Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feeling "Snubbed" By President Obama

Ah, it seems like only yesterday we were in the age when "old Europe" no longer mattered, Congress was snacking on "Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast", and people like Robert Kagan were attempting to persuade us that our differences French were not based upon their being "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", but on an irreconcilable difference in world view:
Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory — the product of one American election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.
That was then, this is now. As Dan Larison recently observed, Kagan personifies a particular type of critic of the Obama Administration:
Hawkish critics of Obama want to make two contradictory arguments against the administration. On the one hand, they say that he is too accommodating and too willing to believe that there are common interests among major powers that will lead to cooperation on supposedly “global” issues. This is one of the standard complaints against the administration by Robert Kagan in any one of a half-dozen articles and op-eds in the last year. The complaint goes something like this: “Doesn’t Obama realize that states have divergent interests? How can he be so naive as to expect cooperation from other great powers?”

To take their criticism seriously, we would have to believe that his critics accept the reality and inevitability of multipolarity, and we would have to believe that they also accept the relative decline in American power that this entails. Of course, they don’t really accept either of these things. For the most part, they do not acknowledge the structural political reasons for resistance to Obama’s initiatives, and they recoil from any suggestion that America needs to adjust to a changing world. They locate the fault for any American decline entirely with Obama, because he fails to be sufficiently strong in championing U.S. interests....

At the same time, they obsessively ridicule Obama’s supposed conceit that all of America’s international problems were going to start disappearing once he became President, and they are always ready to point out that Obama has not somehow magically eliminated the divergent state interests that prevent him from succeeding in his foreign policy initiatives. They insist Obama is blind to structural barriers and divergent state interests, and in the next breath they mock him for not having dissolved them through force of personality.
As if on cue, along comes Kagan to tell us that our allies feel "snubbed" by President Obama because, surprise, he hasn't made all of Europe love us again by sheer force of personality. He adds the silly complaint that President Obama has devoted too much energy to trying to diplomatically resolve international problems with countries like Iran, neglecting to note that this is a continuation of the Bush Administration's approach and that the alternatives to diplomacy aren't exactly good. He whines that the Obama Administration is working too hard to improve relations with Russia and China, without noting that we can't get the Security Council to approve sanctions on nations like Iran or North Korea over the vetoes of those other two permanent members.

Kagan argues,
This administration pays lip-service to "multilateralism," but it is a multilateralism of accommodating autocratic rivals, not of solidifying relations with longtime democratic allies.
Back in 2002 he observed that the Bush Administration was contemptuous of Europe, but argued that the problems were structural:
Europeans have complained about President Bush’s “unilateralism,” but they are coming to the deeper realization that the problem is not Bush or any American president. It is systemic. And it is incurable.
Kagan also argued that the principal solution to this problem was for Europe to "build up its military capabilities, even if only marginally" and for the U.S. to get over the idea that it was constrained by Europe:
Rather than viewing the United States as a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputian threads, American leaders should realize that they are hardly constrained at all, that Europe is not really capable of constraining the United States. If the United States could move past the anxiety engendered by this inaccurate sense of constraint, it could begin to show more understanding for the sensibilities of others, a little generosity of spirit. It could pay its respects to multilateralism and the rule of law and try to build some international political capital for those moments when multilateralism is impossible and unilateral action unavoidable.
Apparently he meant to say, "the problem is not Bush or any American president" as long as the president is Republican.

Kagan isn't really writing about strained relationships with Europe. He is throwing up that cloud around his actual concern, the possibility that the Obama Administration might pressure Israel to start working toward a genuine resolution of its forty-plus year occupation of Palestinian territories. Returning to Larison, who recently capsulized the issue,
Despite dire warnings that the embarrassment of a visiting U.S. vice president will damage U.S.-Israel relations, nothing substantive will follow recent displays of indignation by Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The combination of blunt words and inaction invites the worst of all consequences for the Obama administration, which will be attacked by hawks for “undermining” an ally, mocked by foreign policy realists for ineptitude, and derided by doves for caving in the face of Israeli intransigence. As for the Israelis, the only thing Netanyahu’s ministers will likely do differently next time is to exercise more discretion when thumbing their noses at President Obama.

* * *

Washington created the conditions for its own embarrassment by creating a bilateral relationship defined by dependence and warped by unaccountability. If it is unwilling to place conditions on the support it provides to Israel, and unwilling to enforce them when it does, Washington will continue to find its pronouncements ignored and its efforts in the Near East frustrated.
If Kagan were to approach the issue honestly, he would note that it's not just the Arab world but also our European allies and, more recently, the leadership of our nation's military, that would like us to be more firm with Israel. President Obama could do a lot of fence-mending with political leaders around the world by taking measures that would help effect a resolution of the conflict. It's reasonable to infer, both from his 2002 piece and from his deliberate omissions, that Kagan does not actually desire any such thing. Instead he wants to minimize the seriousness of Israel's continued intransigence, and to claim that it's somehow a fault of the Obama Administration to even take notice that Israel continues to actively and deliberately undermine the prospects for peace.

Meanwhile, a few clicks away, Fred Hiatt offers up an unsigned editorial that takes a similar view, whining that if the Obama Administration criticizes Israel the Palestinians and Arab nations will increase their demands on Israel. Apparently the only thing to do is for the Obama Administration to ignore Israel's misconduct - that, of course, sends a message to the rest of the world that the Obama Administration has no backbone on the issue, and will not take any measures to advance a viable Palestinian state, but that's a message Hiatt and his crew can live with.
A larger question concerns Mr. Obama's quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government. He is not the first president to do so; in fact, he is not even the first to be hard on Mr. Netanyahu. But tough tactics don't always work: Last year Israelis rallied behind Mr. Netanyahu, while Mr. Obama's poll ratings in Israel plunged to the single digits.
This takes us back to Reihan Salam's forgetfulness. President Obama isn't running for office in Israel. When his generals come to him and say "Israel's actions are putting our troops in danger," it shouldn't matter at all that his demand to Israel to take corrective action won't be popular in that country. Moreover, it's deliberately misleading to characterize a few appropriately harsh words, so far not backed up by any action, as "bludgeoning". This is the same paper that habitually criticizes President Obama for being too soft on Iran? By this definition of the word "bludgeon", the Obama Administration has already beaten Iran to a bloody pulp.

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