Surveying the future
One cannot, of course, take campaign rhetoric too seriously--and I can easily imagine strategists in Obama's campaign chuckling as they remember George W. Bush promising a more "humble" foreign policy in 2000. But with one tantalizing exception, Obama on this trip, I am sorry to say, echoed several of the major positions of current Bush foreign policy in the Middle East. He reaffirmed his support for withdrawal from Iraq, and has won the support of Al-Maliki (despite efforts by the White House, speaking through an Iraqi official who works more closely with Americans, to deny what Maliki said to Der Spiegel.) But he wants to make a greater effort in Afghanistan, which has emerged as another quagmire, and where the conflict also seems to be having a profoundly negative effect in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Worst of all, he echoed the Bush Administration approach on Iran, refusing to take a military strike off the table while calling for "big carrots" as well. Regarding Israel and Palestine, there is, I am now convinced, essentially nothing that he or any American President can do. Obama, like any other major candidate, has already bowed publicly to AIPAC. In any event, as an article in today's Guardian points out, there is not the slightest chance of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations any time in the near future--or perhaps, ever. The Israeli and American governments are engaged in a disgraceful charade, kicked off by President Bush last November, as they pretend that peace may be at hand. Meanwhile the Israeli presence in the West Bank is more intrusive and settlement construction is increasing. Israel will still get whatever it wants, and no Palestinian leader can make peace on that basis. The one truly provocative part of Obama's Berlin speech was his reference to the need to tear down walls, which could obviously be interpreted to refer to the Israeli security fence and even to the blast walls all over Baghdad--but we may live to see swords beaten into plowshares before that wall comes down.
The danger and illegality of an attack on Iran was laid out brilliantly by Thomas Powers in the last New York Review of Books. It could lead to chaos in the Strait of Hormuz, yet another oil shock, a coup in Lebanon, and terrorism on a larger scale over much of the Middle East. Obama may not intend it, but his endorsement of it as an option--in effect--shows that the idea of preventive attack has now become mainstream, perhaps as accepted among our political elite as containment was during the Cold War. He could, of course, reverse this trend, at least in practice, after he is elected, but I'm afraid that the chances that he will just fell. Concidentally, these broader issues are the subject of a review in the current NYRB by Samantha Power, Obama's one-time foreign policy adviser who had to quit after calling Hillary Clinton a "monster." Reviewing books by J. Peter Scoblic and Matthew Yglesias on politics and foreign policy, she shows how neoconservatives have managed to bring the doctrine that might makes right into the mainstream, and lays out how much work Democrats will have to do to rehabilitate international cooperation as foreign policy. (She also takes a swipe at one of the more pernicious ideas to have emerged recently: an "association of democracies" outside the UN to join in imposing American will around the globe. John McCain has endorsed that plan.)
How has this happened? It has become more and more obvious to me, partly as my students (almost always in the 35-50 range) get younger, that the end of the Cold War during and immediately after Ronald Reagan's Presidency had an enormous amount to do with it. As I try to explain to them year after year, Reagan made quite a different impression on many of us old enough to remember the 1950s. We had grown up awash in the rhetoric of evil Communism and seen it in 1962 lead us to the brink of nuclear war, and, in 1965, into Vietnam. Many of us had totally re-examined our assumptions during that conflict and concluded that the Soviets and Chinese were not in any meaningful sense bent upon world conquest, and that the United States did not have to control political events in every remote corner of the world. We had also seen two Republican Presidents, Nixon and Ford, move towards détente and declare nuclear war unwinnable. The return of the rhetoric of our childhood came as quite a shock. Those born after 1960, however, came to consciousness as America was "held hostage" under Jimmy Carter and found Reagan invigorating. Then, in the late 1980s, came the collapse of Communism.
Space does not allow for a thorough examination of Reagan's contribution to that result, but I have to say that I find the argument that his policies were decisive absurd. The same policies--massive military build-up, intervention in third world trouble spots, and threatening rhetoric--had been tried twice before, under Truman as soon as the Korean War broke out, and in the early years of the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy in 1962 enjoyed nuclear superiority over the Soviets such as Reagan never dreamed of, and he used it, along with local conventional superiority, to force Khrushchev to back down over Cuba. He promptly used that victory to begin détente, concluding the Test Ban--but the long-term result was a huge Soviet military build-up. Some Republicans talk as if Reagan had re-established such American military supremacy that the Soviets had no choice but to give up their system and collapse, but they had dealt with worse before. What killed their system, I think, was the death of nearly everyone who still believed in it--the generation that were actually young adults who helped build the Communist economy beginning in the early 1930s. That simply happened to coincide with a swing to the right in America, but it enshrined the idea that the threat or use of force can solve every problem in American politics, and no major figure, as yet, has repudiated it.
John McCain obviously will not. As the New York Times pointed out a couple of days ago, thanks to the finally growing influence of Condi Rice and the State Department--whose only real achievement to date is the breakthrough with North Korea about which neocons like John Bolton are complaining bitterly--and of Robert Gates at the Pentagon, McCain is now sounding more hawkish than the Bush Administration. Obama, I think, will surely repudiate some aspects of it in practice. He could conceivably adopt the strategy of Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s as well, and argue that while the U.S. must remain a great world power, military force is no longer the key element of such a role. He could also be genuinely forced to divert attention from overseas involvement to deal with economic collapse at home. But for the moment, the battle of ideas appears to have been won by proponents of a muscular foreign policy--including, as Samantha Power points out, those Democrats who supported the Iraq war on "humanitarian" grounds and still, after the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and the flight of two million refugees into neighboring countries, think some outcome could vindicate them.