Although the tentacles of Baracktopus have slithered into as many parts of American life as those of his "big government Republican" predecessor, Obama does seem to have much better instincts in foreign policy than George W. Bush. But lest that be seen as damning by faint praise, let’s just say that Obama, like the Washington Redskins football team, is moving the ball down the field but needs to get it over the goal line more often.
Obama has withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraqi cities and has pledged to end this Bush quagmire by the end of 2011. Because the United States has been reluctant to leave countries in which it has had a military presence – for example, Europe, Japan, and South Korea – whether the prospect of Iraqi relapse into violence will derail, or be used as an excuse to defer, the promised U.S. withdrawal remains to be seen. A more rapid U.S. withdrawal would be desirable so that there would be less time for a reversal, but at least Obama’s original opposition to the Iraq War seems to be pointing him in the right direction.
Similarly, on missile defense to be deployed in Europe, Obama has laudably gotten rid of an expensive, unproven system that was designed to meet a nonexistent threat and needlessly soured relations with Russia – still the only nation in the world that has the power to wipe the United States out of existence. Although the system was ostensibly directed against long-range Iranian missiles, which don’t exist, the Russians were nervous that the 10 high-speed interceptors in Poland might grow in number and threaten their dwindling strategic nuclear arsenal.
In place of the canceled system, Obama will deploy a more sensible missile defense that will eventually protect U.S. forces and Europe against Iranian short- and intermediate-range missiles, which they do possess. It’s OK to build a missile defense to protect U.S. forces, but why does the U.S. continue to protect countries that are economic competitors and are rich enough to build up their own defenses? The answer: Although the U.S. constantly nags the stingy Europeans to "free ride" less and contribute more to the NATO alliance, the U.S. has made an implicit agreement to defend them, and pay much of the bill for doing so, in exchange for being the big dog in the alliance. With a yawning budget deficit that is dragging the U.S. economy, this is no longer a good trade. As in Iraq, Obama needs to be more radical; he should tell the Europeans to build their own missile defense.
Another example of Obama not going far enough is in Afghanistan. Because he wanted to get out of Iraq and because Republicans always score points by calling the Democrats soft on national security, Obama evidently felt he had to be in favor of some war and thus reluctantly succumbed to pressure to augment U.S. forces in Afghanistan. If he had been smart, on his second day in office, he would have instead announced the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Obama clearly understands what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney pooh-poohed – that public opinion in Islamic countries affects U.S. security – but again his policy does not go as far as the facts require. If Obama actually read Osama’s writings, he would never have escalated the war in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists attack the U.S. because of its meddling in and occupying of Islamic lands. The U.S. nation-building occupation in Afghanistan has led to a resurgent Taliban in that country and the strengthening of Islamism in Pakistan, which could threaten the nuclear-armed government there.
To his credit, Obama is now resisting the very public call of his military for even more forces to be sent to Afghanistan. Although Obama is a Democrat and did not serve in the military, he is not a draft-evader like Bill Clinton, which makes it easier for him to "just say no" to sinking even deeper into Afghan quicksand. After decades of public guilt over the poor treatment of returning Vietnam draftees, manifesting itself in excessive and un-American (as defined by the nation’s anti-militaristic founders) adulation of the military, Obama and the Democratic leadership of Congress are at least pushing back a little. Let’s hope they can sustain their resistance to the military onslaught here at home in order to end the armed escalation in Afghanistan and eventually reverse course there. Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership have little choice but to follow their instincts; in a democracy, further accelerating a war that is unpopular at home is political suicide.
The good news is that an anti-al-Qaeda strategy employing a lighter footprint than occupation and nation-building – using law enforcement, intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, and an occasional Special Forces raid – has already had some success and would at least not poke the hornets’ nest and create more anti-U.S. terrorists.
Obama has shown some good instincts in foreign policy, but he must resist political and institutional pressures against more radical changes to the dysfunctional status quo.