Sunday, May 18, 2014

I Don't Remember President Rumsfeld

In a column that reminds me of David Brooks' efforts to put a nominally independent spin on right-wing talking points, Ross Douthat criticizes President Obama's second term foreign policy record. All sixteen months of it. Douthat isn't going to cut Obama any slack:
His foreign policy looked modestly successful when he was running for re-election. Now it stinks of failure....

But the absence of an Iraq-scale fiasco is not identical to success, and history shouldn’t grade this president on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld.
Why should this President be graded "on a curve set by Donald Rumsfeld", as opposed to on a curve set by George W. Bush? The buck stops at the White House, unless you're a Republican in which case it stops with the Secretary of Defense?

Douthat's principal conceit is that, "balked by domestic opposition, turn to the world stage to secure their legacy". By "usually", he apparently means "recently", as his examples are Jimmy Carter ("the Camp David accords"), George W. Bush ("his AIDS-in-Africa initiative"), Bill Clinton ("chasing Middle Eastern peace") and Richard Nixon (opening doors to China) and... one-term President George H.W. Bush with something that's not really a foreign policy initiative as it is a matter of watching events unfold ("closing out the cold war"), although I suspect Douthat means to attribute that to Reagan. To the extent that you want to credit Reagan's foreign policy with helping to end the cold war, it's difficult to see how his second term policy was materially different from his first term policy. I can't help but notice, also, that Douthat makes no mention of the Clinton Administration's success facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland, instead implying that Clinton is among those presidents who has no clear victory. He also makes no mention of Ronald Reagan's decision to intervene in Lebanon, or his rapid withdrawal after the barracks bombing, or of George W. Bush's inabilty to prevent Russia's invasion of Georgia, and its subsequent actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

One big problem with Douthat's conceit is that he looks only at what he sees as the "big accomplishment", even if it relative terms it's a small one or a failure, while ignoring the lists of horribles that can be found in the choices of pretty much every president on his implied list. There's no reason to believe that, a decade or so from now, a pundit as generous as Douthat is toward Republican presidents won't be able to find a second term accomplishment by President Obama that's at least as impressive as Bush's AIDS initiative. Further, why is it a good thing that presidents, frustrated by their inability to achieve their domestic agenda, shift their focus to the international scene? If it's possible to attend to both the domestic and the international, go for it. But if it's not, or if focus on domestic issues is "too hard", a President should nonetheless buckle down and do his primary job before trying to build a legacy on foreign policy issues.

In listing what he describes as Obama's foreign policy failures, it's no surprise that Douthat wants to limit our consideration of G.W.'s fingerprints. Even granting that Douthat recites, "His predecessor’s invasion of Iraq still looms as the largest American blunder of the post-Vietnam era", and concedes that "many current problems can be traced back to errors made in 2003", to put it mildly that's a remarkable understatement.
  • Libya - Douthat implies that the so-called Benghazi scandal is a Republican confabulation, but complains, "The consuming Republican focus on Benghazi has tended to obscure the fact that post-Qaddafi Libya is generally a disaster area". That's not an unfair assessment, but the question becomes, "What should we do about it". The chaos is not considered a sufficient threat to U.S. or European foreign policy interests that any western nation is interested in intervening. Is Douthat arguing that Obama should have left Qaddafi in power, better to keep the humanitarian disaster we know than to risk one we don't know? He does not seem to be arguing that the U.S. should send enough troops to occupy and pacify the region, for however many years that would take. What's left? Also, how does Obama's Libya record and its fallout compare to that of Ronald Reagan, who unsuccessfully tried to kill Qaddafi, or George W. Bush, who along with Tony Blair spent years promoting Qaddafi as a poster child for the success of the "War on Terror"?

  • Syria - Douthat complains, again not without justification, that the Obama Administration has not kept its implied promise to use military force to remove Assad from power, upon it being established with reasonable certainty that he used chemical weapons. Except Douthat is not endorsing the prevarication that the world does not take the U.S. seriously any more because we didn't invade Syria, and goes on to state, "I’m glad we don’t have 50,000 troops occupying Syria" -- as if we could occupy Syria with only 50,000 troops. The military estimated a short-term need for 75,000 troops just to secure Libya's weapon stockpiles.

  • The Holy Land - Douthat complains that John Kerry's Israel/Palestine peace initiative has failed. I'm not sure that many people other than John Kerry expected the initiative to be a success. Douthat himself deems the failure "predictable" and... it was. George W. Bush had a number of peace initiatives directed at the Middle East that were far more ambitious than anything President Obama has endorsed. His father attempted a more coercive approach to advancing a peace accord. Clinton spent years hosting superficial peace talks before his last-minute effort to achieve agreement on the big issues helped contribute to a complete collapse of the peace process. But the fundamental problem is with the leaders of that region, and the last leader who seemed courageous enough to press for a bona fide peace deal was assassinated in 1995.

  • Iraq - Douthat complains that "the caldron is boiling and Iranian influence is growing", as if this is a new thing. Who would have thought, after all, that replacing a largely secular Sunni regime with a much more religious Shiite regime would lead Iraq to become friendlier with Iran... except for anybody who knows anything about the Middle East? The failure Douthat attributes to Obama? a suggestion that the "White House’s indecision undercut negotiations that might have left a small but stabilizing U.S. force in place." That's not actually what the article linked by Douthat states. The author indicates that U.S. officials did not receive guidance from the Obama Administration about how many troops they wanted to leave behind, but that's attributed to ambivalence, not indecision. The article also suggests that the Obama Administration was not in fact ambivalent, but that "The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible". Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, on the other hand, who was negotiating over troop levels, is explicitly described as indecisive. Douthat admits, "I sympathized with the decision to slip free of Iraq entirely", and he attempts no argument that the Middle East would be better off had the U.S. maintained a troop presence in Iraq.

  • Afghanistan - Douthat complains that "", never mind that he's speaking of a first term decision by the President, or that if he's followed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at all he should know that there are enormous differences between the two nations and the nature and purpose of the respective "surges". Douthat seems to have little understanding of Afghanistan, complaining, "even with an American presence the Taliban are barely being held at bay". Let's imagine that the U.S. took a few holds barred approach to occupation and modernization of Afghanistan, as the Russians did during their years of occupation. Did that make the Taliban go away? And if we're bringing first term decisions into the discussion, here's a doozy. For that matter, was Ronald Reagan's effort to get the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan a foreign policy success, in that the USSR withdrew, or should we look at what subsequently happened in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and contemplate whether it was one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of all time?

  • Russia - Douthat complains that "the 'reset' with Russia — has ended in the shambles of the Ukraine crisis, as if there was something that the U.S. could reasonably have done to prevent Russia from invading Crimea. This is the same Putin who, as previously mentioned, invaded Georgia under G.W.'s watch. Expressing a willingness to start afresh with Putin is not something that can be achieved unilaterally.

  • Iran - Although Douthat suggests that the Obama Administration could still achieve a "paradigm-altering achievement" with Iran, he simultaneously complains that those efforts could "unsettle[] America’s existing alliances in the region to very little gain". So it's the same situation G.W. Bush failed to resolve, but with the added caveat that any promising effort, and perhaps even a breakthrough agreement, could simultaneously be a failure. Perhaps that's not such a bad perspective on significant foreign policy issues, as blowback from even well-intentioned efforts can be harsh, but it seems like an absurd standard to impose on the President, particularly in light of Douthat's failure to acknowledge that the presidents whose second term accomplishments he finds to be most impressive all made foreign policy decisions that resulted in severe, negative consequences for the country.

Douthat goes on to qualify the Obama Administration's successful operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden by asserting that the success of the mission "has to be qualified by Islamist terrorism’s resurgence". It's the sort of footnoting he's not willing to do for any other President, some of who can be credited with foreign policy failures that had much more profound and direct negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy interests. More than that, does Douthat believe that it's the killing of bin Laden that resulted in the "Islamist terrorism's resurgence"? That the Obama Administration shouldn't have pursued that mission? And, wait a minute, the blog post linked to support Douthat's allegation of the claimed "resurgence" doesn't even support his position, instead pointing out how difficult it is to hunt for terrorists and has resulted in U.S. security difficulties for government personnel in Yemen, that the U.S. issues regional security alerts when there is an "uptick in the fight against Al Qaeda in Yemen", and questioning the value of drone attacks.

From my reading, all Douthat's equivocation does is reaffirm that his goal is not to analyze Obama's foreign policy records, but to put a slightly centrist spin right-wing talking points. To be a "reasonable voice" by alluding to G.W. Bush's disastrous Iraq policy and distancing himself from the most ludicrous right-wing allegations directed at the President, and then to explain why none of that distance matters while hoping that his readers don't recognize his overt partisanship. If any lesson can be drawn from Douthat's analysis, it's that six years from now, no matter what larger consensus is drawn from the Obama Administration's foreign policy record, we can anticipate that some number of partisan pundits will offer tear-downs of the foreign policy records of the incumbent President and, if the President is a Republican, that they're apt to try to pick even the smallest of cherries from President Obama's record to try to paper over his acknowledged failures. Meanwhile, I would rather a second term President keep his eye on the domestic situation as even a small but significant foreign policy success does not overcome the rank incompetence of an administration that ignores or inflates an economic bubble that, upon bursting, almost takes down the world's economy.

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