by Robert E. Hunter
The consensus in Washington is that President Barak Obama had a bad year in 2013. Indeed, the Washington Post selected him as the person who had the worst year. The problem with a “consensus,” of course, is that it is often wrong.
This column will not try to assess how Obama “did” in domestic affairs — except to note that the economy is getting stronger, there is a powerful US automobile industry, the mess he inherited in the financial world has largely been dissipated (in major part through his efforts) and the so-called “Obamacare” fiasco, which was a problem waiting to happen that an honest assessment and delay in requiring signups could have handled, will eventually sort itself out. The only problem with Obamacare (in my judgment) is that interest groups with a lot of money refused to allow the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and adopt some form of national health insurance — single payer.
Now, to foreign policy. In 2013, how Obama fared can be measured in part by what happened at home, and what happened at home will continue to plague him.
Thus the best news this year was undoubtedly the “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” — what bad things did not happen to the US economy, the global financial structure, and US leadership of both. 2013 was only one step in a progression that began when Obama took office, facing the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression. By the end of 2013, the domestic US economy still has a way to go, in particular with the living standards of the middle class (as opposed to the burgeoning wealth of the so-called 1%), but the US reputation abroad in this area has been fully salvaged. This was no mean feat, and one for which the US president will get little credit, despite the steady nerves he had to show throughout.
A sideline to this good news is the sudden appearance in US popular perceptions of something the “oil business” has known for some time: that new explorations and new techniques for oil and gas extraction in the US and Canada are rapidly diminishing US dependence on foreign sources, including the politically volatile Middle East. That will change the “terms of political trade” in relation to the Persian Gulf oil producers, but it won’t make the US truly independent, since other major Western states will still be as dependent as before, and as China, especially, begins to compete heavily in these once Western-exclusive preserves.
The next most important item of “good news” was Obama’s selection of John Kerry to be the Secretary of State, which has brought the State Department back into the fray on major issues after a too-long hiatus. Kerry did initially get ahead of himself by pressing for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and setting a deadline (April 2014) for the conclusion of an “interim agreement” that has little hope of being fulfilled (I hope and pray that this prediction will be confounded!). And he did delay in putting together a first-rate team to “mind the store” and “do strategic thinking” while he was travelling, but some of his travels have been paying off, big time.
First was Kerry’s adeptness — or in part good luck (Ronald Reagan: “I would rather be lucky than smart”) — in rescuing President Obama from his unfortunate drawing of a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. That ill-thought-out statement became grist to the mill of Obama’s domestic political opponents, without their thinking of the damaging consequences for the United States if the President had actually redeemed his rash pledge.
That Secretary Kerry needed help from Russia in gaining Syrian agreement to eliminate its chemical weapons does not detract from the fact that a US use of force in Syria would have led us into yet another Middle East war, with untoward consequences and opposition of the American people (at least after the first blush, when we all “rally ’round the flag”). Note, as well, that a few months later, the “Syrian chemical weapons” issue has all but been forgotten. Some casus belli!
The denouement of this mini-crisis did complicate another major achievement that was not negative — a trap escaped. This was the first genuine opening to Iran in 34 years. Key, of course, was the Iranian presidential election, which brought to power — or at least semi-power, given the leading role of the Supreme Leader — the Western-educated Hassan Rouhani, who looked even better compared to his wildcat predecessor. With his experienced and also Western-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif, Rouhani reached out to the West. The result has been the first direct official US-Iranian contacts since the period following the Iranian Revolution: a cell-phone call between Obama and Rouhani and a limited agreement that could gain for both sides a lid on Iran’s nuclear program and some lifting of economic sanctions. Still a long way to go. Still the risk of a “slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.”And still intense rear-guard actions attempting to defeat a sensible agreement led by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and, on the other side, by Israel, the Gulf Arab states, and their American supporters — the domestic angle for Obama that is his most potent threat to defusing the festering Iran time-bomb.
On top of his escape in Syria and a chance for major success with Iran — both, note, in the Middle East — Obama also wrote an end to the direct US military involvement in the ill-gotten war in Iraq (the worst US blunder in foreign policy since Vietnam), and set a goal for getting most forces out of Afghanistan by the end of this year — though with the future as murky as it always is in that benighted and much-abused country with its unfortunate people.
Not a bad year’s work. But then there is the Dark Side, again, in the Middle East. President Obama made another unfortunate pledge two years ago, that Syria’s president Bashar Assad “must go.” Well, he hasn’t gone. And there is no obvious way of ending the civil war in Syria. It has also now become obvious that the revolt in Syria was not just a spontaneous occurrence like that in Tunisia (a success), in Egypt (a failure) and Libya (jury still out, but progress poor). What happened in Syria is also an extension of — yes, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states sought to “right the balance” of Sh’ia-Sunni power in the region by trying to get rid of a Sh’ia (Alawite) minority regime in a largely-Sunni country (Syria), the reverse of what happened in Iraq.
In the process, while the US government tried to figure out a workable outcome to the Syrian civil war (there might not be one) and to keep the US powder dry (heartily desired by the American public), al-Qaeda and its affiliates flooded into Syria, thus increasing the chances that, if Assad and his Alawite community are forced from power, the Islamists will reign supreme. That would be a major failure, but in part one of America’s own making, by refusing, for the umpteenth time since 9/11, to tell Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni regimes to stop permitting their rich and religiously-zealot citizens to inspire, fund and arm Islamists who, among other things, promote the killing of US and other troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.
One consequence of the continued turmoil in the Middle East and continued US preoccupation with it — while trying to ignore Pakistan, still one of the most dangerous places in world politics — is that the so-called “pivot to Asia” (more diplomatically termed by the Pentagon as “rebalancing”) will have to take place while the US and its European allies remain mired in Middle East messes. Taking seriously the rise of China (and India) is, of course, inevitable; and so is the need to fashion a set of coherent policies, especially toward China, that are now dominated in the US by competing satrapies — military/security, economic/business, geopolitics (North Korea), and human rights in the Middle Kingdom. The “pivot” was also inelegantly launched, such that the European allies feel slighted and, indeed, have been. To be sure, the risk of conflict in Europe, beyond a skirmish or two in the Balkans, died by the end of the 1990s with the successful building of a post-Cold War political, economic, and security regime on the Continent, except, of course, for the continuing ambitions of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, based more on illusion, continued hurt pride over losing the Cold War, and his own domestic agenda of reaffirming the centrality of Moscow-power.
The specter of Russia, hanging in particular over Eastern Europe, continues to lead the NATO allies to want the US strategically committed to Europe — hence, the willingness of all the allies (and others) to “go to Afghanistan” when almost none of them had a direct strategic interest. What will now replace that impetus for the US to continue being strategically engaged in Europe (though without a sizeable military presence, which is not needed to show political will)? The Europeans need to be involved, at least economically as well as in private and public sectors in the new preoccupation with Asia, as well as with deep (non-military) engagement in the Middle East, North Africa (both economically and politically), and Africa south of the Sahara (in part militarily — with France in the lead).
The best news for President Obama in Europe is the silent weapon that both sides are developing: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and the European Union, which will, when completed, bind the two sides of the Atlantic even more closely together economically, and also help to provide glue for the overall transatlantic relationship that NATO no longer provides to the degree it did before. The TTIP may not get done in 2014, but it is already having a positive impact, though on neither side of the Atlantic have governments sufficiently brought together, with a clear sense of purpose and mandate, the old compact of politics, economics and strategic engagement. This dearth includes the US, where overall strategic thinking has been in short supply.
There is much more to consider about President Obama’s foreign policy record in 2013. Notable was a moment’s work: shaking hands with Cuba’s president, Raoul Castro and potentially presaging the ending of one of the stupidest acts of US foreign policy driven by Florida politics: the isolation of Cuba two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union provided any rational basis for continuing to penalize the Cuban people for their government.
Leaving aside other developments, including the upward drift of US reputation in the world (except in some countries in the Middle East that have for too long believed that the US will forever deny its own self-interests in order to support theirs), all of this will do to get on with. And to return to my first point, Obama got much worse press this past year than he deserved. He faces as much a challenge with domestic constituencies — where, especially, on Iran, major parts of the US Congress are ignoring US interests in promoting further sanctions – – as he does abroad. He also did well in changing his team in Washington (Kerry at State, Susan Rice at the NSC and Chuck Hagel at Defense) — though there is still not a team-in-depth, nor people at the top reaches of the administration who are adept at the strategic thinking needed for the long haul.
Nevertheless, at the dawn of 2014, Mr. Obama and the US are in better shape in the world than at this time a year ago. A sigh of relief, of course; but also a possible sign of the good work that this president can still achieve, abroad as well as at home.