The pragmatic pursuit of values: American Foreign Policy under Barack Obama

By Babak Moussavi

Was the Oval Office the only thing that you didn’t leave in a mess, George?

Upon his election in 2008, it seemed no mud could stick to Barack Obama, as he radiated optimism and hopefulness at a time of despair. Nowadays, however, one gets the impression that it is becoming slightly fashionable to be critical of him.

The Economist has started doing it overtly – at least in its leader articles – perhaps because it is a magazine that might more naturally support a man with a fervently capitalist background, such as Mitt Romney. It may therefore, be hedging its bets about who to endorse in November. The Financial Times has been throwing a few punches too. Edward Luce, a senior editor and US correspondent, has written a fairly “declinist” book about the state of the US, and rarely pulls his punches with Mr Obama. That said, some of his criticisms are slightly dubious: Mr Obama’s apparently devious decision to go for broke and raise money privately for his 2008 campaign seems perfectly legitimate when one considers the current context of campaign financing, as witnessed during the Republican primaries.

What is especially irksome is the way Mr Obama’s foreign policy record gets attacked. Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the FT, suggested last week that the assassination of Osama bin Laden was Mr Obama’s only real success in this area, and that overall it has been a dismal failure. At best, such comments fail to take the bigger picture into account. In this instance, I give Mr Rachman the benefit of the doubt, but others who have criticised Mr Obama from this angle have a painfully ideological axe to grind.

On the 2008 campaign trail, Mr Obama offered a vision of a fairer, more peaceful, more just world. That still seems to be the underlying theme to his foreign policy. But, as three experts from the Brookings Institution in Washington DC write, he has been constrained by the limits of politics, which is, of course, the art of the possible. He can, they suggest, therefore be dubbed a “progressive pragmatist”. He has pursued values, but only incrementally and to the extent that he can. His campaign pledges – just like those in party manifestoes – denote those things that he wants to do; actually carrying them out in a democratic system requires some degree of realism and compromise.

Nevertheless, it is this failure to achieve all the expectations set by his rhetoric that partly explains the criticism he receives. He has not solved the Israel-Palestine issue – but given how long it has been going on for, and how many Presidents have tried, this is par for that course. Iran continues to play a stubborn game over its nuclear programme, but Mr Obama has achieved tough UN-backed sanctions. He has not closed Guantanamo, which continues to tarnish America’s reputation abroad, but blame for this can lay with his do-nothing Congress, that signalled its refusal to allow this (as with so many of his other goals). No hard agreement to combat climate change has been agreed, but as the debacle in Copenhagen showed, this is hardly Mr Obama’s fault alone.

Obama’s election lifted the image of America in the Muslim world. But high expectations have not been reached.

But was killing bin Laden Obama’s only foreign policy success? The Iraq deployment is over, even if the Pentagon and others in the security establishment wanted to maintain a small presence there. That Iraq is holding together a fragile but apparently stable peace is – amazingly – no longer even news. The Afghanistan mission is being wound down, but NATO allies are one-by-one losing the will to fight, and the Taliban appear to be as persistent as ever – aided no doubt by the corruption in the current ruling elite there. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was ratified, just before Congress was filled with fundamentalist Republicans who would probably not have allowed it. Mr Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo instantly improved the perception of America in the Arab world; Simon Anholt, an astute pollster, reckons this contributed to his award of the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Muslim perceptions of America have since fallen back, but again, this shows that Mr Obama is guilty mostly of failing to achieve the expectations set for him.

The Brookings writers point out other successes that are often not mentioned: the relationship with China has been managed professionally and respectfully, at a time when there are fears about the impact of China’s rise. Ties with South Korea and Japan are still strong, and though some Indian policymakers prefer to describe themselves as friends but not allies, the relationship with that country is also cordial.

There are many more facets to American foreign policy, but this is not the place to tick them all off as successes or failures. True, the expectations have not been achieved; but America is no longer hated in the way that it was under George Bush. Mr Obama seems genuinely committed to building friendly relationships with other countries and leaders, avoiding the belligerent, ‘axis-of-evil’ tones that characterised the neo-conservative administration. He is also more committed to multilateralism, and the politics of persuasion, rather than assertion. His efforts are primarily focused domestically, however, thanks to his inheritance of an economy in freefall. There we can observe Mr Obama’s values, as he is committed to building a fairer, more equal, more socially just country. This is not something people regularly deny: he is either just called a Communist or Socialist for it, or criticised for not doing it fast enough.

If we place it all into context, however, Mr Obama’s greatest success is perhaps a negative one. That is, he is not his predecessor: indeed, how many foreign policy successes did the blundering, big-spending, ideologue, George W Bush rack up? I can’t think of many. Perhaps Mr Obama’s critics need to reassess many of their comments – and get some perspective.

  1. Eamon Rooke said:

    I really could not disagree more with this piece, I’m sorry to say. Describing the targeted assassination of Bin Laden as a “success” is disturbing, to say the least. On moral grounds alone, the state-sponsored targeting and murdering a single individual violates any meagre appreciation for justice i.e. people should be tried and judged for crimes they commit, not murdered. Success – perhaps in the eyes of Western exceptionalism – but not in anything resembling a moral judgement. And, though I’m almost embarrassed to point this out, it was completely illegal.

    Obama is also not trying to solve the Israeli occupation and degradation of Palestine, nor were any of his predecessors. He is actively supporting Israeli terrorism in the region, through supplying aid and arms, and also in his rhetoric. In fact, Obama is so hawkish when it comes to Israel he had to retract a statement in 2009 (I believe, happy to double check) where he called for Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel.

    Pakistan is perhaps the most harrowing of Obama’s ‘accomplishments’, where unmanned drone attacks are now far more frequent than they ever were under Bush, and where the borders are flooded with refugees from all over the region, displaced because of US terrorism in Afghanistan.

    The left’s unconditional fawning over Obama in 2008 laid the groundwork for these monstrosities to occur. It is precisely because people are deluded enough to accept his rhetoric of peace and diplomacy at face value that the US army is now even more terroristic than it was under Bush or Clinton, for whom the labels of ‘war criminals’ would be generous. Obama’s cabinet are by far the most pro-war Democrats one could hope for. Hilary Clinton has repeatedly threatened to ‘obliterate’ Iran, whilst Biden was perhaps the most forthcoming of Iraq war supports on the other side. They are not in those positions for the sake of ‘good debate’, they are there to cement US hegemony. Ideologically, I would say this is a perfect demonstration of what Marxians would call ‘co-optation’: doublespeak that allows for the pursuit authoritarian ends under the guise of liberalism, solidarity etc.

    Babak, I understand entirely that your intention was to demonstrate what Obama has done precisely within the framework of US hegemony *as it currently exists*, and to therefore make a judgement based on what is possible, not what is morally superior. However I do believe that even within those standards, Obama fall shorts by some substantial margin. And, furthermore, I think omitting moral and ethical questions is frivolous, leaving us with more questions than answers, academically.

    I hope I’m not being unnecessarily critical, looking forward to your response. All the very best!

    • I will reply properly to this thoughtful comment later as I cannot right now, but I would like to point out that I didn’t say killing Osama bin Laden was a good thing, but that it has been seen as a foreign policy success – indeed, by some, as his only foreign policy success! I hope you agree that they are not the same.

      • Eamon Rooke said:

        Of course, I didn’t assume your endorsement of any of Obama’s policies, however I think what exactly ‘success’ means then within elite circles is cause for concern. I suppose the sentiment I’m trying to engage is the notion of a separation between values and actions, and how the two assume distinct categories within ideology.

        I think what you were saying in the piece is that Obama has progressive principles, but that because of circumstances beyond his control, he operates within a framework that leads to poor outcomes. My driving point is that not only are they circumstances very firmly within his control, but there is absolutely no evidence to support the widely held view that Obama is ethically ‘principled’. And, attached to that, that the very notion of a separation between ethics and actions is an ideological trick, used by elites to justify their crimes. A trick that takes on a peculiar character when enacted by those seen to be on the ‘left’, ‘progressive side of politics. If that makes sense??

  2. Firstly, let me say I’m sure you could disagree more. The article was intended primarily as a response to criticism from the right: indeed, it is voices from that side of the spectrum that proffer the notion that killing bin Laden was Obama’s only foreign policy success, and even here they say it is something that he should not get credit for. I would hope that you could disagree more with such views aired by such people – Mitt Romney, for example.

    Second, the purpose of my article was to suggest that people who criticise Obama’s record on foreign policy should get some perspective. I did try to make the point that the limits on what a President can do are tight, and that when domestic politics is so fractured and dysfunctional – as is certainly the case in the US – this plays out into diplomacy. If sorting out the Israel-Palestine conflict involves putting much greater pressure on Israel then there is a lock on that possibility thanks to the domestic uproar that would ensue – instigated, no doubt, by the powerful AIPAC lobby. James Baker’s career appears to have ended prematurely after he said what that lobby did not want to hear. If this is the case, is it Obama’s fault that he has failed to achieve peace there, or should this be set in a broader context? I completely disagree with the idea that he is a “hawk” – his call for a freeze on the construction of settlements being an example of why not. He failed, and again wasn’t powerful enough to stop them, but this is not the same as endorsing them or agreeing with them, nor is it the same as “actively supporting Israeli terrorism in the region”.

    Nevertheless, you state in your second comment that: “My driving point is that not only are the circumstances very firmly within his control, but there is absolutely no evidence to support the widely held view that Obama is ethically ‘principled’.” From what I’ve said above, I really don’t see how you can argue the first premise if you follow American domestic politics – please provide some evidence for that claim. He has a do-nothing Congress and cannot get anything that he wants passed: witness the failure of the Buffett rule for a recent example.

    As for the second premise, if you haven’t heard any of his speeches or ‘doveish’ comments that the right calls ‘appeasement’ (the Cairo speech being one), then why don’t you read his book, The Audacity of Hope? From that, one gets the impression that he’s naturally a social democrat. Perhaps you’ve chosen to ignore his words, however, and use only American actions of the past four years as demonstrating a lack of principles. Well, would America really have left Iraq entirely if it narrowly pursued its self-interest? Would it have allowed the toppling of Mubarak? Would it have stopped extraordinary rendition? Remember, the Arab Spring was described by the right as an Islamist insurgency – Obama’s (qualified and pragmatic) embrace of it was at the very least better than that. Once you consider the counterfactual question, what would Bush or in fact any of the Republicans have done, I think you cannot come to the the conclusion that Obama is ‘just the same’.

    As for Iran, you say “Hilary Clinton has repeatedly threatened to ‘obliterate’ Iran”. When? Even if she did say that, that doesn’t seem to be her position now. If Bush were still there, I doubt there would have been the same leash on an Israeli urge to attack. Indeed, Obama started out with the offer of reconciliation, but was rebuffed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamanei. Khamanei harbours a great distrust of the US – with arguably a little justification as it goes back to perceived American duplicity around the time of Iran-Contra and around 9/11 when Khatami offered America support – but his regime proceeded to crush the Green, pro-democracy movement in 2009 and continues to oppress its own population. It is somewhat short-sighted for all the discussions in the Western media over Iran to centre on the nuclear programme, when there is so much more to it than that, but if we really are discussing values, one side seems self-evidently more committed to them than the other. Liberal values that is – not Islamic fundamentalist values. And in the latter case, there certainly is no ‘co-optation’.

    Pakistan is a mess, no doubt. But was that Obama’s doing? According to Anatol Lieven, the Iraq war is what severely dented America’s image there. Drone strikes are arguably counter-productive and catastrophic for America’s image (especially when civilians are killed), but also possibly better than troop deployments. Does America “terrorise” Afghanistan, or is that what the Taliban did (and would do, again)? And how is “the US army is now even more terroristic than it was under Bush or Clinton”?

    Anyway, I’ve written far too much. I think we view the facts through different lenses. In sum, I cannot see how you think Obama is not constrained by the dismal state of American politics. And nor do I view his record as a shamelessly unethical attempt to secure American hegemony. Mr Bush may have done that. But they are not the same.

  3. Eamon Rooke said:

    The constraints put in place by Congress are undoubtedly significant, nonetheless whenever Obama had a majority in the house he was no less hawkish. The occupation of Iraq has not ended. The war was founded for the purpose of pursuing US commercial interests, and to that end, the policy hasn’t changed under Obama. The troops are gone (to an extent), but the contractors are left behind, and are there to stay for the visible future. Further to that, Obama has never had a principled opposition to the occupation of Iraq. He had previously described it as a “blundering effort to do good”, which was strategically misguided. That’s the same way Bin laden would’ve described Flight 93.

    If you are principally opposed to war, and in favour of diplomacy as its alternative (as Obama says he is), you oppose warfare outright on moral grounds alone: the moral grounds being that murdering people is wrong, not that murder is a policy which doesn’t benefit the US, etc. If your ‘principle’ is that the US is a great country, and we should do whatever is in its best interest, then sure, Obama is principled as a diplomat. But naturally, Obama does not sell his principles in that way, he sells them in a way that resonates with people concerned with the plight of human rights and democracy, in a universal, not US-specific, sense. And, though this may seem audaciously cynical, I would say he does so just to further his political career. Evidence supporting that claim can also be found in the fact that prior to ascending up the ranks of the Democrats, Obama was a vocal supporter of Palestine.So, again, what grounds are there for saying he’s principled?

    I’m glad you raised the example of Egypt. Obama and Clinton now celebrate the fall of dictators around the middle East, however the timeline of events is interesting. Just as the Tahir square occupation began, Obama pledged to meet with Mubarak to essentially ensure that power would transfer peacefully, but as protests mounted he jumped on the bandwagon and said he had to go. A principled opposition to dictatorship, whenever it is politically convenient. I don’t have to remind you of the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that Obama has good working relationships with. There are plenty of things he can practically do not to support these tyrants, like maybe not selling them arms and oil. You say Republicans wouldn’t have supported Egyptian revolution. Do you know who is the most outright supporter for the Arab Spring in the GOP? John McCain, would-be president.

    Here’s the link to Clinton’s vile rhetoric ( Her suggestion was that if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, the US would attack them. First and foremost, Iran knows that, as does everyone who can think there way out of a paper bag. Second of all, Iran is never going to attack Israel with nuclear weapons, precisely for that reason. So, why make a threat against a nation, not engaged in any international conflict, based on a hypothetical attack that, even as a hypothesis, has barely any evidence to support its validity (as you yourself acknowledge)? The answer is obvious. The US is pro-actively supporting its own and Israeli hegemony in the region, because it wants to maintain its own primacy within the middle east. Based on the events of Iraq, and the US reliance on oil from the region, we can assume that this is because of commercial interests. Commercial interest, poorly veiled in the mantra of human rights. Clinton’s rhetoric is one example of how that hegemony is maintained.

    With regard to Afghanistan, of course the US is terrorising the region, what else is it doing? They have an army there, not a peace envoy. Even Karzai, a puppet for Western war criminals, has demanded that the US stop killing Afghans before any meaningful state-building can take place. Obama has massively increased the occupation in a military sense, and has dismissed outright the only thing that will ever lead to something resembling statehood and democracy in the region, namely negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban are, of course, bad guys. My condemnation of US terrorism does not equate to support for the Taliban, which I do hope you were not implying. The Taliban would undoubtedly be doing very bad things in Afghanistan had it still been in power. How did they get into power in the first place? After the Soviet invasion, the devastated population (once amongst the most secular and left wing in the middle east) were radicalised. This is undeniable proof that invasion into nation states by superpowers produces terrorism, it does not extinguish it. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world where we can stop bad guys from existing, all we can do is ensure that our actions do not exacerbate their crimes. It is obvious that exacerbation is exactly what happens after intervention.

    Obama is more terroristic than Bush and Clinton precisely because of the increase of drone attacks. Are drone attacks better than putting troops on the ground? Sure, the same way shooting someone in the leg is better than shooting them in the face.

    This notion of how you’re defining principles is what really bothers me. Being principled is defined precisely by how you act, not what you say. If I find £100 in the street, and know I can steal it without anyone knowing, but choose not to and hand it into a police station, that is a principled act because it is showing restraint. If I write a lovely book about how evil stealing money is, then steal it anyway, you would not call me principled. In fact, my contradiction in words and actions would demonstrate just how deeply un-principled I was. Obama has the power to not threaten Iran, not sell oil and arms to tyrants, to not kill people with flying robots, and to not increase the amount of troops in Afghanistan. He had this power when he had a majority in the house, he could have it again if he didn’t appoint to his cabinet the most right-wing, hawkish of Democrats. These are all things that he has chosen to do.

    Of course, the GOP hate him and have been doing everything to stop him doing anything in power. I don’t doubt that Obama would be less of a hawk without that presence. What I take issue with is the notion that his foreign policy is only cruel at times because of those constraints, and that he can’t do a lot to combat it. Obama began his landslide victory Presidency with those ‘compromises’ in place, they didn’t show up out of nowhere, leaving a principled man ‘hard done by’.

    • Eamon, thanks for this. Perhaps you’d like to write an article on your take on US foreign policy? It wouldn’t need to be a response to me, but could be on how you view it as a whole.

      I did intend to take each paragraph in turn, but then we’ll just write essays to each other, and I’m sure you have better things to do. So I’ll try to be brief, but will probably fail.

      The main difference between us seems to be that you would value outright idealism, whereas I consider there to be a whole swathe of constraints that means the compromising, or pragmatic, course is the realistic one. Where you criticise Obama for doing the wrong things (“Obama has the power to not threaten Iran, not sell oil and arms to tyrants, to not kill people with flying robots, and to not increase the amount of troops in Afghanistan”) I see complex situations which can’t be dealt with as easily as you imply. Obama offered an open hand and fresh start with Iran at first (a point which might refute your claim that he has been a hawk all along, even when he had a super-majority), but the long-standing mutual distrust and the Ayatollahs’ brutal suppression of the Green revolution in 2009, and continuing secrecy over their nuclear programme, mean that the relationship soured quickly and is turning into a raw power-play, where America feels it must show its strength in order to deter. I personally don’t think that’s the optimal strategy, but I think its understandable, and probably rational (and it puts Hillary Clinton’s comments into context – comments, which one should also note, were made when she was still trying to become President).

      Over relationships with tyrants – yes, you’re right, it’s not good at all. But these aren’t relationships Obama has forged, and according to the conservative, ‘realist’ school of thought that permeates much of American foreign-policy thinking, stability is good, and nothing radical should be done in pursuit of values as this will make things worse. Again, perhaps not quite true, but it goes some way to explaining why Obama would be playing the slow-game at reform here.

      Of course I wasn’t suggesting you thought the Taliban were good guys – that would be obscene. As Sherard Cowper-Coles has written, there’s a lot of groupthink about how to deal with the country. It requires a huge development operation, not a simple military solution. But that can’t be done if the Taliban return to power, bringing their dark age customs back to the people of Afghanistan. Is Obama – and not just him, but all Nato members who have been involved in that fight – so wrong to want to avoid that? I agree that every time a civilian is killed its a catastrophe – whether by a drone or a bullet. And I also think it’s very bad when drones enter Pakistan – as it radicalises that population further which places greater strong on its weak state. But, if you accept the premise that there is a war with the Taliban, then is it so bad when drones are used against them? I still don’t see how this makes him “more terroristic” than his predecessors, given that Bush started both those wars and under him many more multiples of civilians were killed than under Obama.

      I totally disagree with you when you say Obama’s objection to the Iraq war was not principled, and that he made the same claim about it as bin Laden would about flight 93. So what if he did? That alone does not ascribe moral equivalence between the two claims. Obama’s objection was towards the policy of war. Perhaps, however, he wasn’t so averse to the idea of seeing the end of an occasionally genocidal Iraqi dictator’s regime. Which I wouldn’t object to really – and by the sounds of what you’ve written about other middle eastern tyrants, you wouldn’t seem to either. But that’s beside the point.

      You regularly claim that it’s “obvious” certain policies are because of American pursuit of “commercial interests”. Here again, I disagree. Commercial interests may be a factor. But they certainly aren’t the only factor, let alone the obvious factor, and the cost of some American policies that you say are because of such interests (the Iraq War being one) give reason to doubt that they are even much of a factor at all. Occasionally things may appear to have certain, individual reasons, especially when viewed through an ideological lens, but analyse it properly and one will realise that these issues are far more complex.

    • PS, I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but you’re making me feel a bit like Paul Wolfowitz (who, to be clear, I really dislike)!

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