Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Embracing a "messy" foreign policy

I've had few reasons to be proud of this country's foreign policy in my lifetime. I was born just as we were intervening in Iran to install the Shah and came of age during the Vietnam War. Due to my family's involvement in South America, I paid a bit more attention than most Americans to our sponsorship of coups that installed dictators and supported repressive regimes all over that continent in the name of fighting the "Cold War." And then came the Bush/Cheney neocon-inspired fiascos in the Middle East.

Knowing the involvement of our national security apparatus in clandestine activities such as coups and disappearances and torture and surveillance, the only thing that surprised me about Bush/Cheney is that they weren't trying to hide it anymore...they were doing it right out in the open. The whole idea that American foreign policy EVER followed the rule of international law is naive at best.

When I evaluate President Obama's foreign policy, I always remember that this was the state of things he walked into.  Not only that - he was dealing with a global recession and three wars (I include the war on al Qaeda). My first thought when he nominated Leon Panetta (the ultimate bureaucratic manager) to be the Director of the CIA and then Secretary of Defense was that he needed to find out where all the "bodies were buried" in those systems to find the leverage he'd need to turn that giant ship around.

One of the things I suspect President Obama learned from his father and from his experience of living overseas is that chaos is not an answer to solving this kind of malfeasance. We've seen him employ a far more slow and thoughtful process to systemic change in his approach to both Wall Street and foreign policy. He's seen up close and personal what happens to ordinary people when those systems collapse at the hands of ideologues.

We're just now beginning to see the fruits of his slow and thoughtful progress on all this. It started this spring when he talked about finally ending the indefinite war on al Qaeda. In suggesting that we walk back the ability for the imperial presidency to wage indefinite war, he was also scaling back the ability of our national security apparatus to do so.

One of the major successes in dealing with this national security bureaucracy that progressives often point to is the Church Committee that created the FISA Court. At the time, this court was seen as major progress in providing oversight to many of these clandestine activities - even though it was secret. Now, not only has the Obama administration declassified several FISA Court rulings, the Court itself issued a fascinating ruling last week having to do with further declassification of cases it has adjudicated on the collection of metadata (Section 215).
The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215. Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate. Congressional amici emphasize the value of public information and debate in representing their constituents and discharging their legislative responsibilities. Publication would also assure citizens of the integrity of this Court's proceedings.

In addition, publication with only limited redactions may now be feasible, given the extent of the government's recent public disclosures about how Section 215 is implemented. Indeed, the government advises that a declassification review process is already underway.
Due to this administration's response to the Snowden leaks, we are now on the verge of the FISA court dealing quite a blow to the secrecy envisioned at its inception following the Church Committee. That's progress on top of progress.

And finally, we have that "messy" process President Obama engaged in to deal with the Syrian situation. It is now obvious that his goals in proposing military strikes were not about the neocon dream of US warmongering hegemony - but just as he stated - to punish and degrade Assad's use of chemical weapons. No matter what you make of his motivations to engage Congress is that decision, he voluntarily walked back the imperial presidency by opening that door. And in using the threat of military strikes, he was able to broker a diplomatic solution that produced the opportunity for even better results.

If liberals really wanted a President who would reform our foreign policy and walk back our addiction to hegemony, short of engendering global chaos, this is what its going to look like. That the neocons are worried about this kind of process indicating a "weakness" in foreign policy should tell us something. If we are going to actually work in partnership with the rest of the world rather than assume dominance, things are going to get messy. Then-Senator Barack Obama warned us about that way back in 2005.
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart...But that's our job. 
I'd suggest that rather than expect the President to make this messy process look more orderly, we as Americans (especially liberals) should drop our ideas about controlling the world and recognize that we are but one player  (although surely a powerful one) in a global picture that is often messy and difficult. That not only signals the right message to the rest of the world, it might help us avoid all the mistakes we've made in places like Vietnam and Iraq over the years.

I'm anxious for a foreign policy in the US that I can be proud of. At times I get impatient with the slow progress in that arena. But at this point, I have no doubts about where President Obama is taking us on that front. Since the days of Manifest Destiny, we've been trampling on others pretty indiscriminately to get our way. Turning that ship around is going to be messy and take some time. I'm grateful that we have a President who's willing to embrace that.

P.S. If you want to dive in even deeper to the "messiness" that President Obama is traversing with what he inherited in the Middle East - and specifically in Syria - read how BooMan breaks it all down. The hype we got from both sides of the public discussion about all this ignores the deeper issues at play.


  1. I think your comment about what Obama learned from his father is apt. His father was a reformer in Kenya who ultimately failed and was personally devastated by that failure. His son looked at that failure not as a sign that reformers shouldn't try but that they should be smarter about how they do it.

  2. This is some great stuff, Smartypants. Thank you. Yes, I loved what Booman wrote on the topic of Syria.

  3. This is one of the most cogent and accurate assessments of how President Obama is ending not only the Imperial Presidency but also the Cold War quest for absolute hegemony. Thank you so much!

    By chance I read "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism" by Andrew Bacevich just as the president was NOT intervening in Honduras. It struck me very powerfully that this may have been the first time in my life that we did NOT rush to prop up a rightwing dictator. I have since observed that President Obama has carefully walked away from the 'mandates' on intervention set by National Security Memo #68 that was written in 1947 directing the U.S. policy to be totally interventionist.

    I am enlightened by your comments and those of Chris Andersen that Obama's observations of his own father's work were instrumental in teaching him major patience and care. I did not make that link, but it is powerful. Having experiences overseas in those nations we have trampled and that in turn have done so much harm to their own citizens cannot help but have been instrumental in the president's education. Thank you for those insights.

    I trust this president to keep not just us safe but the world safer, and I hope upon hope that whoever follows him is as wise and careful in dismantling the Cold War imperialism we started so ruthlessly under McKinley. We are long past due for that to happen. It now has a noble and powerful beginning.

    1. OK - we could not have engaged in "Cold War" imperialism under McKinley. Sorry - writing too fast...

  4. Thank you for your analysis, which far exceeds anything "reported" in the MainSlime Media. I've always thought that PBO's choices for key positions immediately after taking office were designed to "keep his enemies close". You are absolutely correct. He had to have seasoned people to help him navigate the economic/political mine fields. As satisfying as Wall Street "perp walks" would have been emotionally, practically they would have accomplished nothing except probably create more turmoil and chaos. PBO is working to deal with "root causes", which takes time and effort. I appreciate both your wisdom and knowledge as well as your commentors'. It's fun being a "fly on the wall" and listen and learn from all of you. One additional note - PBO has LAO some very smart people working with him.

  5. IMO, a major problem that many Americans have where foreign policy is concerned is a desire that everything be made clean, worry-free and easy. They often equate belligerence and arrogance with strength. When Putin was loud and highly visible, many Americans viewed his actions as a sign of strength. They weren't, they were a sign of posturing meant to convey the idea that Putin was more influential and powerful that he actually is. They ignore the things he did that showed that he didn't have a plan for a way forward in Syria until President Obama and Sec. of State Kerry offered him a way out by suggesting a diplomatic, rather than a military, solution. Millions of Americans didn't notice how quickly Putin and Assad "jumped" at this offer. For them, Assad and Putin's mere acceptance of the offer placed them in a position they perceived as being "superior" to that of the U.S. and President Obama, hence their quick adoption and use of the term "weak" in an effort to deny President Obama any credit in avoiding another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Conducting foreign policy behind a computer keyboard in one's abode is clean, easy, straight-forward and worry-free, but for those like President Obama who is actually engaged in conducting foreign policy, it's oftentimes very messy and filled with all kinds of worries and concerns. It will take many Americans some time to grasp the fact that American foreign policy doesn't have to involve belligerence, arrogance, and sabre-rattling to yield a result that is beneficial to all parties involved.


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