U.S. foreign policy in an age of paralysis


May 27, 2013

President Barack Obama’s lengthy speech on national security last week was one of those Alice-in-Wonderland moments which left many commentators on both the left and the right scratching their heads.

The lone heckler in the audience, whose constant interruptions made his lengthy moral discourse even longer than intended, was right to question the president about his policies and intentions. It was one of those speaking-truth-to-power moments and the president, notwithstanding his attempts to make a joke about it, was visibly uncomfortable.

Once again, Obama was trying to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor. But coming as it did from a president who won reelection, the rhetoric seemed forced and hollow. And when stripped to its bare essentials, there was little in the president’s remarks to suggest that he was fundamentally changing the course set by George W. Bush or that he was offering a bold new vision about how the United States is going to meet its security challenges after it withdraws its troops from Afghanistan next year.

Speeches are what this president does best — for any president they provide an opportunity to rally Americans and provide reassurance during a crisis. But Obama once again demonstrated that he is more comfortable playing Pundit-in-Chief than Commander-in-Chief.

Addressing pointed concerns about drone strikes against innocent civilians and the ongoing operations of Guantanamo, Obama marshalled his arguments with the precision of a Harvard-trained lawyer, trying to balance the pluses and minuses of each while underscoring the overriding need to fix both.

Drone attacks do cause collateral damage but they are less lethal than deploying thousands of troops. They should be used more selectively. But precisely what does that mean? And how will the current policy, which is not to target civilians or inflict unnecessary collateral damage, be changed in its essentials? Guantanamo should be closed, as the president promised to do four years ago — but how will he get around the concerns of Congress about what to do with the detainees? Again and again the president championed the moral high ground but fell short on specifics and solutions.

Quite apart from the shortcomings of the speech, two authors have highlighted more fundamental concerns about U.S. foreign policy. In his book, “Dispensable Nation”, Vali Nasr — former State Department senior advisor and now Dean of the Paul Nitze School of International Studies in Washington — lamentsthe absence of any broad diplomatic approach to Afghanistan. Instead, he says, the president opted (half-heartedly) for a temporary military surge and then, for domestic political reasons, put a deadline on the surge — making it dead on arrival.

“We announced we were leaving without any kind of closure to this war,” said Nasr. “That means the potential for a breakdown of the current order and ultimately civil war in Afghanistan.”

The craven exit from Afghanistan will leave a mess even worse than the rapid withdrawal from Iraq. It means the human lives sacrificed and funds spent by Canada and other U.S. allies in Afghanistan, in support of a strategy that was muddled in both its resolve and its purpose, achieved little of value. The use of drones and Special Forces was the military option rejected by the White House more than two years ago. It is now the only option in play — and its shelf-life is questionable.

Nasr laments similarly inept approaches toward Syria and the Arab Spring that have been “very tactical, timid and cautious, driven too much by domestic political considerations”. One can only hope that the latest initiative by the U.S. and Russia for a Syrian peace process will have more of an effect than previous UN efforts that have gone nowhere.

In his new book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home; The Case for Putting America’s House in Order”, Richard Haas, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, offers a more nuanced critique, attributing problems with American foreign policy to the political paralysis in Washington. But he also questions excessive reliance on military solutions.

“There are limits to what outsiders can do with military force; local realities trump global abstractions,” he writes. “It is not enough to want to do good; goals must also be achievable at a cost in line with interests. We ignore these truisms at our peril.”

Haas contends that the U.S. will be unable to assert much in the way of global leadership until it gets its fiscal house in order, rises above the pressures of special interests and asserts its national interest in a way that compels respect and credibility in a restless world.

Taken together, these two critiques present a sombre outlook for U.S. foreign policy. The intent of the president’s recent speech was unquestionably noble — but the actions of his administration matter more than any number of speeches. The one clear lesson from recent events in London and Boston is that America and its close allies are contending with new threats to security against which neither conventional military nor diplomatic tools will suffice.

We’re at risk too, as the alleged Via Rail bomb plot attests. President Obama has yet to wrap his head around the new world we are entering. But he is not alone.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.