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Warren I. Cohen on Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

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Posted on Jul 17, 2009

By Warren I. Cohen

The Chinese and the Israelis loved George W. Bush, but most Americans and most friends of the United States would judge his foreign policies to have been disastrous. Those of us who came of age during the Cold War cannot remember a time when the prestige of the country was lower or when it had less influence with allies and adversaries. And now, in the midst of a financial crisis approaching the depths of the Great Depression, the new Obama administration’s attention cannot be diverted for long from the economy. But the world has great expectations of Barack Obama. Somehow he will bring peace to Israelis, Palestinians and Afghans, bring American troops home from Iraq without allowing that benighted country to slip back into chaos, persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons program and the North Koreans to surrender their nukes, keep Pakistan’s nuclear material securely in friendly hands, and prevent al-Qaida or its knockoffs from attacking an American city with a weapon of mass destruction. All this he will do without walking on water.

David Sanger is a distinguished, highly knowledgeable foreign affairs reporter for The New York Times.  Publication of his book, “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power,”  was timed to have it on the desks of the new administration’s national security mavens their first day on the job. He tells a familiar story of our nation’s tribulations over the last eight years and provides an accurate description of where we stand today, but he is not an analyst of the caliber of Fareed Zakaria or Robert Kagan, Eric Alterman or James Mann. 


book cover


The Inheritance


By David E. Sanger


Harmony, 528 pages


Buy the book

Sanger’s initial focus is Iran and the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on that country’s nuclear program. The brief declassified summary of the NIE reported that in 2003 the Iranians had halted their work on bomb design. Sanger emphasizes the extent to which release of that information undermined the Bush administration’s efforts to strengthen international sanctions against Iran: If the Iranians were no longer working on a bomb why increase the pressure on them? Sanger is well informed about the intelligence breakthrough that led the National Intelligence Council to its 2007 conclusions, and he reminds us quite properly that the report was never intended to be declassified. He also reports accurately that in its entirety the NIE demonstrates the progress Iran has made in developing its weapons capacity and how easy it would be for Iran to build a bomb quickly if its political leaders chose to. Understated in his narrative is the fear in the intelligence community and among foreign policy elites abroad as well as in the United States that Bush and Dick Cheney—and the Israelis—were looking for an excuse to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, a fear much alleviated by the NIE summary. Bless the National Intelligence Council. 

There is no doubt that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would roil the Middle East, quite likely provoking Israeli airstrikes, especially in light of the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power as prime minister this year. There is also no doubt that the Obama administration will reach out to Iran and try every peaceful means to stop the weaponization of its nuclear program. Unhappily, there is a great deal of doubt as to whether anyone can come up with a grand bargain that will satisfy Iran’s leaders without sacrificing the security of Israel or the interests of the United States. In the February 12th issue of The New York Review of Books, Tom Pickering, former deputy secretary of state, and two colleagues spelled out as hopeful a plan as we’ll see. But don’t bet what’s left of your pension plan on success.

When he turns next to Afghanistan, Sanger reminds us that the Bush administration was distracted from the battle there by its determination to attack Iraq. He calls it the biggest miscalculation in American military history, allowing the resurgence of both the Taliban and al-Qaida—although other analysts (STRATFOR, for one) argue that al-Qaida has been weakened by its isolation. U.S. Gen. Karl Eikenberry sounded the alarm years ago, and Obama’s appointment of Eikenberry as ambassador to Kabul offers some slim hope that a renewed effort there will stabilize the country. Forget about democratization: A democratic Afghanistan with equal rights for women is not likely to come in the lifetime of anyone old enough to read this.

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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, July 29, 2009 at 10:19 am Link to this comment

“There are also signs of haste: Sanger knows better than to write that Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang in 2004 to broker a deal with Kim Il Sung.  Carter went in 1994—and Kim was long dead by 2004.”

Proof readers are supposed to catch things like that too. The ‘fact checkers’ are paid to do it.

Actually you are both mistaken FoldTruther & Fredric Dennis Williams it isn’t the empire that is falling, but the republic. Remember that Rome as a republic fell first. The military is large as is the security apparatus and psywar means to get that final nail in the coffin that is the republic. We may be an empire externally, but not internally just yet, but very close.

Read the article here on how the military is violating both Posse Comitatus and the Constitution to spy on civilians who are doing nothing at all criminal. It is the breaking down of barriers and the official flouting of the law to make one cohesive paramilitary unit to watch over the populace. Certainly not for any kind of security from outside enemies, just the internal ones. If you are against us become a theocratic corporate empire then you are on their enemies list. If not now then later.

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By Sepharad, July 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment

Overall, Mr. Cohen’s review is fair, and, as he says (most helpfully) that Sanger’s analysis is not up to that of Fareed Zakaria and Robert Kagan, both on my shelf. But it also covers areas of Sanger’s specialty, the Far East, so might be a good overview.

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By Sepharad, July 20, 2009 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

I wouldn’t say that Obama is following ALL Bush policies untweaked. Didn’t he just send Gen. McChrystal to Afghanistan, whose stated mission is to protect the population as the best way to isolate the Taliban and Al Quaeda?

Also re Afghanistan, read Tom Friedman’s column in the Sunday NYTimes, on education for girls as one not directly-self-interested reason to win in Afghanistan. I know it won’t impress the extreme American Firsters, but then they probably would have resented trying to free the slaves as a civil war would be costly in every way.

Re the U.S. and Israel, Bush’s policies were not all in Israel’s best interests. The Israelis themselves did in the Iraqi French-financed nuclear reactor, their only real threat. What Bush did was to strengthen Iran by screwing up Iraq, bad though Saddam was.

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By Fredric Dennis Williams, July 17, 2009 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I suspect Mr. Sanger’s 500+ page book is as superficial and as ill-informed as most writing on American foreign policy, and this article offers nothing useful in terms of real insights into the book, the foreign policy, or the Obama Administration’s challenges.

Obama is a neophyte, and like all neophytes he is likely to think things are simpler than they are, that what he is told by the media is relevant to the reality, and that his intelligence service (with the CIA under a political veteran with no relevant experience) knows what is going on.

When Obama is called to act, he will rely on what sounds like good electioneering and, otherwise, will trust advice influenced heavily by the interests of Israel, the results of which will be of no benefit to the US. Iran is not our problem, it is Israel’s. Iraq was not our problem, it was Israel’s. Afghanistan is a fool’s game, intended to make our fearless leader look fearless. Like all politicians, he is willing to waste lives—Afghan, American, Pakistani, or Allied—to look like a commander-in-chief.

As for all this leading to the fall of the American Empire, it took Rome a couple of centuries. Those hoping for a quick salvation might wake up and smell the corpses.

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nefesh's avatar

By nefesh, July 17, 2009 at 2:21 pm Link to this comment

By Folktruther, July 17 at 1:11 pm #

The US hasn’t collapsed yet but with Obama continuing Bushite policies, it is only a matter of time.

Can’t happen soon enough for you, we know, we know…...

Maybe you should take a poll to for a Folktruther earthperson truth-consensus.

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By Folktruther, July 17, 2009 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

This is the usual bullshit of American imperialism expressed feebily and superficially.  It is quite true however that the Chinese loved Bush, for the same reason that the US loved Gorbachev.  They both drastically decreased the world power of their states.  The US hasn’t collapsed yet but with Obama continuing Bushite policies, it is only a matter of time.

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Trailing Begonia's avatar

By Trailing Begonia, July 17, 2009 at 5:47 am Link to this comment

Bush’s foreign policy and Obama’s foreign policy are the same pile of dung with different flies

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