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Warren I. Cohen on Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Posted on Jul 17, 2009

By Warren I. Cohen

(Page 2)

But it’s Pakistan that provides the grimmest part of Sanger’s story. He notes that it is the only nuclear state whose government is threatened by a powerful insurgency led by men hostile to the United States. Assured by Pakistani officials that their weapons are secured, he comes away unpersuaded. During the Cold War, Pakistan took aid from the United States under the pretense of fighting communism—and since 9/11 it has taken aid under the pretense of fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban. Its military, long the dominant force in the country, has always focused its efforts against India, and it nurtured the Taliban for years and almost certainly still does.  American Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is hopeful that the post-Musharraf leaders of the Pakistan military will work with us against the militants—and cites evidence that they have begun to take steps to combat the Taliban and other insurgents. Past hopes have always been dashed. For the moment the Obama administration is bolstering hope with Predator drone attacks on suspected militant targets inside Pakistan. The actions of the Pakistani military will be a key determinant to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, but as Sanger notes correctly, the greatest danger is that of hostile forces in the country gaining control of its nuclear weapons. First Mumbai and then—San Francisco?


book cover


The Inheritance


By David E. Sanger


Harmony, 528 pages


Buy the book

When he turns to East Asia, the area I know best, Sanger falters a bit. He has a shaky knowledge of the Korean War and of imperialism in China. China was not taken by surprise when Kim Il Sung ordered the invasion of South Korea in 1950: Stalin had explicitly dictated that the attack required the approval of Mao Zedong—and Mao agreed and remained in close contact with Kim. In the 19th century, China did not surrender lucrative ports to the Western powers: With the exception of Hong Kong the treaty ports all remained under Chinese sovereignty—and most became lucrative only after they were developed by the British and the Japanese. The American role was marginal. 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.

Nonetheless, Sanger demonstrates that the Bush administration was all but criminally negligent when it junked the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” and refused to negotiate a new arrangement with the North Koreans until they already had several nuclear bombs. Sanger’s most striking insight is that Bush, “the Decider,” was incredibly indecisive and allowed policy to drift as Cheney and friends pushed for regime change and the State Department urged negotiation. Bush did not come down on the side of negotiation until the North Korean bomb test in 2006. What antics the North Koreans will perform to gain Obama’s attention remains to be seen. The evidence of their collusion in the Syrian nuclear program is conclusive: To whom will they sell bomb materials?

Sanger’s analysis of Chinese-American relations is conventional: Let’s all work together and don’t let China’s rise worry us. He credits Bush for rejecting pressures to contain China and faults him for not engaging the Chinese on issues of energy and global warming. And he insists that how Obama manages relations with China is more important than how he handles Iraq. He appears to endorse James Mann’s argument in “The China Fantasy” that the promise of engagement has been oversold, but so what? Sanger seems indifferent to concerns about China’s military buildup or its human rights record. China is just too important to challenge. Realism run rampant?

In his concluding section, Sanger adeptly lays out the threat to the United States posed by three different kinds of terrorist attacks: nuclear, biological/chemical, and cyber. He demonstrates persuasively that the Department of Homeland Security is not prepared adequately to respond to any of these and once again points to Bush’s focus on Iraq for his failure to recognize how vulnerable the United States is.

Sanger’s epilogue, postelection 2008, on the challenge to Obama is eminently sensible. We, Americans and much of the rest of the world, expect too much of the new president. Sanger sees Iran as the first test, although he acknowledges that a crisis can erupt anywhere. And he hopes that competing views, dissent, will be tolerated in the West Wing, as they were not until too late in the Bush presidency.

Warren I. Cohen, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar in the Asia program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of several books, including “America’s Response to China,” the fifth edition of which will be published by Columbia University Press this year.

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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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