A Year With Obama – and US Foreign Relations Have Only Worsened

Who would have thought a year ago that most of the issues of conflict in America’s foreign relations would be made worse during the first year following Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president?

Even those disputes or differences that were appeased or quiet a year ago are now worse. On Iraq, the new president has faithfully followed the policy of George W. Bush, and now Iraq threatens breakdown.

Mr. Obama ran on a promise to fight the "right war" in Afghanistan. This policy rests upon the monumental assumption that victory can be found in a military campaign meant to alter the character of Central Asian political and religious society so as to remake it in the American image – as Condoleezza Rice defined what a year ago was the Bush administration’s policy, and is now the apparent Obama policy.

In the time-honored bureaucratic fashion, the president’s military advisers have offered him three troop options: one impossibly high, one suicidally small, and one – the one they actually want – in between, and "just right."(In poker games, this is known as "forcing" the card onto the patsy.) The troops are already on the move. It will be some time before we see them again.

Put aside, for a moment, this military disaster that is now in the course of manufacture in the "AfPak" theater of unwinnable wars.

Look at the president’s other policy problems. The Korean affair continues, as we have just seen. There are tensions foreseeable in his visit to a new Japanese government at the end of this week. The old security conventions and connivances of past Japanese Liberal Democrat governments will be questioned.

Japan’s new government’s geopolitical view of East Asian security is not the passive and compliant one displayed for nearly 60 years by Liberal Democrat politicians that did as was suggested in Washington. In question today is the legal status under which 47,000 U.S. troops and a series of bases have quasi-permanently occupied the archipelago since 1945. Japanese naval forces were limited in number and mission, despite China’s rising military power.

China is developing a blue-water navy to support territorial claims in the region, while experiencing serious trade tensions with the U.S. On Nov. 5, the U.S. imposed 99 percent anti-dumping taxes on certain Chinese steel exports. Then there is the question of the American trade deficit with China, which suits the U.S. but not China, and the troublesome shadowing of the dollar by the Chinese renminbi.

In Latin America, the Obama people have already made trouble, demanding and getting a sizable new airbase agreement in Colombia, whose significance, as the U.S. Air Force itself says, will be strategic. (Presumably to counter the "menace" of Russian ships off Venezuela.) Washington’s ambiguous conduct with respect to the Honduras military coup did not contribute to good Pan-American relations.

The president’s winning personality, his appeals for mutual understanding, and his promotion of negotiations over threats have all created good will for him and for the United States. But every active step he has taken on the large issues of the Middle East and Central Asia has angered, alienated, or devastatingly disappointed those internationally, and in the United States, who expected the most from him.

He began his term with a program for finding the long-sought Arab-Israeli solution. To disappointment-hardened observers of the 40-year (and continuing) shipwreck of Palestinian-Israeli relations, the Obama plan seemed to err on the side of optimism, but if seriously applied, conceivably could work.

The international auspices were favorable. So was the domestic American situation: The stranglehold on U.S. Jewish opinion held until now by the settler lobby and the Likud-dominated American Israel Public Affairs Committee seemed weakened. Liberal Jewish voters – the vast majority – were sympathetic to change; the liberal J Street lobby had been formed.

The new president had a plan for mutual concessions: application of the long-promised ("roadmap") freeze on Israeli settlement construction on Palestine land, and a fresh Palestine start on security negotiations.

The plan proved a bad joke. Israel defied President Obama. The president, after preliminary talk more forceful than ever before heard, peremptorily capitulated, accepting Israeli terms. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, then announced he won’t run for a second term in upcoming elections, the logical consequence of which is that the Palestinian people will be left a people under total military occupation, the Israel government responsible for their condition, their livelihoods, their well-being, their fate.

Some think this will inspire the Israeli people to invite the Palestinians to become voting citizens. Some think it could inspire Israel to annex all of Palestine and force all of its present Arab occupants out of Palestine, over the borders into Egypt or Jordan.

There may be possibilities in between these extremes. One hopes President Obama will think of something.

(c) 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: William Pfaff

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