Obama’s Foreign Policy Performance

Obama’s Foreign Policy Performance

Although the Obama administration’s dealings with Moscow and Beijing have been handled adroitly, its management of the war in Afghanistan and threats in the Middle East have been less successful, says CFR President Richard Haass.

July 14, 2010 11:16 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The Obama administration’s recent settling of the Russian spy case, along with its dealings with Russia on Iran and the START treaty, reflect a deft handling of Washington’s affairs with Moscow, says CFR President Richard Haass, who sees a comparably adroit management of relations with China. However, Haass notes that the administration has been less successful in its handling of the Middle East and Afghanistan. "One senses that as bad as the Middle East is now, as we’ve often seen in the past it has the potential to get even worse," says Haass, who is concerned about missiles being provided to Hamas and Hezbollah, and about what he sees as the likelihood that sanctions against Iran will be ineffective. Haass calls the war in Afghanistan the administration’s biggest foreign policy issue, and argues that the White House hasn’t "made the case for the scale of investment the United States is making." On Iran, he does not believe the sanctions will stop that country’s nuclear program, and that if the nuclear program proceeds, the United States and Israel "will have to decide what it is they can or cannot tolerate and what it is they are prepared to do about it."

The recent Russian spy case ended rather quickly with the exchange of the ten suspected Russian agents and return of three or four accused spies to the West. It happened so quickly, before there was even a trial. Is that a sign that it was handled well?

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The short answer is yes. This is the proverbial dog that barely barked in the night. I did think it was deftly handled, and I actually think it’s part of a larger pattern in which U.S.-Russian relations have been, for the most part, well-handled. We’ve come a long way since the differences two years ago over Georgia. We’ve now got a new START agreement. Russia has been working to a significant degree with us and the United Nations on Iran. There’s some progress in the economic side of the relationship. I thought it was also significant the way the administration repackaged the entire anti-Iranian missile-defense system in Eastern Europe. Even though the administration said it wasn’t linked to Russia, in many ways it was. It was a way to take Russian interests into account, which is sometimes what you have to do in foreign policy if you want to get others to take your interests into account.

Will missile defense produce a problem for ratification of the new START treaty?

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Politics and Government

I was speaking of the missile-defense system that was planned for the Czech Republic and Poland. The Obama administration reconstituted that initially offshore, and began to try to take Russian interests into account. You’re asking a fundamental question about missile defense, and that will obviously be the, or at least a, principal focus of any Senate consideration of the new START agreement. You’re already beginning to see some of the battle lines being joined, and it’s quite possible that the START ratification will get caught up in not only questions of missile defense but questions of strategic modernization, and other potential arms control agreements. All of that is going to be a question of American domestic political management.

My point is simply that in terms of foreign policy management, what we’re seeing is a degree of maturation in the U.S.-Russian relationship where we’re not allies, we’re not adversaries--we’re somewhere in between. We cooperate on some issues, we disagree on others. And the two sides, I believe, are getting better at managing this hard-to-define but still important relationship.

It was interesting that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, before he met with President Barack Obama in Washington, flew out to Silicon Valley as part of an effort to modernize the Russian technological sector.

The Russians have suffered in part because they’ve become something of a cash-crop economy based on energy. They want to broaden the economy, to make it less narrowly focused. Some people may also have a hidden agenda. Some people on our side are hoping to get some of these Russians who have been involved in unhelpful cyber-related activity more productively engaged in what we might call "Siliconski" Valley. What I see potentially desirable here is a more developed U.S.-Russian economic relationship. One reason that the U.S.-Chinese relationship has been able to weather various ups and downs is that we’ve established a fairly large economic relationship in which each side has a stake. I believe it would be useful to do the same thing in the U.S.-Russia relationship. That kind of developed economic dimension adds a bit of balance.

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Google was able to renew its license with China. That was an irritant that was waiting to be resolved. How do you see U.S. relations with China?

I don’t believe the administration has made the case that Afghanistan warrants the scale of investment the United States is making, nor do I believe that the evidence suggests that the strategy we’ve embarked on is likely to succeed.

It’s another one of these relationships that is difficult to pigeon hole. We’re neither allies nor adversaries, we’re something in between. Each side has a major stake, if for different reasons, in the maintenance and development of a good relationship. Perhaps the most interesting recent development, even more than Google, has been--again, I use the word "deft" handling in this case - the currency issue, where against the backdrop of congressional pressure the administration, led by the secretary of the Treasury, has been able to induce the Chinese to take certain steps to revalue their currency. My hunch is they might well have done more had it not been for the eurozone crisis. But for the time being at least, it seems that the Chinese are doing just enough to avoid congressional action, which could trigger not just a bilateral political crisis, but, much more broadly, an economic problem of the first order, when obviously you don’t need it.

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Politics and Government

We’ve talked about two of this administration’s successes. What about the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iran?

We just had the visit here of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, while he suggested certain signs of potential flexibility, he also was just as clear that people cannot expect Israel to extend the settlement freeze as the price for getting the Palestinians to enter into direct talks. So the real challenge for the administration in the short run is to persuade the Palestinians to drop their preconditions about entering direct negotiations. [Palestinians want a permanent settlement freeze.] If the administration can succeed at that, then obviously the challenge will be to make some actual yardage in the negotiations themselves. And it’s far from obvious that you have the basic conditions of ripeness, that you have leaderships around the Middle East that are both ready and able to make compromises. So that continues to be an area of real frustration. I’ll also add that it’s an area of real danger. When one sees the missile buildups with Hamas [in Gaza], and even more with Hezbollah [in Lebanon], one senses that as bad as the Middle East is now, as we’ve often seen in the past, it has the potential to get even worse.

One surprise recently has been the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the United States and Israel.

There has been a deterioration. The Turks are apparently repositioning themselves, trying to also carve out a larger role for themselves in the Arab and in the Islamic world. It makes for good domestic politics in Turkey. Exactly how far the Turkish leadership wants it to go, or exactly how far it might unfold, is anybody’s guess. My hunch is we’re not about to see a fundamental rupture in Turkey’s relationship with the United States or NATO, but we are seeing a rebalancing of Turkey’s ties, with less of an emphasis on getting into Europe, less of an emphasis on its ties to the West, and more emphasis on its ties with the Arab and Islamic world. Some people have perhaps lightly or off-handedly described this as the "re-Ottomanization" of Turkish foreign policy.

In November’s congressional elections, the biggest issue that’s probably going to be talked about is Afghanistan.

In terms of foreign policy, Afghanistan is the biggest issue. There I continue to have basic disagreements with what the administration is doing. I don’t believe the administration has made the case that Afghanistan warrants the scale of investment the United States is making, nor do I believe that the evidence suggests that the strategy we’ve embarked on is likely to succeed. Soon after the midterm election, President Obama is going to begin the third major review of his Afghan policy in anticipation of the July 2011 deadline to begin the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. What I am hoping to see is a dramatic change in U.S. policy away from such an emphasis on channeling so much though the government in Kabul. I would also like to see greater diplomatic efforts to explore whether the Taliban, if and when it regains positions in Afghanistan, might be prepared not to bring back al-Qaeda in any form. And I am looking for ways that the United States can dramatically scale down the economic and human and military costs on its involvement in Afghanistan.

Are you worried that the Taliban might retake control of Afghanistan?

I believe it’s inevitable that the Taliban will take control of parts of the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan. Roughly half of Afghanistan is Pashtun. I would think in those areas the Taliban will make inroads. What should matter most to the United States is not whether the Taliban makes inroads locally. Again, what does that entail? If it does not entail the Taliban facilitating the operations of al-Qaeda, facilitating instability in Pakistan, or extending their control to non-Pashtun parts of Afghanistan, it’s not clear to me why necessarily that should justify the sort of investment we are now making in Afghanistan.

It doesn’t trouble you too much that if the Taliban is in control, a lot of things like woman’s rights could be set back?

It troubles me, don’t get me wrong. The question is: How does the United States try to deal with that? Is that worth the presence of one hundred thousand American troops? Is it worth, as we saw in June, the loss of more than one hundred lives if one adds up the NATO and American casualties? I would say not. And the United States has to look for other tools to deal with how the Taliban treat their own people, how one would use aid, and other mechanisms. But I simply don’t think we can justify the use of the American military and ask young men and women to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of human rights standards in Afghanistan.

Do agree with Republican Party leader Michael Steele that this has become Obama’s war?

Let me say this about Mr. Steele’s initial comments. He made two points. He made the point that history suggests the United States was unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan. There I’m afraid he’s right, if we define success with any degree of ambition in building a viable, functioning, central government of Afghanistan. And secondly he said that this is a war Mr. Obama is choosing. And he got roundly criticized for it, but he’s actually more right than not. Yes this war began nine years ago under the Bush Administration after 9/11, but that was a very different war. That was a very limited effort to go after al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban government that was harboring al-Qaeda. But the Bush administration thereafter explicitly ruled out nation-building in Afghanistan.

This administration has broadened U.S. policy to going after the Taliban and has broadened U.S. policy to now become state- or nation-building, and has tripled the U.S. military effort. So, yes this war began nine years ago, but this administration over the last eighteen months has dramatically changed the direction of the war effort and has dramatically increased the scale of the war effort. In that sense, Mr. Steele, before he withdrew his own comments, was actually more right on the foreign policy substance than not. I’ll leave it to others to judge the politics of it.

In terms of foreign policy management, what we’re seeing is a degree of maturation in the U.S.-Russian relationship where we’re not allies, we’re not adversaries--we’re somewhere in between. We cooperate on some issues, we disagree on others.

What about efforts to stop Iran and the effort to stop its nuclear program from developing nuclear weapons?

Besides Afghanistan, that’s the one other big question mark over the administration’s foreign policy, not between now and the midterm election, but almost certainly between the midterm election and the next presidential election in 2012. I would simply say that despite the progress the administration has made both inside the United Nations and, perhaps more importantly, outside the United Nations on ratcheting up sanctions, there’s no evidence so far that this progress on sanctions is translating into any slowing down of the Iranian enrichment effort or is having a persuasive effect on the Iranians when it comes to negotiations. So it still looks to be more a question of when, rather than if, Israel, or the United States, or both are going to have to make fateful decisions about what it is they are prepared to tolerate in the way of an Iranian program that gets Iran 90 percent or more of the way towards actually having a nuclear weapon.

Do you want to say what they should do or leave that to the future? Meghan O’Sullivan said that these sanctions won’t stop the Iranian nuclear program and the United States is going to have to consider other possibilities.

Again, the answer is we’re going to have to consider those possibilities based upon exactly where we think the Iranians are going to stop their program, what we think we can accomplish with the use of military force, how well we think we can handle various forms of Iranian retaliation. I don’t think it’s responsible or even smart to try to answer those questions in the abstract. And indeed I don’t think either the Israeli or American governments have yet answered those questions in the abstract. My prediction is simply that if we’re likely to reach the point where the United States and Israel are going to have to move from the abstract to the real, the two governments will have to decide what it is they can or cannot tolerate and what it is they are prepared to do about it.


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