Superman on the Way! Obama’s foreign policy gets off to a false start


Les circonstances autour de l’installation le 22 janvier des super-ambassadeurs pour le Moyen Orient et Afghanistan-Pakistan par M. Obama ne promessent pas des changements positifs dans la politique étrangère américaine. L’unilatéralisme et l’impérialisme de la Pax Americana continuent toujours.

Une Note par Gilbert Doctorow



Superman on the Way! Obama’s foreign policy gets off to a false start


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


On January 22, just a couple of days after his Inauguration, President Barack Obama visited the State Department, together with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to announce the appointment of a Special Envoy for the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell, and a Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.


The presence of the Commander-in-Chief and his first deputy was intended to stress the importance which the incoming U.S. administration gives to foreign policy in general and to the nation’s diplomatic service, in particular, as executor of foreign policy. Commonplace as these assertions may appear, they represent an attempt at reversal of priorities of the freshly departed Bush administration, where the Department of Defense, especially during the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld, but even afterwards with encouragement from Vice President Dick Cheney, usurped much of the traditional turf of State, either for implementation by its own personnel or for outsourcing to private service providers, and ran up an obscene predominance in budgetary allocations. With respect to the Middle East, the appointment also represents a dramatic reversal in agenda priorities: whereas Bush got around to Middle East peace solutions only in the last year of his 8 years in office, the new President has his mind on the ball from day one.


After a profuse exchange of rhetorical bouquets among the speakers at the event , what we see is the appointment of two Democratic workhorses with personal resumes of indifferent value in their new assignments given the changed circumstances from what won them accolades for success in the past. And close textual analysis of the transcript published by reveals evidence of a problem-solving approach that is deeply flawed, indeed which makes it difficult to see how anyone could succeed in the assignments. This is a far cry from the application of ‘smart power’ by ‘smart people’ that Mme Secretary Clinton extolled glowingly in her opening remarks at the appointments ceremony.


The Men


First, a word about the individuals named as super envoys.


At a moment when the US purposefully shifts from a militarized to a civilian-led foreign policy, it may not be helpful to describe the new super envoys as ‘two very powerful weapons in our diplomatic arsenal,” as Vice President Biden did in his remarks, but then Senator Joe was never known for his gift with words.


Much was said about the personal and family sacrifices of the new appointees, who will be leaving successful private sector careers for their new assignments entailing incessant foreign travel. Touchingly, their wives were called out at the ceremony for special recognition of their public-spirited sacrifice.


The reality is less complex. It was fairly obvious, for example, that Richard Holbrooke was actively campaigning to be appointed Secretary of State in the summer and autumn of 2008. Foreign Affairs magazine did him the enormous favor of publishing his article of advice to the new US administration in its September-October 2008 issue. What he got on January 22nd was the consolation prize.


My very first blog here on 14 September (“Foreign Affairs”) concluded that Holbrooke’s essay revealed a shocking intellectual bankruptcy. It was a hodge-podge list of ‘things to do’ interspersed with a lot of name-dropping serving to underscore the relevancy of the author’s ongoing business activities to any future diplomatic assignment. The only concept put forward in the prime real estate the journal gave him was that of an ‘arc of crisis’ – Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – said to be ‘at the heart of the United States’ geostrategic challenge.’ We were not told why this is so or why Turkey was on this sad list of failed or failing states caught up in the war on terror. This is now the physical real estate that Holbrooke will superintend as the presidential envoy.


Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic stature comes largely from his position as deal maker in the Dayton Accords that settled the three year regional and civil war in Bosnia-Hergegovina in 1995. Although that settlement had the unquestionable merit of ending horrific bloodshed from ethnic cleansing and war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, the jury is out on whether it set the basis for a durable nation state, as even this week’s news headlines from the Balkans tell us. Moreover, the deal was made possible by a fleeting favorable balance of international forces resulting from a supine Russia, the defender of Serb interests. It led directly to the next conflict in the former Yugoslavia over Kosovo, which is with us today and is not likely to go away any time soon following the contentious US recognition of this Albanian-populated province of Serbia as a sovereign state..


More to the point, the diplomatic achievements in Dayton, which some at the time said justified a Nobel Peace Prize for Holbrooke, were possible only because of US military ascendancy in the given situation. It was NATO, essentially US air power that decided the conflict on the ground and led to the given outcome at the negotiating table.


In his new assignment, Holbrooke will be supported by American military might, to be sure, but he comes up against interested regional powers that are armed to the teeth and will not respond favorably to a US diktat. He also faces irregular forces which cannot be called to heel by the local state powers let alone by some outside force.


On the face of it, George Mitchell is a much more interesting and promising appointment as Special Envoy. As the son of a Lebanese immigrant to the United States, he can be described as an Arab American, which presumably will pick up some good will in certain quarters.

Mitchell’s career in government and business has been very diverse and gives evidence of a keen intellect and great breadth of interests.


However, his crowning achievement in public service and his major claim to his latest appointment comes from his chairmanship of the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998, all of which has little relevance to the situation he will now find himself in. With respect to Northern Ireland, the United States had grounds for being received as honest broker by all the interested parties to the conflict. On the one hand, the country had/has a ‘special relationship’ with England and on the other hand, it was a major source of financing to the Irish nationalist movement and its military wing, the IRA. And while the Unionists surely complicated greatly the calculus of peace, there were no outside powers putting their thumbs on the scales.


With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Israeli-Arab conflict, the United States has many influential friends and client states in the region, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, it also has made bitter enemies of other regional players who hold the keys to any eventual peace agreements, including Iran and Syria, as well as their protégé militant movements, the Hezbollah and Hamas. Over the past 8 years when the United States was so uncritically on the Israeli side, it established for itself a name in the region that is incompatible with the role of honest broker. Moreover, even now under a new President, continuation of the Bush administration’s misguided policy of dealing only with the Palestinian Authority is a major disservice to the peace mission: as we have seen, on his first trip to meet with the warring parties, Mitchell decided not to speak with the representatives of Hamas.



Faulty Peace Making Structures


Putting aside the personal merits of these two new envoys and the ways in which their past success holds no promise of future positive results given the specifics of US leverage in the regions of their responsibility, the bigger determinant of what comes out of the Obama foreign policy initiative will be the peace making structures in which they operate. Is the United States going to work with others or only through others to achieve peace?


The send-off ceremony on January 22nd does not hold any promise of greater humility in the conduct of US foreign policy than we saw in the Clinton or George W. Bush years. The President himself spoke majestically in the code words of American imperialism: “We did not ask for the burden that history has asked us to bear, but Americans will bear it.” Secretary Clinton called the appointments of the two super envoys a demonstration of US “global leadership in pursuit of progress and peace.” She also spoke of “engaging NATO and other key friends, allies, and those around the world who are interested in supporting these efforts.” This begins to sound very much like yet another ‘coalition of the willing.’ And Mitchell called for “the support and assistance of the many other governments and institutions who want to help.”


What we have here is clearly the “toolkit” approach to alliances that undercut all of the Bush administration’s pretence at multilateralism. This policy does not move one inch in the only direction that can work: namely to set up Contact Groups of all the interested regional players in the given regional conflicts instead of co-opting American client states from the rest of the world as a surrogate to the United Nations and other existing international organizations. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, such a Contact Group already exists in the form of the Quartet. In the case of Afghanistan, it has to be created by bringing in the neighboring states who are actors in the Great Game played out on Afghan soil: Iran, India, Pakistan, China and Russia.


These are still early days in the formation of foreign policy within the Obama administration. But the re-treads whom the President appointed to his Cabinet level and senior Executive Office posts dealing with foreign and security issues have, predictably, brought with them the same tired Cold War concepts, the same imperial ideology as opposed to pragmatism that we saw in their writings and behavior before Election Day. Whence can we expect the ‘change’ which Americans voted for on November 4, 2008?



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2009



G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.