Ian Boyne, Contributor
The United Nations General Assembly gets under way this week with renewed fears of a fresh war in the Middle East, and just a few days after violent anti-American protests in the Arab world over an incendiary YouTube video insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Foreign policy has also emerged as a significant issue in the American presidential election.
Referring to the killing of the United States ambassador to Libya, Time magazine (September 24) says, "As the Obama administration struggles to contain the fallout ... there's an increasing apprehension that this attack may herald a new genre of Middle East crisis." Time says, "The Arab Spring replaced the harsh order of hated dictators with the flowering of neophyte democracies. But these governments - with weak mandates, ever-shifting loyalties and poor security forces - have made the region a more chaotic and unstable place; a place more susceptible than ever to rogue provocateurs fomenting violent upheavals ... ."
Mitt Romney sought to gain political advantage from the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens, caricaturing Obama as weak and indecisive in foreign policy and hence, according to his narrative, encouraging America's enemies to exploit its ambivalence. There is a strong feeling among Republicans that Obama has not been decisive enough in foreign policy - certainly in dealing with Iran and Syria, they charge. The right-wing critics of Obama's foreign policy have no ground to stand on.
Let's start with the recent protests on the Arab street. The criticism of Obama is centred on, some say, his consistent "apologising" for American power which has led to the brazenness of these protesters. Should America have sent troops into Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan to crush these protests? One of the problems pointed out by critics of George Bush's policy of pre-emptive strike or zero tolerance to challenges to American power is that it was unworkable.
America, though it has overwhelming military supremacy, simply cannot fight too many wars at the same time. Even two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were enough to strain its capacity. It can't respond militarily to every threat which occurs - especially when they are happening simultaneously. So the Bush Doctrine was just plain impossible to implement, especially in an age of asymmetrical wars.
And poll after poll has shown that the American people do not favour imperial overreach and intervention all over the place. There is a significant isolationist streak in American public opinion. Especially when Americans are undergoing an economic recession.
Besides, who began speaking about exporting democracy to the Middle East and who expounded the doctrine of freedom as the right of all peoples and the United States' having a Manifest Destiny to help people globally to usher in democratic regimes? Democracy promotion of recent vintage was George Bush's passion. It led to Hamas' taking power in Gaza, and when Barack Obama allowed dictators to fall in Tunisia and Egypt and assisted in overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya, he was following what George Bush had ostensibly committed himself to - democracy in the Arab world.
Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and other right-wingers have a nerve to be suggesting that these protests were somehow inspired by Obama's weakness in foreign policy. Obama wisely put America on the right side of history this time in the Arab world and sided with the Arab street rather than with its dictators and kleptocrats. It is true that the dictators would have been able to more easily crush rebellions and protests, but is that what the Republican Party stands for? If not, why blame Obama's foreign policy for the fanatical and lunatic outrage over a video?
gain from arab awakening
Even the Economist magazine, no left-wing voice, says in the editorial of its September 15-21 issue: "There are no guarantees, but America has everything to gain from being at the heart of this great awakening" in the Arab world. Obama's overarching foreign stance of respect to other nations; his insistence on dialogue rather than diktat; consensus over confrontation; and mediation over meddling has won him (and America) much goodwill in the world. He can speak at the General Assembly this week with less fear of heckling than could George Bush. His espousal of liberal internationalism and multilateralism - which the Right sees as an 'apology' for 'American exceptionalism' - has been laudable.
The Republicans, who had bloodied the face of America across the world, can't justifiably criticise Obama in foreign policy. The last Bush administration alienated so much of the world, including Europe, and at a time when collaboration was needed to fight our most daunting challenges - terrorism, climate change, international recession, nuclear proliferation, global poverty, the threat of pandemics and HIV/AIDS.
Obama has sought to reset relations with Russia; worked closely with China in its 'peaceful rise'; strengthened relations with Europe; and worked to avoid a global depression. His initiative, launched in Prague, "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" was an important foreign-policy initiative. The new US Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in March 2010, was an important step in showing that the US was willing to practise what it preaches.
Obama's foreign policy privileges a rules-based system which respects international law. Foreign-policy scholars Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O'Hanlon, in their recent (2012) book Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy outline the president's stance: "The United States would no longer attempt to dictate to others or act unilaterally on the easy assumption that other states would simply fall in line. There would be greater focus on diplomacy and engagement, including with rogue states like Iran and North Korea; an attempt to recapture moral leadership by ending the war in Iraq and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... ."
His policy on Iran has been the most troubling to American hawks. Yet it is eminently defensible. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressuring Obama to draw "a red line" for Iran, beyond which it would have to face a military strike. But as that first-rate journalist and intellectual, Fareed Zakaria, has noted, Netanyahu himself has not drawn any red line, so why should Obama? Netanyahu knows that drawing red lines boxes in a state and limits its options.
Obama has already said very clearly - and very often - "no options are off the table", including the military option. He has stepped it up from his earlier pronouncement of "this process will not be advanced by threats". Obama has coordinated the most pervasive and crippling sanctions against Iran and has finally convinced China and Russia to back him. This is a significant foreign-policy success and demonstrates toughness in dealing with Iran. The sanctions are biting.
Iran's currency has been devalued by more than 50 per cent and Iranian oil exports have decreased by 45 per cent. A journalist just back from a rare trip to Iran and reporting in the September 24 issue of Time magazine writes:
"Credit no longer exists in Iran. Shortages are kicking in. Women beg friends travelling abroad to bring back Always menstrual pads and Tampax tampons, both of which have disappeared from stores ... The country has all but stopped issuing credible economic data in order to hide the depth of the distress. Everyone from the butcher to the industrialist will say that beneath the surface they are months away from economic collapse."
But dictators are known for their callousness toward their people, and though these sanctions might not be enough to deter Iran from going nuclear if it so decides, there is no hard evidence that Iran is months away from developing a bomb.
strike not effective
Besides, there has been enough hard, cold analysis from experts to show that a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites would not be effective in stopping Iran from going nuclear. At best, it could only delay Iran, and a military strike is more likely to embolden that country to get the bomb. People don't mess with you when you have nuclear power. That has been the historical record. The facts show that after Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear site in Osirak, Saddam Hussein accelerated his efforts to develop the bomb. It did not deter him.
Israel's mad rush to strike Iran, therefore, is foolhardy and dangerously misguided. For an air-tight case against a military strike against Iran, I suggest you read Marc Lynch's policy paper published by the Centre for New American Security, 'Upheaval: Policy Toward Iran in a Changing Middle East'.
Also, I recommend Georgetown University's Colin Kahl's essay in the March/April 2012 issue of 'Foreign Affairs' titled 'No time to Attack Iran'. Even more recent is last Thursday's interview with David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, found on the Council on Foreign Relations website.
Albright shows the immense difficulty of successfully destroying Iran's nuclear programme. Besides, despite the subterfuge of the Iranians, there is no way they can develop a bomb without the United States knowing. Albright demonstrates that in this revealing interview. The hawks are not paying attention to technical details. Iran has a uranium enrichment site at Fordow which is deeply buried
"Israel has announced that it can't destroy the centrifuges deeply buried in Fordow. It's clear it can shut down Fordow for some months through just a bombing, because the site needs electricity, water ... . So Israel can shut it down, but it can't destroy it. So if Israel attacks, and if whatever is down in the hole is protected and the plant becomes fully operational, which it very well could in six months, then Israel is faced with the real fundamental problem: It attacks Iran and Iran's plant at Fordow survives, and in about two months the Iranians" could be on their way to developing their bomb. And they would have every motivation to!
"I think the Israelis, by attacking, could make the situation worse," says Albright.
The distinguished foreign-policy scholar Kenneth Waltz goes further in his lead essay in the July/August issue of 'Foreign Affairs', 'Why Iran Should Get the Bomb'. He says, "It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed to the current crisis. Power begs to be balanced."
Obama has not thrown Israel under the bus. He simply wants to deter it from its present collision course.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.