Sunday, July 7, 2013

President Obama's foreign policy: Moving from dominance to partnership

During the Cold War, all foreign policy issues for the United States were defined as good vs evil...capitalism vs communism. Of course that kind of binary view of the world had disastrous consequences - not just in Viet Nam in the 60's, but also in Africa and South/Central America in the 70's and 80's as attempts by countries all over the globe to extricate themselves from colonialism got labelled "communist."

The neocons of the Bush/Cheney administration tried desperately to recreate that good vs evil frame with their Global War on Terror. Playing on the anger/fear after 9/11, they had us going for a while on that one. I suspect that one of President Obama's greatest legacies will be that the very policies many on the left so vociferously criticize him for will prove to be effective enough to actually end not only that "war," but also the frame the neocons wanted to reignite.

The truth as we're beginning to see now is that things just aren't that simple and binary. No matter how much folks like Sen. McCain want us to take sides in places like Syria - it was he himself who showed us all just how complex that situation is by having his picture taken with rebels who turned out to be terrorists.

We're seeing that same complexity play out in Egypt these days. The government that was just toppled was a democratically elected Islamist regime. And the military was on the side of the anti-Islamist protesters. If you're a neocon trying to fit all that into a binary good vs evil frame, your head should be exploding right about now.

But get used to it folks. This is the way the real world works. If we had clearer eyes in the past - its what we always would have seen.

The frame of good vs evil was a tool used by previous US administrations to define which "side" we were on to justify our intervention. Whether it was supposed terrorists in Iraq or communists in Viet Nam, we were manipulated into supporting military engagement in things that were much more complex than we had been led to believe.

As I watch President Obama deal with the foreign policy challenges he faces, what I see is - perhaps for the first time - a President who is doing his best to deal with those complexities and avoid the binary trap of good vs evil. It means extricating our responses from an imperialistic view of U.S. intervention and instead focusing on the core principles of the right of the people of other countries to freely and democratically determine their own fate. For example, here is the first paragraph of the President's statement about recent events in Egypt.
As I have said since the Egyptian Revolution, the United States supports a set of core principles, including opposition to violence, protection of universal human rights, and reform that meets the legitimate aspirations of the people. The United States does not support particular individuals or political parties, but we are committed to the democratic process and respect for the rule of law. Since the current unrest in Egypt began, we have called on all parties to work together to address the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people, in accordance with the democratic process, and without recourse to violence or the use of force.
The question for Americans is whether or not we're ready to deal with these complexities and to see our leader avoid taking sides. Can we step back from the assumption that the U.S. is always in charge (imperialism) and let other countries decide their own fate? And can we balance that with a need to sometimes work with the rest of the world when there is an opportunity to avoid mass murder (ie, Libya)?

We know the cries from the neocons will be that President Obama is "weak" and that he is not showing leadership. And the cries from the libertarians will be that he is simply repeating Cold War interventionism when he makes the hard calls to get involved.

What I see is a President laying the groundwork of a new role for the United States in the world. He articulated that several years ago in his speech at Cairo University.
...human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
This folks, is one humongous BFD! It will perhaps take decades for the U.S. to extricate itself from the damage our imperialistic approach to the world has wrought (we see that happening right now in the South/Central American countries Edward Snowden is being embraced by). But I believe that if we have President Obama's back on this - that's just where he's heading. Its a classic case of the power of partnership as opposed to dominance being applied to our foreign policy.


  1. Great post, very smart. But... as long as the loudest voices in politics and the media see things in black and white, literally and figuratively, it will take quite a while for people to see what the President is doing. One can hope that it'll be sooner rather than later.

    1. I've always thought that much of PBO's legacy will not be recognized for years. Its always been like that for visionaries.

    2. "It must be very strange to be President Obama. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile."

      We are all Hinderaker now.

  2. Per visionaries, I'm reminded of the Schopenhauer quote: “Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.”

  3. The scary part of it for many is that this means that a lot of things will happen that will not necessarily be in our control. But, of course, it could be argued that we never really had as much control as we thought. We just fooled ourselves into thinking we did.

    1. Its the "fooling ourselves" that is so destructive. Not just to the world, but ultimately to ourselves.

      It is no surprise that it is our first AA President that seems to see this so clearly. Imperialism is simply the extension of our white privilege...we tend to be blind to both.

  4. And I refuse to give into despair...I think of Harriet Tubman and her long treks along the Underground Railroad....I think of the year long Montgomery Bus Boycott...of Fannie Lou Hammer, beaten and tortured ...fighting for the right to vote...they did not give into despair even during the darkest moments...and neither will I

  5. I get that most of the people that want the President to go over to Syria, Egypt and pound heads and settle everything, do not really do any critical thinking in the area, few do. I appreciate your reasoning and being able to put it down for us layman. The American people have been sold a bill of goods for so many years, it is going to take years to un-program them and the religions to get them back in the Churches and out of our civilian lives.
    Thanks again Smartypants.

  6. After WW II, the National Security Council report #68 set out the doctrine that the US must intervene everywhere, every time, in all ways to shape the outcome of events that affect "our national interest" regardless of the impacts to other nations. President Obama, starting with Honduras, has been the first president to resist that directive. This administration is as careful about what it will NOT do as it is about what it does. The Cold War unilateral drive established by NSC 68 is no longer driving our policies. We've hardly reached perfection - too many private interests are still unleashed to maraud at will - but we are not invading every island nation to assure our dominance. That may be why our credibility abroad is still quite high. We have begun to unpack the policies of the Cold War and move carefully into the 21st Century as one power among many nations, not the only power on earth. Big difference and one of several reasons the conservatives detest this president.

  7. I'd rather have slow, careful, and deliberative than shooting from the hip in regard to foreign policy. I saw enough of that in the last administration, and the consequences are/were disastrous. I think a major problem in the American population and in Congress is that many of the individuals who always call for interventions in foreign nations don't understand foreign policy, international relations, or history. President Obama understands these subjects, and this has provided him with the insight to be cautious about repeating the mistakes our government has made in the past when it comes to dealing with foreign nations. Conducting foreign policy and engaging in international relations isn't well-suited for us versus them or black versus white types of thinking because these are issues which are more complex than most Americans and members of Congress think they are.


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