Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Diplomacy as Speed Chess?

Roger Cohen's impatience is bringing out his inner (and outer) Kissinger:
I found myself seated next to Henry Kissinger at a New York dinner and asked him how he thought President Barack Obama was doing.

"He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games," Kissinger said. "But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one."
Cohen bought into Kissinger's analogy without asking the appropriate follow-up questions, "How many chess games did you finish during your first ten months, whether as National Security Advisor or Secretary of State? And how many key matches did you and Nixon win?" In one particularly memorable multi-year game, the Vietnam War, the Kissinger team pulled an "illegal war in Cambodia and Laos" gambit, attempted an end-game that revolved around the Paris Peace Accords and "peace with honor", and shortly thereafter was checkmated. Maybe Kissinger there's a reason Kissinger chose the word "finish" instead of "win".

Kissinger could respond that these issues are hard, many will take years to wrap up, and it may take many more years before it's clear who won or lost a particular match. And that would be a fair response, but for the fact that it undermines his analogy. It's fun to drop bon mots, but it's hard to imagine that Kissinger didn't know he was pushing for an impatient response to problems that can only be resolved through care and patience - and perhaps not even then. (How well did Kissinger's policies work to unify Cyprus? Does he still want Cyprus under Turkish control?)

Cohen eagerly accepts the role of the impatient American:
I thought that wasn’t a bad image for Obama’s international gambits, and then here, at the first Halifax International Security Forum, I heard a similar observation from one participant: "We’ve had the set-up, but is there a middle game?" Or, put another way, can this probing, intelligent president close anything?
Cohen should know better, and probably does. Most likely, though, he doesn't care about the half-dozen high stakes games President Obama is working through. Most likely he cares about one, maybe two, and he's less concerned that Obama can't "close" than he is that Obama will choose to close in a manner inconsistent with his own preconceptions of how the matter should be handled.

Cohen also misses the boat with his comment on Obama's talk of a world without nuclear weapons,
It’s an idea with resonance, and may provide some moral suasion over countries contemplating pursuit of a bomb, but I can’t help recalling that the worlds of 1914 and 1939 were worlds without nukes. No thanks to that.
To bring up the subject is something of a red herring, given that even if Obama makes progress toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, I know of nobody with the slightest sense that he will eliminate nuclear weapons during his Presidency - at best it would take decades. But he should consider also that the present world is nothing like 1914 or 1939. Now granted, should Russia or China start acting in a militarily threatening manner to the United States or each other, possession of nuclear weapons by all parties does deter transforming a cold war into a hot war. But the U.S. can presently militarily crush any nation it chooses... except for those with nuclear weapons.

Does Cohen believes that détente can be achieved between any two nuclear-armed nations? Clearly not. The present danger is that an otherwise militarily weak nuclear-armed state might use its weapons in a war with a neighbor, might lose control of its nuclear arsenal in a coup, or might sell or trade its knowledge, components, or even a nuclear device in exchange for cash or weapons. That's the danger Obama is attempting to address.

On Russia, Cohen offers a conclusion that sounds like it was lifted from a corporation's annual report: "I don’t believe Obama has yet shifted the basic confrontational optic of a resurgent Russia emerging from the humiliation of imperial collapse." Cohen sees Russia as having two conflicting approaches to the world: one comes from Dmitri Medvedev, and "The other perspective is called Vladimir Putin." (Ah, memories.) Is Cohen arguing that Obama needs to take a hard line with Russia and somehow force it to act against its perceived best interest on foreign national policies, such as its relations with Iran - with the probability that Russia will respond by saying no? Is he arguing that the U.S. should give up on diplomacy with Russia, and just let Russia do what it wants? Seriously, what's his point? As Cohen knows, we have no military option against Russia.

On Afghanistan, Cohen is critical that while Obama showed "clarity" in March by sending a lot more troops, he is presently showing "uncertainty" because he didn't immediately agree to send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan seven months later. I'm not going to dig through Cohen's past writings to try to determine if he wrote something similar about Bush during the former administration's seven years of malign neglect of the Afghan war, but it's worth noting that by way of comparison Obama is running laps around the mediocre record of his predecessor. No, the real fear isn't that Obama's indecisive - it's that he won't commit to endless war:
I worry now that Obama’s quest for perfect calibration will yield a less than resounding fudge where the tenacious message of a troop increase is undermined by talk of exit timing. That’s not how you break the will of an enemy.
How many times in its history has Afghanistan been the subject of an invasion attempt, invasion, or occupation? How many times in its history has it been successfully pacified, even when occupied by a superpower? Cohen truly believes that if Obama doesn't remind the Afghan people that we'll eventually pack up and go home, they somehow won't remember centuries of history - that the foreign occupier always packs up and goes home? Or that they have failed to notice that the same holds true in regard to any modern military engagement involving a long-term occupation in which the occupying power didn't engage in a massive population transfer into the occupied territory? Come on.

Cohen also seems to believe that every leader in the world wants to be Obama's best friend, and that they're all stinging at perceived slights:
In Europe, a more modest reset attempt has been compromised with political leaders (if not the public) by a perception of cool distance, underscored when Obama did not show at 20th-anniversary celebrations of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Feelings are particularly strong in Paris, where mutterings about Obama’s “Carterization” are heard. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ushered France back to NATO’s integrated military command structure, and shattered political taboos dictating coolness toward America, has seen his hopes for a special relationship evaporate.
(Ah, memories.) It sounds like he's describing junior high school. "Angela threw a big party but Barack said he was too busy to come. All of Angela's friends are mad at him. Nicolas offered Barack a BFF bracelet, and Barack told him 'I don't want to be your best friend,' and now Nicolas doesn't like him any more and called him a loser." Again, come on.

Anne Applebaum has a better take on what's involved in Europe, noting that there's nothing close to a European consensus or European decision-maker with whom Obama can work on the key issues of the day, and she correctly notes that nations like China are going to pursue their own foreign policy interests, although her conclusion (while suitable for an editorial) seems overblown:
Europe might have a new phone number, but when Obama calls, the person on the other end of the line will still be unable to act. "Europe" will not be a unified entity capable of coordinating a unified policy in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East or anywhere else anytime soon. Europe cannot, in short, become America's full partner in foreign policy....

This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work. Europe is still our best hope, because Europeans share most of our values. But organizing sanctions with a divided Europe - never mind a military operation - will continue to be a major chore. China, meanwhile, is acquiring vast foreign interests, trading in Africa and South America as well as Asia, along with a vast army to match. But China appears uninterested in joining an international campaign against terrorism, nuclear proliferation or anything else.

Global military and security thus look set to remain in the hands of the United States, whether the United States wants it or not. Halfway through his presidency, George W. Bush found he had to drop unilateralism in favor of diplomacy. Now one wonders: At some point in his presidency, will Obama find he has to drop diplomacy in favor of unilateralism, too?
Cohen seems to be operating under the conceit that U.S. foreign policy interests are everybody's interests, and thus that it's absurd that Obama can't handshake his way to consensus - that it's somehow Obama's failure. He underestimates the effect of Bush's unilateralism, which if anything caused our traditional allies to become quite accustomed to saying "no". He disregards the fact that foreign nations have their own issues to worry about, and their most pressing issues may not be the same as ours. He also overlooks the fact that there can sometimes be a political gain to a politician, even in an allied nation, for standing up to U.S. pressure.

I also like this one:
In Israel-Palestine, Obama underestimated the damage of the past decade and has been outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
No, what happened was that Obama overestimated the resiliency of the U.S. economy, and severely underestimated his own party's willingness to address serious domestic issues such as stimulating economic recovery or passing a healthcare reform bill, and has had to expend significant political capital on those issues. Netanyahu, ever an opportunist, recognized that he could say "no" to the Obama Administration without consequence, as the Obama Administration is not presently positioned to impose a consequence. Is it a great shame that a Democratically controlled Congress doesn't have the President's back on key domestic and foreign policy issues? Absolutely. But what does Cohen expect President Obama to do about that?

Cohen has a sense of how skewed perspectives are in Israel, but compare and contrast Benny Morris who describes Obama as "a man who has, in the international arena, shown a proclivity for indecision (except when it comes to Israeli settlements in the West Bank)." Even with the retreat from his earlier demands for a mere freeze on new construction within those settlements, developed in knowing violation of international law, Morris sees Obama as having taken a hard line against Israel. (Meanwhile, Morris argues that an Israeli attack on Iran could bring chaos to the region, then turns around and suggests that it's the responsibility of the U.S. to bomb Iran so Israel doesn't have to, or at least to give it a green light and a massive infusion of high tech weaponry. Morris is definitely a person who brings to mind the phrase, "With friends like these....") It's also worth observing that Cohen sounds an awful lot like Pat Buchanan.1

It's worth remembering that Cohen very recently argued that the time for achieving a bona fide peace, with a two state solution, started to vanish under President Clinton and was squandered under Bush.2
Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about détente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions.
Peace is unattainable, Netanyahu's evasive, and all of this arose before Obama took office, yet it's somehow Obama's fault that his proposal for peace talks isn't working out. Or perhaps Cohen is now of the position that U.S. Presidents should pretend that the Israel-Palestine conflict is irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy interests, and give neither time nor effort to resolving it. Even a grandmaster will have difficulty ending a match, at least in a positive way, if Cohen is correct that he inherited a board where his only pieces are a king and a pawn while his opponent has retained most of his pieces.

The only thing Cohen offers that could approximate as a proposed solution is that Obama spend more time talking about "human rights and freedom". Does Cohen believe that in the prism of junior high school through which he views Europe, that will dissuade Nicolas Sarcozy from comparing Obama to Carter?


1. Dan Larison offers a response to Pat Buchanan's arguments here.

2. You want to talk ineffectual? Or "dithering"? How about G.W. and his "road map" to nowhere?

1 comment:

  1. "He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games," Kissinger said. "But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one." - being compared to a grandmaster by Kissinger really isn't that bad a thing . . . the whole quote can really be taken anyway you want to take it, it is actually quite "diplomatic." : )



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