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Obama's foreign policy in the sand



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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March 16, 2010

The Israeli government's slap on the face of visiting American Vice-President Joseph Biden has heightened the perception that the foreign policy of the Obama administration is not going well.

The problem, some argue, is that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Besides Biden there are the powerful secretaries of Defence and State, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. There are the special trouble-shooters for the Middle East and Afghanistan, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke. There is the president's own intimate staff. The National Security Advisor is supposed to keep all these lions in harness. That's what Henry Kissinger did during the Nixon and Ford presidencies, what Zbigniew Brzezinski did during the Carter presidency and what Brent Scowcroft did during the presidency of George Bush Senior.

This is not to say the present incumbent, General James Jones, is a weakling. He is not. It is just that the coterie he has to deal with is more experienced and better politically connected than he is.

Leslie Gelb, the president-emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has thrown a firecracker into the ring. He has suggested that Zbigniew Brzezinski be brought in as foreign policy tsar. Brzezinski was one of Obama's early heavyweight supporters and helped tutor the candidate. Later Obama sidelined him after Brzezinski had made what were considered anti-Israeli remarks, although non-Americans welcomed them.

As if on cue Brzezinski wrote the cover story of the February issue of Foreign Affairs, the Council's highly influential bi-monthly.
He praises Obama for having upturned the world's perception of America - in relations with the Islamic world, in planning the reduction of nuclear weapons stocks and in sharpening the focus on the environment.

But there are three urgent issues that he has not got a proper hold on - the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Afghan-Pakistani challenge.

Obama has not taken onboard the internationally favoured blueprint for peace- the sharing of Jerusalem, the resettling of refugees in Palestine, duly compensated, and land swaps to make up for the Jewish settlements. (With similarly sized populations, under the 1967 lines, the Palestinian territories account for 22% of the old British mandate, whereas Israel accounts for 78 %.)
In his speech to the UN Assembly in September Obama ignored this consensus.

If only he had embraced it, writes Brzezinski, "he would have exerted enormous influence on both the Palestinians and the Israelis...So far the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward."

On Iran he complements Obama for having downgraded the implied threat of an American military attack, even as others are proposing a nuclear attack if necessary. Moreover he has not fallen into the trap of imposing a tight deadline. Brzezinski believes it is impossible to persuade the Iranians to turn back the clock on what they have already done but that it should be possible to persuade them not to go to the next stage, weaponisation. One might add this is the longstanding U.S. policy towards South Africa, Japan and Brazil, all of whom hold large stocks of enriched uranium.

Even if sanctions are used they should be limited to those which would punish those in power, not the Iranian middle class.
Iranian policy is complicated by the appointment of senior second-level officials who favour policies designed to force an early confrontation with Iran and even advocate joint military consultations with Israel on the use of force. They should be sidelined or told to resign.

The policy towards Iran should escape the straightjacket imposed by the narrow focus on the nuclear issue. It should address regional security issues, economic cooperation and so on, not treating Iran as a pariah.

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Finally there is the Afghan-Pakistan predicament. "Obama has moved toward abandoning some of the more ambitious, even ideological, objectives that defined the U.S.'s initial engagement in Afghanistan- the creation of a modern democracy, for example."

Top generals have said that that the U.S. is not winning militarily. There has to be an alternative strategy - talking with receptive elements of the Taliban. "The Taliban are not a global revolutionary or terrorist movement and although they are a broad alliance with a rather medieval vision of what Afghanistan ought to be they do not directly threaten the West."

The U.S also needs to assuage Pakistan's security concerns. "Given that many Pakistanis may prefer a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan than a secular Afghanistan that leans towards Pakistan's arch rival, India, the US needs to assuage Pakistan's security concerns in order to gain its full cooperation in the campaign against the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban".

I would add to that that India needs to be cajoled into agreeing to the Kashmir peace plan of the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. That will do much to cure the Pakistani obsession with Indian influence.

Brzezinski is unlikely to be appointed tsar. Nevertheless Obama should listen carefully to what he says.


© Jonathan Power 2010


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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