Barack Obama is the first truly post-9/11 president. George W. Bush and his foreign policy team — which had a Sovietologist as national security adviser — were adjusting on the job to a new reality. By contrast, Obama’s whole national political career has taken place since that day. Indeed if it had not been for the foreign policy actions that followed it, Barack Obama would not be president.
During the Cold War, the foreign policy mission for a president was crucial but obvious: contain Soviet communism. Every international decision was seen through this prism. In this new world the threats are less existential but more numerous and less predictable. You would be hard pressed to say what is — or should be — Obama’s main foreign policy priority. Should it be stopping Iran going nuclear, or preventing already nuclear-armed Pakistan from failing? To say nothing of North Korea, a country run by an attention-seeking dictator who already has a nuclear capability. Let alone a Chinese regime that might become aggressively nationalistic to try to maintain domestic support, or Russia, which is still looking to regain its position in the sun. There is no Kennan-style ‘X memo’ — advocating a comprehensive strategy — yet for post-9/11 US foreign policy, and maybe the diverse nature of the threats means there never can be.
When it comes to great power politics, Obama’s behaviour so far suggests that he is a realist. He has been happy to offer, at best, a buffer zone between Russia and the democratic world and, at worst, a Russian sphere of influence in its near-abroad in exchange for co-operation on global issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme. This approach might work. The Obama administration has taken satisfaction in President Medvedev’s admission that Washington’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been more accurate than Moscow’s. But there is also a risk that Russia will pocket the concessions and drag its feet diplomatically. However, when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan (or Af-Pak as they are now known in Washington), and Iran, it is not clear how much of a guide realism can be.
The most basic US interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from being used as a staging ground by anti-Western terrorists. No US administration could accept the re-emergence of a sanctuary from which al-Qa’eda and its allies can prepare attacks on American and Western interests. But as Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to the region, said recently, ‘If Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption, it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today.’ So, America’s most basic interest in the region can only be secured by achieving what many would dismiss as impossible: ensuring that both the Afghan and Pakistani states control all their territory. (One recent estimate puts at 50 per cent the amount of Pakistan that is effectively off limits to the security forces.)
In the briefings after the formal unveiling of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy at the end of March, much was made of the administration’s recognition that Pakistan was both integral to the problem and the more difficult bit of it to solve. But the strategy contains no clear plan for how this can be done. There is little benefit to knowing what the problem is if you aren’t doing anything about it.
Drone strikes sum up the Pakistan dilemma Obama faces. The use of unmanned drones enables the Americans to take out terrorist leaders in the uncontrolled border areas of Pakistan. But the drones can’t hold terri-tory and clear it of al-Qa’eda and the Taleban as an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires. When civilian casualties occur from these attacks, they increase local resentment of the US and make the Pakistani government look even weaker in the eyes of its own people. There is also anecdotal evidence that the attacks are driving the Islamist extremists into the heart of Pakistan, closer to the centres of power. Unless Pakistan is prepared to exercise its sovereign authority in this region, this dilemma cannot be resolved.
Iran is another pressing problem for Obama. Military moves against its nuclear programme would have dire consequences — retaliation against American interests worldwide, an increase in Iranian interference in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Hamas and Hezbollah launching a fresh set of attacks against Israel. But the consequences of Iran going nuclear are at least equally dire: the end of leverage on Iran, Iranian regional hegemony, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the death of hopes of a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The election of Bibi Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister has complicated this equation still further for Obama. Washington has long known that if the United States won’t act, Israel probably will. This is understandable given the threats made against the Jewish state by Tehran. But there is far less trust between Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition and the Obama administration than there would have been between the administration and a Livni, Kadima-led coalition. Dealing with Iran was always going to involve a certain amount of brinkmanship. That is far more difficult to pull off when relations are not as close as usual between the US and Israel.
During the campaign, Obama made much of how he would be prepared to negotiate directly with Iran. Such a step is worth attempting. Diplomacy must be tried — and seen to be tried — before military action is taken. Worryingly, though, it seems the Obama administration is divided on when to try and engage Iran, before or after June’s election, and how. Every month of delay means that Tehran is closer to having a nuclear capability.
Unsurprisingly, the economic crisis has dominated President Obama’s first 100 days. But, as his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously said, the economic crisis came with the opportunity to advance the Democratic party’s long-held goals. There are no such silver linings for Obama to the foreign policy crises that he will have to confront before the end of his presidency.
History will judge Obama not just on whether the American economy revived on his watch but on whether he prevents Pakistan from failing and Iran from going nuclear. These latter tasks will prove even more difficult than the former. After all, even the most bearish predictions have the US economy growing again by the end of Obama’s first term. The most optimistic ones don’t have either the Af-Pak problem or the Iranian threat resolved by then.