniel also notes that Sullivan is too effusive about Obama on Israel; for all intents and purposes Israel remains untouchable, and committed to its self-destructive course (“pick two”), as lamented by Richard Silverstein.


That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine critiques that could be made. The United States’s moralizing on nuclear weapons to Iran remains a major obstacle in Obama’s path to better relations with the muslim world; until Israel gets the same pressure as other nations like Iran and India with regards to its own nuclear armaments, it’s hard to take him seriously about his grandiose visions of a nuke-free globe. A great start would be to support the IAEA’s recent call for Israel to sign the NPT, but Obama is too much of a status quo disciple to apply any pressure on Israel therein, especially given his loss of face regarding the settlement issue. Also, the world remains rightly skeptical of Obama’s ability to deliver on global warming treaties – partly because of domestic opposition from the GOP of course. But Obama can hardly expect to retain any credibility about the responsibility of the Third World to make sacrifices if he can’t show we (the world’s largest polluter) are able and willing to do the same. The litmust test will be the Copenhagen summit in December.


As Sullivan reminds is, we are only 8 months in, and there’s been tremendous progress on all fronts. But we have a long way to go. The list of things that can yet go wrong is infinite, and it would be nice for our collective security of the Republicans could actually sit down at the table like adults and help the President navigate the way forward. Alas, no. Partisan politics has a passport nowadays.

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