What Foreign Policy Agenda Will President Barack Obama Set?

President-elect Barack Obama took only a few days after his election victory before tossing his most liberal supporters overboard. While loading up his administration with war-hawks of various stripes, including Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, he left antiwar activists weeping in their blogs.

The President-elect attempted to reassure his supporters by promising to set policy himself, but that is no reassurance since his campaign rhetoric differed only modestly from that of his leading opponents, both Senators Clinton and John McCain. For instance, President-elect Obama would prefer to talk with Tehran – before opening the bombing campaign. He doesn’t constantly phone Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, the irresponsible demagogue who triggered last August’s war in the Caucasus, but the president-elect still wants to confront Russia in support of Tbilisi’s territorial ambitions.

It could be a long four or eight years.

Nevertheless, maybe Barack Obama really has a secret plan for reorienting US foreign policy. If so, he’s got a lot of reorienting to do.

The starting point should be a commitment to liberty and responsibility. Remove barriers to trade and commerce, adopt compassionate and productive immigration policies, and encourage other states to address international problems. Instead of the obnoxious unipower attempting to meddle hither and yon, America should act humbly and step gently, reclaiming the vision of the Founders for the country to be a city on a hill, an example for others to follow.

Ground zero for US foreign policy is the Middle East, since the US remains entangled in Iraq, with 149,000 troops still on station. Policy towards Baghdad should be simple: bring the troops home. All of them. And quickly.

America’s job is done. Only Iraqis can decide on their political future, and there’s no need for Washington to get in the middle of whatever strife may come. Moreover, any continued US occupation, under whatever aegis, will only breed resentment.

Also important is opening a dialogue with Iran. In 2003 Tehran indicated its interest in reaching a “macro” settlement with Washington, discussing diplomatic relations, regional security, and nuclear nonproliferation. In a foolish fit of hubris, the Bush administration refused to respond. The Obama administration should revive this approach. Talk of military strikes would be foolish enough even if Iran appeared to be building nuclear weapons, but Tehran’s abilities and intentions look far less certain than suggested by the neoconservatives lusting for war. The US government has done much to bring about the current deadlock; Washington must work even harder to find a peaceful solution.

On policy towards Israel President Obama should reach back to the George H.W. Bush administration. There is much to admire in Israel, but not its four decade occupation of lands containing millions of Palestinians denied political, legal, and economic rights. Washington should disentangle itself from Israel’s de facto system of military-backed Apartheid in the occupied territories, end aid tied to US politics at home rather than security abroad, and allow Israel, a regional superpower, to stand on its own. In particular, Washington should develop policy towards Israel’s neighbors, such as Syria, with an emphasis on America’s, not Israel’s, interests first.

South and Central Asia provide another set of complex geopolitical problems. It has become increasingly obvious that the US, with or without allied support, will not be able to extend the Karzai government’s reach much beyond Kabul. Washington should pursue a negotiated settlement, separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda and focusing on preventing any renaissance of anti-American terrorist activity from Afghan territory.

Settling Afghanistan would reduce pressure on Pakistan. Washington should wish the new democratic government well but stop meddling in Pakistani politics. It should be evident that the Pakistanis don’t care who Washington wants them to vote for; American policy-makers should shut up and instead work quietly with Islamabad to advance such basic objectives as nuclear nonproliferation.

European policy is far simpler. The US should turn security over to the Europeans, whether through NATO minus America or the European Union. The EU has a larger population and GDP than does the US; most of its members face no discernible security threats. America’s troops should come home, leaving Washington to cooperate with the EU and/or individual European states on issues of shared interest in the future.

So long as the US remains a member of NATO, there should be no further extension of the alliance into the Balkans or Central Asia. If Germany, France, and Britain – Europe’s leading military powers – want to confront Russia to promote the territorial ambitions of Georgia’s Saakashvili, let them. There’s no conceivable reason for America to put its full military faith and credit on the line against nuclear-armed Russia over such limited geopolitical stakes. NATO originally was created to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. Even a revived Russia is in no position to do that, and Europe is more than capable of protecting itself. It’s time for America to cut off its overseas welfare dependents.

The same should go for Asia. South Korea has around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. And Seoul has spent much of the last decade shipping boatloads of aid and bankloads of cash to Pyongyang. Let the South defend itself. Japan has the second or third largest, depending on how you measure it, economy on earth. Tokyo can create a sufficient defense force to deter Chinese adventurism. The ASEAN countries can do more militarily as well, especially in cooperation with India, which has begun to extend its reach into Southeast Asia.

For Africa and Latin America Washington’s best policies are economic and cultural engagement, political cooperation, and military withdrawal. There’s no need in the Pentagon for an Africa command plotting possible interventions and humanitarian task forces. There’s no need for muffled threats against theatrical but irrelevant anti-American regimes in Havana, Caracas, and Quito. Washington will do best by shutting up and not trying to boss around other governments, while allowing American citizens and companies to take the lead in promoting liberalization.

Overall, such a foreign policy – nonintervention, not isolation – would better protect the liberty, prosperity, and security of Americans. Unfortunately, none of Obama’s appointees believe in such an approach.

But President-elect Obama says we should judge him by his actions, not his appointments. Fine. It’s up to Barack Obama to deliver change that we all really can believe in. Let’s hope he doesn’t keep us waiting in vain.

Read more by Doug Bandow