Archive for November 22nd, 2008

A New Foreign Policy

One of the better political websites,, has a number of articles speculating that Obama will be hawkish in foreign policy.   The likelihood Gates will stay at defense, Clinton going to State, Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, etc., seem to indicate influence from the less dovish wing of the party.  That may be a premature assumption.

My colleague Steve Pane, an adept political commentator, music historian, professional pianist and pastry addict, noted that by putting ‘hawks’ in these positions it would make it easier for the US to leave Iraq more quickly — people who might have criticized it if outside would now be in the Administration.  That’s true, though I think the issue goes beyond Iraq.  If President elect Obama keeps Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, and puts Hillary Clinton in the State Department, he will have a credible team in place to create a new approach to foreign policy, one which likely could significantly cut military spending.   This defies conventional wisdom, as Gates is seen as a Bush holdover who  would seem to suggest some continuity, and Hillary Clinton ran as a hawk in her recent campaign.

Robert Gates was a leader in the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton which advocated negotiations with other regional actors, including Iran and Syria.  By all accounts, Gates agreed with that recommendation.  When he joined the Bush Administration he could not advocate such positions publicly because he had to represent and implement Administration policy.   By keeping him on, Obama could move towards those aspects of the ISG findings which President Bush rejected.   It’s clear that as the US leaves, future Iraqi stability requires involving Iran and Syria, especially because of Iran’s intense influence on the Iraqi government and various militias.   Gates is a realist, not a neo-conservative.  Realists are less willing to use military means to achieve policy results, they focus on diplomacy, and in fact are willing to negotiate with enemies because that’s where you need diplomacy the most.   Gates thus serves two uses for Obama: a) his approach to diplomacy is likely similar to Obama’s, and b) because he was in the Bush cabinet he will help lend credibility to the Obama foreign policy from the right.

Hillary Clinton as a hawk reflects an amazing metamorphisis from her earlier career.   I have no reason to think that she really is a hawk, or truly supports large military budgets.  She was positioning herself for a Presidential run, and she knew that as a Democratic woman she needed to have credibility on security issues.  Moreover, those who opposed the 1991 Iraq war were hurt later by that opposition, so she figured that supporting President Bush was smarter politically.   Because of her recently won credibility on defense and security issues, she could also help Obama reshape American foreign policy.

So what needs to be done?  First, the US to accept the reality that we are no longer in a position to simply demand things be done our way or we’ll just not play.   If the US seriously negotiates and participates in efforts at creating international accords, we’ll have considerable influence on the outcome.  We should do that and make necessary compromises in order to develop solutions to global problems.   European and Asian states will embrace an America working for the collective good rather than focused solely on maintaining maximum independence and supporting a narrow national interest.

Second, the US needs to cut military spending and military commitments abroad.  This is not something Obama could say in the campaign, as he would have quickly been painted as weak, not understanding the threats of terrorism and Islamic extremism.   I would argue, however, that our military strength has been more a liability than an assett.  It lured us into thinking there was a military solution to the terrorist threat and made Iraq a tempting target for military aggression.  By some accounts the real cost of that war is now over $3.6 trillion, money which could have better been used to bring health to our economy.   Even those who try to say we’ve succeeded in Iraq because violence is down have to admit that overall as a country that war has hurt us on numerous fronts.   It does dramatically demonstrate that modern global problems defy military solutions.  Solutions are primarily political, while terrorism requires not a major military machine able to win large wars, but a well oiled counter terrorism policy with special operations and sophisticated intelligence.

Obama should shift the military from “a big 20th century mechanized machine designed to fight for control of Europe” to a “sophisticated, intelligent, versatile athlete able to make well targeted interventions when necessary against both state and non-state actors.”   Moreover, we don’t need to spend half the world’s military budget to achieve this; we can have an effective military option at a lower price, especially since no major power can seriously threaten our domestic security.  The threats are small terrorist groups that escape the grasp of a huge military machine; we must adapt.

Finally, the US to seriously address the need for a global set of standards on economic regulation and development, environmental issues, and energy — the three E’s.    Not only is there widespread agreement that action needs to be taken on these problems, but these are areas where real bipartisanship is possible.  They can help guide the US towards a consensus on a more internationalist policy perspective.  The US can show leadership and flexibility, compromising where in the past we’d have gotten up and gone home; leading where in the past we’d have avoided the issue.  None of those issues can be dealt with at a national level alone, and all of them are of vital importance to the future of the planet.   A cooperative and progressive America working with the rest of the world on these issues will symbolize a new era of American foreign policy, and play to the strengths of Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic skills in support of Obama’s vision.

So three major components: move towards a more internationalist approach, cut military spending and reorganize the military to be smaller and more nimble, and begin a major effort to build international agreements on energy, the economy and the environment.  Done right, such a policy could not move us into a truly stable post-Cold War system, and avoid the perils caused by the economic and foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration.

Some people will never agree for military spending cuts, and of course, nationalists will always distrust international institutions.  But the world is in crisis, Obama will have an overwhelming majority in Congress, and now is the time for some bold and decisive actions.  I suspect the economic crisis will force cuts across the budgetary board anyway, and military spending is one of the least effective ways to stimulate the economy.  Obama has proven that he will follow principle rather than political expediency; here he will have to show true leadership.

There are a couple biases about America.  The European left often sees the US as a force for militarism, exploitation and evil in the world, while the American right sees the US as superior in ideology and values to the rest of the world.  Both biases are absurdly off base, and represent caricatured views of a complex country with diverse opinions.   A new foreign policy can bury these biases, and help build the foundation for dealing with the vast problems of this new century.

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