Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Failed Presidency of Barack Obama

I don't regret my vote.


But it's becoming increasingly apparent that Barack Obama is racking up a record fit to be mocked by both Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. If Obama has decided that he will be a failed foreign policy president with a domestic "win" on his record - ala LBJ - well, so be it, but the least he could do would be to adopt a "first do no harm" approach to foreign policy by essentially doing nothing at all. Instead, Obama is actually making things worse.

On Iran 

Congratulations, 18+ months of begging cajoling diplomacy have earned a sanctions regime that is set up to become just as big a joke as the current sanctions regime which has been in place for many years.

Well, at least this new sanctions regime will stop Iran from acquiring modern anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, right?


Conflicting statements from Russian officials on whether or not it will scrap the pending S-300 surface-to-air missile system sale to Iran because of new United Nations sanctions over Tehran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. First, an “industry source” said the S-300 deal was off. Now, Russia’s Foreign Ministry says the sale is still on. Israel has stated publicly that the sale of S-300s to Iran is a red line that would prompt an Israeli military attack.

So, let's review. Obama has:

Not stopped Iran from getting the bomb.

Not stopped Iran from getting advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

And probably not stopped Israel from wanting to attack Iran.

Great, mister president, that was an awesome use of 18 months and god knows how many face-to-face pathetic groveling sessions meetings with world leaders who have more important things to do.

But hey, at least Obama didn't alienate any allies in the process or anything:

Now, even as the U.N. Security Council prepares to impose its fourth round of sanctions on Iran with a vote slated for Wednesday, Tehran is demonstrating remarkable resilience, insulating some of its most crucial industries from U.S.-backed financial restrictions and building a formidable diplomatic network that should help it withstand some of the pressure from the West.
Iranian leaders are meeting politicians in world capitals from Tokyo to Brussels. They are also signing game-changing energy deals, increasing their economic self-sufficiency and even gaining seats on international bodies.
Iran's ability to navigate such a perilous diplomatic course, analysts say, reflects both Iranian savvy and U.S. shortcomings as up-and-coming global players attempt to challenge U.S. supremacy, and look to Iran as a useful instrument.
"We are very proud of our diplomacy, although we are mainly benefiting from mistakes made by the United States and its allies," said Kazem Jalali, a key member of the Iranian parliament's commission on national security and foreign policy. "We are using all our resources to exploit these weaknesses."

Ok, screw them anyway. It's not like the U.S. is committed to any sort of ongoing military operation where we might need allies or anything.

Except Afghanistan.

And Iraq.

And North Korea.. 

On Afghanistan

The COIN strategy appears to be faltering:

Government assassinations are nothing new as a Taliban tactic, but now the Taliban are taking aim at officials who are much more low-level, who often do not have the sort of bodyguards or other protection that top leaders do. Some of the victims have only the slimmest connections to the authorities. The most egregious example came Wednesday in Helmand Province, where according to Afghan officials the insurgents executed a 7-year-old boy as an informant.

Man, if we can't even protect friendly village and local leaders, what the hell are we still doing in Afghanistan?

Now, to be fair, Afghanistan is very complex situation and the Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan before Barack Obama was even a senator. Still, Obama's plan to fail in Afghanistan remains overly Afghan centric, and at least some of that diplomatic energy wasted on those absolutely pointless Iran sanctions could have been used to find more partners to either help in Afghanistan or at least contain the worst exports from Pakistan's tribal regions.

A Set of Strategically Tone Deaf Priorities 

I've written that Obama has a nasty tendency to ask questions to which he should already know the answer. So far, his whole foreign policy has been based on asking for things that he should have known he was never going to get. For example, while he was considering how many more troops to send to Afghanistan, he was also haranguing China's president Hu about economic growth ManBearPig global warming rather than asking Hu to cooperate with U.S. efforts on Afghanistan. Because the Chinese are already nibbling around the edges of both peace building and investment in Afghanistan there was far more room for agreement on that issue as opposed to hoping they would sign on for "binding" limits on CO2 emissions.

You can take everything said above about China and replace China with India and its just as true.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to take a schizo-frantic approach to distinguishing between friends and enemies in the region. We bomb our "friends" while they support our enemies and while we continue to ramp up the tension with possible allies (see: Iran).

Then the KFR provokes and we are left dumbstruck, because Obama has been arguing with China and Russia about Iran (oh China, will you please poke your largest energy supplier with a large stick so we can stop a feit accompli in Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capacity?) rather than negotiating an end to the world's single greatest criminal enterprise - a country that actually has nuclear weapons and has shown no compunction what-so-ever about exporting to other rouge states.

Conclusion:Mad-Man Diplomacy, Dangerous Nations and Obama's Only Term

The problems that president Obama have are exasperated by several factors. He's backed himself into several rhetorical holes, on Iran and Afghanistan, for example, and so it will be hard for him to walk these situations back. Afghanistan will, unfortunately, end the same way Vietnam did, but with drones playing the role of off-shore balancer. Pakistan will be getting their backyard playground back and they will return to planning for their regularly scheduled war with India. Iran will go nuclear, and if they become angry/frightened enough they will shoot, just like other countries in the region have at moments of high tension.

And Obama will be returning to Chicago in 2013, despondent over his wasted potential. He won't be alone in his disappointment,  but he made his choices.   

With this in mind, the next president should adhere to a variant of Richard Nixon's Mad-Man Theory,except instead of trying to convince the world the U.S. would attack anybody at any time he or she should set out to convince the powers that be that the U.S. might normalize or break relations with various countries at any time. Specifically, the next president should find as many excuses to insinuate that he's prepared to break relations with Pakistan as possible. In a similar vein, he should be prepared to insinuate - and then follow through immediately - with normalization with Iran. Right now Russia Turkey and Pakistan enjoy all the fruits of both our strategic limitations and Iran's situation as an international pariah. Russia, Turkey and Pakistan want nothing more than an Iranian client state, stripped of all international connectivity and forced to conduct business through Russian/Turkish and Pakistani smugglers. These guys will be popping popcorn and laughing with glee as Israel destroys Iran's nuclear capacity - I'd not rule out Turkish, Pakistani and Russian complicity in such an attack, by the way - because it ensures an even weaker Iran position and greater levels of dependency upon its patrons.

But think of the alternative. Imagine a world where Turkey, Russia and Pakistan watch in horror as James Baker, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton step off a plane in Tehran and shake hands with A-Jad and his merry men. Yes, the Iranian leader (ship) is a thugocracy, but so was Mao and that didn't stop Nixon from securing a relationship with China, for similar strategic reasons. And the only thing that happened when Nixon went to China was that the Russians rushed to negotiate a series of arms control treaties, because they didn't want to be outbid by the Chinese. Oh, and a few things changes in China after that as well, or so I've heard.

Now, its important to realize that Iran is highly unlikely to negotiate away their nuclear stockpile, and we shouldn't ask that of them. It will be a lot more fun watching Russia and Pakistan figure out how to live with a nuclear Iran, and Turkey wants an excuse to get the bomb anyway, so we might as well embrace the future. Normalization between Iran and the U.S. will happen. It can happen now or it can happen after the next 9/11 or Mumbai when the the world comes together to dissolve Pakistan. Let's get proactive and maybe, just maybe, we can prevent the next 9/11.

In any case, the next president should make it a goal to come into office with as few international promises as possible. Leave global warming completely off the table and whatever you do don't wade into the morass that is Gaza and the West Bank. Stick to throwing strategic elbows - so to speak- by slapping down useless and dangerous allies like Pakistan and suddenly getting chummy with formerly blood enemies like Iran. And the day after the trip to Tehran, call China and let them know you'd love to talk to Kim. Tell him it will be two party talks. See if the possibility of the U.S. throwing the chess board into the air and openly negotiating with the KFR doesn't make China decide to hasten Kim's exit from this mortal coil (handle Iran first because negotiating with the KFR will bear no fruit, rack up a win before you go for something truly crazy).

America's fundamental strategic issue right now is stagnation and predictability. When GWB was president he tried to remind people that the U.S. can occasionally bob and weave with the best of them (see: Operation Iraqi Freedom) but his decisions have left his successor tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq. To make America again relevant is to make America again unpredictable, make us again Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation.

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