Warren I. Cohen on Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges
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.
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.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?
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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