By William Pfaff
The overall failure of American foreign policy during the first Obama presidency was foreseeable. Barack Obama had been a law professor and an urban organiser. He took his foreign policy views from reading the newspapers, and he appointed as his advisers and officials figures from past administrations and the academy representing the conventional liberal views of the period. Original thinking was not evident. In military matters, he inevitably was the prisoner of the Pentagon.
He declared that he would win the "real" war among the two he inherited from the second Bush administration: the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's was an accidentally acquired American client government, unrepresentative of the ethnic plurality of its population. The Taliban insurgents wanted (and still want) to expel the foreign occupation and impose an oppressive theocratic regime upon the country's people, which would be unfortunate for them, but to which the American people — having their own domestic quarrels — would quickly demonstrate their indifference.
The second Obama presidency commences with the Afghanistan war scheduled to end by 2015, although the US Command and surviving Republican neo-conservative believers in the wars of civilisations want to fight on, as does Afghan President Karzai, whose personal future will be compromised by American withdrawal. But the American caravan moves on, the American people restless with defeats.
President Obama has failed to find a grand strategy, the New York Times writes. Will he find such a strategy in his second term? Not, I should think, if his purpose (as the Times proposes) is to "restore America's influence and image" and "redirect world events," thereby becoming "a transformative president on a global stage." The latter interpretation of the presidential ambition is from Jeffrey A. Bader, a former diplomat who, according to the Times, "was one of the White House architects of the 'rebalancing' toward Asia" announced by the first Obama administration.
John O. Brennan, the president's nomination for second-term CIA director, has been the sponsor of the drone killings that were the most important foreign policy innovation of the first Obama term. According to the British Middle Eastern specialist Patrick Seale, in 2012, drones killed 185 people in Yemen, and 470 in Pakistan which included (at least) 68 identified non-combatants (family, rescuers, bystanders). The victims in Afghanistan are unreported because of the effect of the attacks on political and public opinion concerning the Karzai presidency and the NATO forces deployed in the country. In Pakistan, 74 per cent of those recently polled regard the United States as an enemy nation.
So far as the White House is concerned, the invisibility (to Americans) of the drone attacks are a great asset because few Americans now pay attention to what George W. Bush named "The Great War on Global Terror," and no Americans are coming home in boxes from the drone campaigns.
The US Air Force's drone pilots are comfortably installed at seven US airbases (the CIA's drones are mostly operated abroad), from which they go home to wife and kiddies when their duty is done. Their only danger is a drunk driver on the highway. If they are lucky on the duty roster, they'll be able to watch the Super Bowl.
It seems safe to say that Obama is not going to become a transformative president by killing a few hundred Islamist Arabs and Pakistanis a year — and now perhaps Africans, since France's President Francois Hollande has opened up the Sahara front. (America is supposed to be the "global security provider," but France owns Africa.)
Perhaps Asia is where Obama can earn a place in history as a "Great Decider" alongside George W. Bush. It's never been made clear what the "pivot" to Asia has been all about. It's surely not just to save Australians and New Zealanders from China (better to arm them against great white sharks). One would assume that China is the cause of it, but why? The Chinese are making trouble about their territorial and maritime claims, but these are potentially resolvable by international negotiations or courts and not worth going to war with the United States about.
China already can claim the number one place as global possessor of fiscal reserves, importer of raw materials and European luxury goods, and exporter to the world of clothing and electronics, all of them titles the United States has no reason to wish to wrest from them. So why go to war? Though Americans and Chinese are both known for their sensitivity to gaining or losing "face," is that the reason?
What other great issues will confront a second Obama term? Israel and the newly UN-recognised Palestinian state, confined within Israel's systems of internal walls? President Obama has already indirectly informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if the Israelis really wish to forcibly impose apartheid upon the Palestinians under their military domination, they can go ahead and do so, earning world reprobation and isolation on their own responsibility. An attack on Iran would also seem to be something for which Israel would find no American support. An attack by Iran is inconceivable.
At this point, as the Obama inauguration festivities turn to memories, the gowns and dinner jackets (with their Obama-mode white ties) packed away, an apparently bored president may (and perhaps should) settle back into the Oval Office to watch the House Republicans savage one another. His place in American history is already assured.
Visit William Pfaff's website for more on his latest book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Co., $25)
23 January 2013