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    Middle East
 
     May 21, 2008
 

COMMENT
An appeaser in the White House?
By Sreeram Chaulia

NEW YORK - As Senator Barack Obama's astonishing journey from underdog to favorite climaxes in the presidential primaries for the Democratic Party in the United States, his Republican opponents are increasingly aiming fire at his foreign policy.

Obama's string of successes in the longwinded primary contest has shifted his nomination for the US presidency from the realms of possibility to certainty. If trends and pollster predictions were not enough to prove that Obama has basically trounced Senator Hillary Clinton in the primaries, the targeting of his foreign policy prescriptions by President George W Bush in Israel confirms that the Republicans are sure that they will face Obama in the general elections in November.

Bush's innuendo against Obama as an "appeaser" who would negotiate with "terrorists and radicals" has suddenly brought foreign policy issues to the center stage of the presidential election race. So much so that Obama has challenged his Republican contender John McCain to a public debate solely on foreign policy.

As in any country, domestic subjects like taxation, healthcare, state of the economy and religion tend to dominate electoral politics in the US. Even the fate of the war in Iraq is framed as a domestic issue that revolves not around what would happen to the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad or to the wider Middle East, but on the safety of American soldiers and the hemorrhaging effect that military occupation is having on the US economy. Essentially, all policy concerns having a visible and direct impact on the American electorate, including the war on Iraq, are presented to voters from the angle of "domestic" priorities.

Bush's attacks on Obama's engaged diplomacy doctrine is a detour from the tested "domestic" electoral arena and opens a window to undiluted foreign policy discussion, territory that is unfamiliar to the average American. However, if raking up the controversy over appeasement may be a sideshow for ordinary American voters, it attracts international attention because of the high global stakes of American foreign policy.

The oft-repeated remark that the entire world should be able to vote in American elections due to the global consequences of its results is shorthand for saying that the foreign policy direction of a new US administration is highly anticipated in every country. Bush's highlighting of Obama's alleged softness and naivety in dealing with "evil" states offers a rare chance for global audiences to appraise the likely future of American intentions and actions on the planet. Despite the rise of Asian powers and the decline of American hegemony, what Washington plans to do is still an important matter of consideration in distant parts of the world.

A prominent theory about American foreign policy is that there is a hard core of continuity between one administration and the next, and that the differences between an outgoing and incoming regime on foreign policy are quibbles. According to this "tweedledum-tweedledee" school, it hardly makes a difference whether a Democrat or a Republican comes to power in an American election, because there is a basic bipartisan consensus in foreign policy that does not get disturbed by political comings and goings. So institutionalized is the foreign policy machinery in the US that personalities and parties are reduced to managers of a foreordained plot written over a palimpsest of American involvement overseas.

A leftist variant of the "tweedledum-tweedledee" thesis sees the US as the citadel and guardian of the global capitalist class. Whether it is Obama or McCain, the Marxists believe that the fundamental capitalist thrust of American policy will not alter one bit. American foreign policy is seen by this camp as an instrument of multinational corporations and big business firms. So structurally enmeshed is the US in the flows and fortunes of capitalism that Marxists would not attach any significance to what might transpire if Obama comes to the White House. Bush's broadside on "appeasers" projects a divide and dissimilarity in foreign policy between Obama and McCain that does not persuade the "tweedledum-tweedledee" advocates.

Nonetheless, it is worth examining whether there is any merit in branding Obama as a lily-livered progressive who might sell out on American national interests abroad. Bush's accusation is worth dissecting because it addresses the meaning of "change", Obama's trump card slogan for beating Hillary Clinton.

Obama's dim view of the "Bush-[Vice President Dick] Cheney approach to diplomacy" is that it is an overly muscular and militaristic strategy based on violence and threat of violence. The Illinois senator has gone on record that "not talking [to unfriendly governments] doesn't make us look tough, it makes us look arrogant". On assuming office, Obama pledges to open dialogue with Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela "without preconditions". This rankles with the neo-conservatives, who believe in a no-nonsense offensive posture towards states that are seen as security threats to the US and its allies.

For a prospective American president to speak of sitting down across a table with someone like Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad or Hugo Chavez sounds revolutionary to the neo-conservatives, who have defined the limits of elasticity in US foreign policy since George W Bush's election as president in 2000. What is more, Obama claims that his foreign policy will restore the balance between military might and diplomatic engagement with all countries, including perceived enemy states, an American heritage that the neo-cons worked hard to undermine in the past eight years.

Obama has even admitted to "admiring" the traditional conservative foreign policies of George H W Bush, who upheld the military-diplomatic balance that is a legacy of John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Obama discerns the demoralized mood in the US military against further invasions and occupations and has cleverly maintained that his emphasis on diplomatic engagement is in tune with the preference of the American defense forces. What better commander-in-chief can the US want than one who is in sync with his generals?

Obama is exploiting the deep internal divisions over foreign policy in the American polity among the neo-cons, the traditional conservatives, the intelligence agencies and the military. He is earning political dividends from the internecine contradictions that are partly responsible for the dismal failures of the Bush administration in its "war on terror". By the same token, Obama is demonstrating that his approach is not a radical departure from middle-of-the-road conservatism or liberalism. Bush's usage of the term "appeaser" does not do justice to Obama's efforts to stay as close as possible to the "mainstream" of American foreign policy.

While Obama calls for bringing the troops back home from Iraq "immediately" and for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, he has also shown an uncompromising side by condemning former US president Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas representatives in Palestine. The alleged "appeaser" said last month, "We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction." Obama's readiness to diplomatically engage states of any hue does not extend to violent non-state actors that have not renounced terrorism. Moreover, he has reiterated continued support, if elected in November, for the US-Israel special relationship.

Obama is a proponent of tough action on striking al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan "with or without the approval of the Pakistani government". Keenly aware of the Bush administration's folly of straying from the heartland of terror, ie the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to Iraq and Iran, Obama avers that his administration would "refocus efforts on the al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan". Here, he is simply offering course correction that will serve American and South Asian regional interests better.

Some imponderables remain about how Obama would deal with Russia, which New York University's Professor Stephen F Cohen has labeled "America's greatest foreign-policy concern" for the next few years. The absence of Russia as a topic in the US primaries season is cause for concern because of the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. One of the Obama campaign's foreign policy bigwigs is Zbigniew Brzezinski, a notorious Russia-baiter and Cold Warrior. With a close adviser like Brzezinski, Obama could turn out to be more hawkish than Bush on Russia, a development that does not bode well for American interests and world peace.

The political grapevine in Washington, however, believes that Brzezinski's putative anti-Semitic credentials are a liability for Obama as he inches closer to the White House. Professor Gerald Steinberg of the Bar Ilan University in Israel is of the opinion that Brzezinski's appointment as adviser on foreign policy to the Democratic Party frontrunner is "more symbolic - to try and shore up Obama's image as someone who has no experience in foreign policy - so he's bringing in an older statesman". If Obama can think for himself in the long run along the "mainstream" line he is championing, one can be hopeful of a less provocative American policy towards Russia.

To sum up, Obama's foreign policy is not deviationist or radical. As a potential president, he is expected to shore up the United States' sagging global image by a judicious mix of diplomacy and military might. The only prism through which he can be painted as an "appeaser" is the jaundiced one of the neo-cons, for whom a non-militaristic worldview is sinful.

Much remains to be done between now and November for Obama's historic bid for the US presidency, but his well-calculated foreign policy stance reveals that he will be acceptable to the "mainstream", not only in the US but also in the rest of the world. He represents a wind of change in Washington insofar as his message on foreign policy will depart from the jingoism of the Bush administration. But situated in the longer grand tradition of carrot-and-stick American foreign policy, he is very much a vindication of the "tweedledum-tweedledee" theory.

Sreeram Chaulia is an analyst of international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

 

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