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By Barry Rubin

On October 15, 2009, I published the following article on my blog. Three and a half years later I think the question raised has been definitively answered. I’ve put into bold some of the particularly relevant passages below and put my up-to-date remarks in brackets and in italics.

 “The Question on which the World Hangs: Can Obama Learn To Manage U.S. Foreign Policy Well?”

Does the fate of the world depend on one simple question: Is Barack Obama capable of learning? Maybe it does.  I refer only to foreign policy—I leave American domestic issues to those who know more about them than I do.

For a while, I thought the answer must be “yes” but now I am less sure. Let me lay out the reasons why by beginning with two central problems. First, there is the evident lack in Obama’s intellectual make-up of the most basic concepts of international strategy. I don’t say that as an insult but unfortunately it is an easily observable fact.  [Still true–BR]

Obama is a man who preaches universal nuclear disarmament. Yet he has to a large degree already practiced strategic self-disarmament.

Where are the ideas of diplomacy and strategy that seem to have no place in his arsenal?
Credibility: Understanding the need to ensure in others a belief that you are strong, determined, and ready to use power [Still absent from his policy–BR]

Deterrence: Possession of the proven instruments—including willpower—to stop other’s from doing what you don’t want them to do because they know you will even go to war to stop them. Consequently, they are most likely to avoid going to war.  [In theory this exists over Iran’s nuclear program but in practice doesn’t really affect anyone, including the Iranians, since they don’t take the threat seriously or at least think they can outmaneuver the United States so that nothing will happen in the end–BR] 

The use of serious threats and friction: In diplomacy you must demand a great deal—even consciously asking for too much—in order to get a moderate amount. [Failed, not only with America’s enemies but also in pressuring friends, for example, Israel.]

Ensuring allies that you will support and protect them, precisely because you are prepared to be a tenacious fighter—if you’ll excuse the expression—one mean son-of-a-bitch. [Since then, as in the ‘”Arab Spring,” things have gotten far worse. One could also argue that while Libya was certainly not an ally, the regime there was fulfilling its agreements with the United States. The only exception is that for a variety of reasons–including the political costs–Obama decided that his strategy of distancing himself from Israel had failed and he shifted policy toward improving bilateral relations, the one notable change in his policy. But how credible is this promise where it really counts?–BR] 

Leadership: Taking a stance and pushing it through even if others among your friends oppose it or are not ready for it, even if they accuse you of unilateralism. [This has been more explicitly rejected by Obama. Failed on the Palestinian issue at the UN; got through sanctions only by giving Russia, China, Turkey, and others exclusion from the rules.–BR]  

Willingness to use force: If you so denounce and apologize for past use of force, who will believe that you will employ it in future? [Drone strikes and Libya have not changed this perspective–BR]. 

Readiness to be unpopular abroad: To make tough decisions, to do things that other governments and populations don’t like—rightly or wrongly—because you are acting in your own country’s interest. In some ways, Obama’s international popularity is not a good thing but a hint of how wrong he’s gone. [Nope. Making the assassination of Usama bin Ladin seem to be a really tough decision and also failing to try to rescue the Americans in Benghazi demonstrate the point.–BR]

I know that there are those who would presume to answer the above points by finding some quotation here or policy statement there. The word “Afghanistan” might be mentioned—which is precisely why Obama has made a big deal of fighting that war, which is the one war in the world least worth fighting and most likely to fail. [American withdrawal is a correct decision but the winning-hearts-and-minds and nation-building strategies weren’t–BR] Yet don’t we all really know that this critique is a true one?

And can one really believe that he will learn all these things in a few months, no matter what the experience? Others have, perhaps, so learned but they were people who simply didn’t know, they were perhaps ignorant and inexperienced but had not installed directly contrary ideas at the center of their beings.  [We now know they haven’t been learned in three and a half years and can expect nothing will change in the next four years–BR]

The problem, it should be stressed, is not that a Democrat or that a liberal is president of the United States. One might merely say: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. All had their faults and made big mistakes, but they were less disastrous potentially than Obama is. Hilary Clinton stands within this pattern; Obama does not.

In fact, the current president is a man who is not a liberal Democrat in the sense that these people were but rather a man of what in America can be called the left. In Europe, one might say “far left” or in Britain “hard left.” Again, this is not meant as an insult but as a statement of fact for Obama lies beyond the traditional liberal (America) and Labour or Socialist framework of national leaders.
At the same time, it should be stressed, of course, that the right-wing has exaggerated Obama’s perfidy and intentions. He does not seek to destroy Israel or to empower the world’s worst dictators. Indeed, he has no overarching program despite all his fine words. The watchword for his administration is really passivity, to do the minimum, avoid confrontation, and substitute soaring rhetoric for clear, attainable goals or strategies closely attuned to realities. [U.S. policy regarding the “Arab Spring” has shown this to be partly wrong. Faced with foreign developments Obama sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria–BR] 

And this is the other reason why I am doubtful at the moment about Obama’s learning. This issue can be summed up in the phrase: the cost of change. For to change he would have to consider confronting Venezuela and North Korea, Syria and Iran, numerous radical and terrorist groups, and even to a lesser extent Russia and China. He would have to decide consciously to sacrifice that popularity which is his greatest boast. Obama would have to turn into his opposite, and there are few men who have the self-knowledge, courage, and strength to make such a thorough self-transformation. [The upheavals of the “Arab Spring” made this even more evident–BR]

When one makes these points in conversation, the response is often that Obama is better than Bush. Aside from being irrelevant this precisely reveals the problem. For being the Anti-Bush is too important for him and Bush, whatever his faults, was a national interests’ president. Again, the question is not whether Obama is better than Bush, the issue is whether he is a good president in his own right.

Another argument that is frequently made is that Obama is “smart.” Yet being smart is not enough to make you able to perform any given complex job. No matter how smart you are you might not be able to be a surgeon or a software writer or an army general, or any other complex occupation that requires certain skills and psychological orientations beyond just being intelligent.

As the British professor Basil Willey put it just after World War Two reflecting back on the previous century of sad history, “Knowledge without wisdom brings sorrow.” Or to quote a popular aphorism: Wise people are those who have to get smart people out of trouble. As has also been pointed out, smart, attractive, fashionable people—who David Halberstam called memorably the best and the brightest—got the United States into the Vietnam War.

A smart person may proceed on wrong premises, or by the very process of being in love with ideas may value them above experience. Obama thinks he knows precisely what must be done and unfortunately that program is dead wrong. [Nothing has changed for the better on this point–BR]

The final point is that there are good people around him, the huge force of advisers who—hopefully or presumably, you choose the word—will warn him that his thinking is very out of touch with the world. They, if not he, will be capable of evaluating the administration’s experience and urging a course correction. [The choice of John Kerry as secretary of state; John Brennan as head of the CIA; and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has removed any possibility of Obama having good advisers–BR]

That might be. But I also must keep in mind that some (many?) share his conceptions, that human beings have an amazing ability to see what they want to see (and not what they don’t want to see), that they will want to please their boss, and finally that many draw different conclusions which make them fight rather than unite. [Proven by events–BR]

Of course, administrations do change their policies and many are the presidents who had quite distinctive periods of different policies during their term in office. Perhaps that will happen to Obama due also to the force of external events. We will see. At the moment, though, I’m more pessimistic given the evidence we do have. [I had to put in this last paragraph to demonstrate having an open mind but clearly this has had close to zero effect in Obama’s case–BR]  

[There are those who believe that Obama is, in effect, conducting a bad policy on purpose so that he weakens the United States. My view is that Obama genuinely believes that his ideas will work, making America more liked and in a better situation from his standpoint. Of course, this view does mean the United States will be weaker but predicts that it will gain in exchange stability and popularity. Obama is wrong because his ideas are wrong but he certainly doesn’t want to look like a fool and failure by sabotaging the United States. The issue is simply that foolish ideas and foolish policies are going to fail. And that is precisely what has happened.–BR]


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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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