by Derek Davison
With Donald Trump set to take the oath of office and become America’s 45th president in a matter of days, this is an appropriate time to begin to evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency. To help analyze his performance on foreign policy and national security, I spoke with two eminent foreign policy analysts: historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Part one of the interview addressed Obama’s legacy. In part two, we discuss fundamental problems with American foreign policy and the Obama legacy, particularly with respect to Israel-Palestine.
LobeLog: In some cases the Obama administration has been criticized for how it has gone about conducting foreign policy as much as for the policies it’s pursued. For example, with respect to Syria it’s been criticized for not backing up its “red lines,” but not as much for the decision to set the red lines in the first place, and for inadequately supporting Syrian rebels rather than for supporting them at all. To what extent do you believe the administration should be criticized for the way it’s pursued its policies as opposed to the policies themselves?
John Mearsheimer: The problem is that the Obama administration has pursued flawed policies. Syria is a perfect case in point. Syria was another American attempt at regime change. The Arab Spring hit Syria in March 2011, and by August 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama were calling for regime change. We should not have been pushing regime change in Syria—we should have been, if anything, working to prop up the Assad government at that point in time. What happened instead is that the United States got deeply involved in trying to topple Assad from power. Of course, the United States has not used its own military forces in Syria, and therefore people on the right argue that we’ve done virtually nothing to get rid of Assad. But that’s not true—we’ve played a key role in orchestrating a coalition of countries that have helped directly supported the Syrian rebels in their attempt to overthrow the regime. We have been deeply involved in that effort. The reason that Obama didn’t put boots on the ground is that he understood, after Afghanistan and Iraq, that we didn’t have the magic formula for using the American military to turn countries like Syria into democracies. The hawks understood that there was little enthusiasm for putting American ground force ground in Syria, so they called for using air power to solve the problem. But we used air power in Libya, and look at what happened there—it was a colossal failure. So the idea that we could have used air power in Syria to fix the problem is laughable. There was no feasible military strategy for toppling Assad and creating a stable Syria. Toppling, or even weakening, Assad was only going to unleash centrifugal forces that would lead to a ghastly civil war, which is exactly what happened.
Andrew Bacevich: Beyond that, the real problem is the conceptual one, the establishment’s unwillingness to question conclusions that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Conclusion number one: with the end of the Cold War we live in a unipolar world. Conclusion number two: there is one superpower and that’s us. Conclusion number three: the unstoppable military might of the United States will guarantee stability and democracy and all that is good. Those propositions have been tested over the past 25-30 years, and have repeatedly been found wanting. President Obama has recognized that, but in the Pentagon and in Congress, who’s willing to stand up and say that it’s not a unipolar order? Who will concede that it is or soon will be be a multipolar order, and that we need to learn how to live with that reality? That’s my view of the future, and to pretend otherwise will find us continuing to make the sort of mistakes to which John was just referring. There’s a conceptual void—Obama failed to provide a clear understanding of where the world is headed and where we will fit in that world. And despite what John has said about some of Trump’s inclinations to demonstrate greater constraint, I’ve heard nothing from Trump that would suggest that he, or the people around him, will offer a distinct conceptual template as the basis for U.S. policy.
JM: What I find most striking, given all of our policy failures—at least since 2001—is that there’s hardly any interest in changing what we are doing among people in the foreign policy establishment. You would think that after all of the disasters, people would want to go back to the drawing board and rethink the assumptions that have been guiding U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East.
AB: In many respects, from their perspective, they’re not failures. It works for them. If you’re concerned about maintaining the status of the dominance of the United States military, if you’re concerned about maintaining very high levels of U.S. military spending, then things haven’t necessarily gone all that badly since 2001. The implacable determination of the national security bureaucracy to sustain itself poses a tremendous obstacle to even moderately fresh thinking.
JM: I think you’re correct, but just to be clear, what you’re saying is that the criterion for success is not whether the United States achieves its foreign policy goals; it’s whether the selfish interests of the various individuals and organizations that comprise the foreign policy establishment are protected.
AB: Think about it. I don’t know what four-star generals and admirals talk about amongst themselves, but it’s hard for me to understand how you could be a four-star general in the United States Army, or the Marine Corps, and look back at the last decade and a half and reach any conclusion other than that we have failed. We’ve failed our soldiers and Marines, we’ve failed the country. We have failed to accomplish what we set out to do. Take that judgment seriously and the senior military leadership today ought to be engaged in an honest accounting and a willingness to think otherwise. Yet I see zero evidence that the senior military leadership is willing to undertake, or is capable of undertaking, any such evaluation. “How can that be?” you might say. Well, the only explanation I can come up with is that they’re not all that unhappy with what’s been achieved.
JM: I think there’s another dimension to this, which is that the United States is a remarkably secure country. That’s due in good part to geography—as we face no serious threats here in the Western Hemisphere, which is our backyard. Plus we’re enormously powerful. That means that we can run around the world and make a mess in one place after another, and there are few direct consequences for us. The trouble we cause does not blow back on us in a meaningful way. It’s possible in this kind of situation—where the costs are not significant—for the United States to pursue policies that consistently fail, and yet have hardly any accountability or real interest in changing course.
AB: You’re right, and to expand on that point a little more, the costs are not felt directly by the American people. This is where you get into the implications of relying on a so-called all-volunteer force, a military that becomes increasingly detached from the population. Americans say “we love the troops,” but few have any stake in what the troops are actually doing. It’s not simply the national security bureaucracy that is uninterested in an accounting. The American public as a whole shares in that lack of interest.
Were such an accounting to occur, it would require the examination of some sacred cows, like the concept of American Exceptionalism, that very few people have the stomach to confront. It’s easy to give speeches about what a great country we are and what wonderful soldiers we have, collectively patting ourselves on the back. That’s a lot easier and more expedient than conducting an inventory of what our efforts, pursuant to liberal imperialism, have actually yielded and at what cost.
JM: You and I were both in the American military during the Vietnam War, an experience that I think matters greatly in terms of how we think about the world. For me, what I find amazing is that the U.S. military has been able to fight these protracted wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history. I never thought, given my memory of the Vietnam conflict, that we would be able to fight a war like the one in Afghanistan, where you’re sending troops back for third and sometimes fourth deployments, and losing the war in the process. It’s not like they’re sending these soldiers back to win a great victory—it’s quite clear this one is headed for the loss column. But yet we’re able to do it.
I think there are two reasons why we get away with this foolishness. Number one, we have an all-volunteer military, which is populated with people who are reasonably well paid and also don’t have a lot of voice. Furthermore, you have a military leadership that is very closely tied to the civilian leadership, and those military leaders think it is in their interest to go along with the policies put forth by the civilian leaders in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon. So, senior military officers put up very little resistance to the foolish policies promulgated by their civilian superiors. But there should be resistance, because these military leaders are responsible for the welfare of their soldiers. And their soldiers are fighting wars that don’t make any sense, not just because we lose them, but also because in almost every case, they’re unnecessary wars from a strategic perspective. But again, the military leadership doesn’t seem to have much interest in contesting the civilian leadership.
AB: They don’t have an interest, but my sense is that they also don’t have anything to say. One of the things that strikes me is that, when you and I were young, the Joint Chiefs of Staff constituted a collective body to be reckoned with. Presidents made a point not simply of consulting the chiefs but of going out of their way to give the appearance of consulting the chiefs. I remember Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson standing in front of a podium with the chiefs all arrayed behind them, while announcing “I have decided to do such-and-such.” The point was to show that the chiefs were all on board. Perhaps consultations between the commander in-chief and the senior military leadership didn’t always produce the right answer, but back then the senior military leadership did have a serious consultative role.
I’m not sure that’s the case today. As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, the service chiefs have pretty much been cut out of the loop. Who even knows who the chief of staff of the Air Force is? Who cares who the chief of naval operations is? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. So the military’s advisory role, to the extent that there is one, is exercised by the chairman of the JCS. And if you look back at the people who have filled that office—with the exception of General Dempsey, who I think was pretty good—most have been mediocrities. They have been weak. They have allowed the precepts of liberal imperialism to go unchallenged. And so the role of the military leadership has become one of simply managing these endless campaigns, without any expectation that they’re going to end. Like the French in North Africa, or like the Brits back in the heyday of the British Empire, endless campaigning defines the lot of the American soldier.
LL: I’d like to talk about the Obama administration’s Israel-Palestine policy, especially in light of the recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements and Secretary Kerry’s remarks in justifying the decision not to veto it. Earlier, Professor Bacevich brought up President Eisenhower’s speech on the Military-Industrial Complex as an example of an administration waiting until it was nearly out of office to finally level with the public, and Kerry’s speech struck me as another example of the same phenomenon. How do you view the administration’s Israel-Palestine policy overall and these recent actions in particular?
AB: Obama himself hasn’t been much of a believer in the so-called peace process, but certainly Kerry was. We now have a long tradition of administrations committing themselves to advancing the peace process and failing. What’s different in this case is that Kerry’s end-of-tour speech amounts to an admission that the peace process is all but dead. I think it actually has been dead for quite some period of time, but the foreign policy establishment has wished to maintain the fiction that success is right around the corner. It’s not. I think Kerry’s judgment is correct. It may not be true that settlement expansion offers the primary explanation for why we don’t have peace. But the expansion of Israeli settlements certainly makes the prospect of a two-state solution ever more remote. I think we’ve gotten to the point where it’s so remote that it’s simply not plausible anymore. [Kerry] had the temerity to say that out loud. I don’t know that the speech is going to change anything, but I do believe that there are times when candid expressions of truth can be helpful. We’ll see if that turns out to be the case in this instance.
JM: My take on this is that Obama, from the very beginning, was deeply committed to getting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to a two-state solution. However, I think this was evidence of his naivety. The fact is that over the past few decades, Israel has become an increasingly hawkish country. Its political center of gravity has been steadily moving to the right, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been Israel’s prime minister for many years, has no interest in a two-state solution. That meant that Obama would have to directly challenge him, which he did. In 2009, 2010, 2011, and even in his second term, Obama went head-to-head with Netanyahu, and he lost every time, because of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States.
AB: He didn’t lose on the Iran nuclear deal.
JM: That’s correct. When the issue at stake involves something other than the Palestinians, a U.S. president stands a reasonable chance of winning. President Reagan won against the lobby on the Saudi arms deal in the 1980s, and there’s no question President Obama won on the Iran nuclear deal. But when it comes to the Palestinians, and the issue of the two-state solution, it’s impossible for any president to take on the Israelis and win. I think Obama was naïve in thinking he could push Israel to give the Palestinians a viable state. So was John Kerry, who dedicated a great deal of time and effort to getting a two-state solution. But he failed. I think what you see happening now—with Obama allowing a UN resolution critical of Israel to pass, and Kerry giving a speech criticizing Israeli policy on settlements—is the Obama administration’s deep frustration with Israel coming to the fore.
The question one has to ask is: where is Israel headed? I think that we’re going to end up with a Greater Israel, which means an Israel that controls both Gaza and the West Bank. I agree with Andy that hardly anybody believes that a two-state solution is possible anymore. When you look at all the settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it’s hard to see how it’s possible to create a viable Palestinian state. But more importantly, the political center of gravity in Israel is moving to the right, and therefore you don’t have any real constituency in Israel that supports creating a viable Palestinian state on Israel’s borders. That means you’re going to have a Greater Israel, which is going to be an apartheid state. In fact, more and more people are saying just that. Israeli leaders have been saying it for a long time—Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, both former Israeli prime ministers, have said that if you don’t get a two-state solution and you end up with a Greater Israel it will be an apartheid state. Kerry has said this, as has Obama.
So that’s where we’re headed. This is going to be a huge problem for Israel, and for the United States as well, because we are joined at the hip with Israel. What Israel does and how Israel evolves matters greatly for America’s reputation. This is why President Obama, and President George W. Bush before him, and President Clinton before him, went to great lengths to get a two-state solution. They all understood that it was in the American national interest. They also felt it was in Israel’s national interest, which I think is correct. But all three of them failed; indeed they never even came close to getting an agreement, and at this point there’s virtually no hope. So, as far as relations between Israel and the United States are concerned, things are pretty much going to stay the same for the foreseeable future, which is bad news for both countries.
Syria was a signatory to the UN Charter which holds that all people have basic rights of self-determination, yet Syrians haven’t once had the opportunity to determine their futures by voting in free and fair elections — not once. To be clear, I’m a staunch opponent of “regime change” — which contravenes international law — but also an opponent of states which sign international agreements and then flout their most basic principles in the most EGREGIOUS manner. I respect Mearsheimer, notably for his book on the Israel lobby, but he’s oversimplifying here. Granted, the international community (the UN) not just the US, was confronted with an immensely difficult challenge following Damascus Spring — but I believe it let the people of Syria down and harmed its own credibility in the process.
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