Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Other Words, Obama's Advisors Weren't Roger Cohen?

Roger Cohen usually writes better stuff than this. After acknowledging that President Obama has accomplished quite a lot, despite Republican obstruction, Cohen rattles off a list of issues in which he had hoped the Obama Administration would have taken different action, or in which he disapproves of its initial approach, and complains:
There is only one star in the galaxy at this White House and his name is Barack Obama. Everyone in the Sun King’s court has drunk the Kool-Aid.

The failure of hope, the absence of profound change, has much to do with the Republican obstructionism that has helped keep unemployment above 8 percent. But it is also related to Obama’s refusal to entertain a real team of rivals, to place around him big characters with big ideas who would challenge his instinct for cautious politics and foreign policy. And so a transformative election failed to produce a transformative president.
Cohen complains that he cannot think of an individual on Obama's team that compares to Nixon/Kissinger, Carter/Brzezinski, Reagan/Schultz, or George H. W. Bush/Baker. I think that Cohen only mentions Secretaries of State, along with Cohen's list of complaints, betrays the real issue - Cohen wishes that the Obama administration had taken a different or more forceful tack on certain foreign policy issues. Worse, Cohen argues that Obama did pick somebody who could have replicated that dynamic, but that although "a superb secretary of state" she chose to acquiesce to the White House "for various reasons (her future is very much ahead of her)" - the "various reasons" apparently being Cohen's belief that acquiescence better serves Clinton's future plans.

In short, Cohen's big complaint is that Obama picked a "superb" candidate who, for all he knows, confronts and challenges the President behind-the-scenes, but that he did not fire her for having a lower public profile than, say, Kissinger or Baker, or for taking their disagreements public? More than that, what does Cohen believe would have been accomplished by more public debate, discord or disagreement between Obama and Clinton?

Further, although Cohen gives no credit to Bush, most of the foreign policy issues of which he complains have existed during each of the administrations he mentions. When he complains in relation to Iran of "tired old carrots and sticks", he should stop to consider how the approach got "tired" - we have been at odds with Iran, after all, for decades. If Cohen recalls his history, our relationship with Iran was considerably more rocky under Carter/Brzezinski, when the Shah was toppled and the occupants of the U.S. embassy were taken hostage. Is Cohen joining the advocates for war on Iran, because if not rather than complaining he should be telling us what the Obama Administration could have done that would have fixed a problem that none of the aforementioned dynamic President/Secretary of State duos were able to resolve. Is he advocating a return to the "Nixon/Kissinger" approach of imposing and propping up leaders like the Shah?

Similarly, Cohen complains "half-steps on Israel and Palestine", as if the issue can be resolved in a vacuum. Were things better under "Nixon/Kissinger" when the occupation was permitted to continue indefinitely and the annexation of Palestinian lands began in earnest, or with Egypt's 1973 invasion of the Sinai? Even if that invasion led to the Camp David Accords and a cold peace between Egypt and Israel, did any of the policies of Carter/Brzezinski slow settlements or result in the creation of two states? How about Reagan/Schultz? Did the more aggressive polices of Bush/Baker result in the cessation of Israeli settlement of Palestinian lands? What about the efforts of President Clinton, who is not credited with a "dynamic duo" relationship? Good, bad or indifferent? And if you look at the real world and see Prime Minister Netanyahu in control of the Knesset, a man who has absolutely no interest in negotiating for peace, what is it that Cohen imagines that Obama could do - even if we ignore the fact that Cohen's "dynamic duo" presidencies often accomplished little to nothing, or moved the cause backward, under more favorable circumstances?

Cohen complains, that on "Egypt, [Obama] toyed with preserving Mubarak ad interim before the tide became irreversible." Mubarek became President of Egypt following the assassination of Anwar Sadat back in 1981. Thirty years in power, mostly under Cohen's "dyanmic duo" Presidents. Which of them "toyed" with the idea of removing Mubarek from power?

Cohen's lament continues, "On Syria, he has in essence dithered." As opposed to what? Invading? Seriously, for the complaint to be credible Cohen needs to identify both what a better approach should have been and why it should be better. It's easy to say that Obama has "dithered", but there are very good policy reasons for not increasing the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. Using a loaded word like "dither" sheds no light on whether or not the Obama Administration is pursuing sound or unsound policy.

Finally, "On Afghanistan, domestic politics dictated the agenda, at a cost in American lives." That's a loaded, conclusory statement, not an argument. When you go to war, whatever your policy, there will be "a cost in American lives". The closest thing Cohen offers to a substantive point is the quote of a former State Department official who complains that the war in Afghanistan should be a "marathon" and not a "sprint" - which implies that Cohen would continue that war indefinitely. Does Cohen believe that an indefinite "marathon" of a war in Afghanistan would carry no "cost in American lives"? Frankly, the line is nothing but a cheap shot.

The most substantive argument Cohen offers is that "Marines will gather at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to receive the [Presidential Unit Citation (PUC)] award ... he should indeed present the award himself". A third of his column is in support of that argument, yet he can find no space to substantiate any of his foreign policy complaints.

There's apparently a possibility that hasn't occurred to Cohen - that the reason Obama and Hillary Clinton don't butt heads on the issues he lists is because, having carefully considered the facts and options, they agree that the present approach is best. No need for secret wars in Cambodia, no benefit in threatening Netanyahu with a loss of loan guarantees, no gain in invading Iran to deal with our disagreement with that nation's government, no need to fantasize that the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan comes at no cost in lives or treasure or will suddenly bring about an enlightened transformation of that nation....

That is, you don't need "Sun Kings" or "Kool-Aid" to recognize that Cohen doesn't necessarily have the better argument on these issues, nor should you overlook the fact that when given the opportunity to write a substantive criticism of the Obama Administration's policies he chose to forgo that approach in favor of a personal attack.


  1. I'm trying to wrap my head around why Cohen applauds ending the Iraq war but supports endless war in Afghanistan. What does he believe we will accomplish, and when?

  2. I suspect that he's coming from the perspective that if we stay involved in the various conflicts he mentioned, or up our involvement, as long as we remain pure of heart things will somehow work out in our favor. That, unfortunately, is neither necessarily true nor a sound basis for the formation of foreign (or war) policy.

    There are plenty of arguments that can be made that the President's foreign policy is flawed. Cohen would have a difficult time establishing that any of his "dream teams" were anything but deeply flawed in their formation and implementation of foreign policy, so not even that point holds. Cohen is capable of making a cogent, substantive analysis of Obama's policies and his points of disagreement, so it's a shame he chose an approach that's pretty much the opposite.


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