ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY : PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL FOREIGN POLICY

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^ Syria peace talks to begin in Geneva — old-school diplomacy : John Kerry working with Russia’s foreign policy negotiators

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As the late George Kennan pointed out, in his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, it is difficult for a democracy to conduct a successful foreign policy. The political demands upon the President inject domestic concerns into an exercise that isn’t domestic. Blocs of voters, of this or that ethinic origin, call upon the President (and his party), with an upcoming election in mind, to favor the nation or ethnicity whence these voter blocs came or to which they feel kinship. In war as in peace these electoral pressures lean upon the President’s decsion, angling them in a direction, perhaps, that, objectively considered, should not be the case. A prime example — hardly the only — is Israel. I have long argued that Israel’s foreign policy, no matter how compelling its case, must not be allowed dictate ours; but the significance of Israel sympathy, in both our political parties albeit differently in each, makes my argument difficult to apply. It was the same, with Russia, before, during, and after World war II. People were affronted, then pleased, then scared, by what the Soviet union seemed to represent; and these feelings led American policy makers to mistakes that could have been avoided.

Prime among the mistakes avoidable was our support of authoritarian dictators because these were opposed to communism. Of course they were; but they also opposed democracy, an ideal which we profess to the whole world, whose peoples often believe us. Perhaps we should not profess democracy to the whole world. Maybe that is the ultimate mistaken pressure by our domestic politics upon our foreign policy. Certainly the argument has been made by many among us, that we should support dictators who will keep lids on populations whose political ways cannot be predicted and of which many are anarchic at best, violent, cruel, terrible. The argument has merit; yet I disagree with it. Eventually dictators fall, and when they do, we have to live in the consequences.

There is no guarantee at all that peoples who overthrow a dictator will thank America for supporting their cause. A dictator makes almost every group his enemy. That his enemies can’t agree on almost anything other than his fall is his prime survival asset. Yet if America means anything in the world any more, it’s that we are a friend to ordinary people seeking normal lives; and among the enemies of a dictator these are almost always the majority. We refuse this lesson at our peril. Who, today, would not say no, if we could do it again, to the CIA’s role in overhrowing Iran’s Mossadegh government in 1953, an overthrow that has tainted Iran’s relationship with our country ever since ? This is a lesson that we have in fact learned; today our diplomacy supports and encourages peoples seeking freedom. The result is not always happy. Oppressive dictatorships are hardly a great school for teaching democracy — a culture of tolerance, of discussion, of differences equally respected. Yet are we wrong to encourage people to seek it ? Not at all. Too easily we forget how long it took the West to move from feudalism to oligarchy to revolution to democracy. Why should peoples elsewhere find the path any easier ?

The lesson I have outlined above has been learned by some of us; not much by others. Unhappily, most Republicans favor a foreign policy of supporting “friendly” dictators and of military first. This policy, they argue, worked with the Soviet Union, and it kept the peace in the Middle East for 50 years. And so it seemed to; but the Soviet Union collapsed largely of its own, bankrupted by its fear of our military might, morally ruined by its incompetence and rigidity, deafened by the din of outmoded theory. The most effective step against Soviet dominance taken by our Republican policy makers wasn’t military at all. it was six words spoken in Berlin by President Reagan : “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall !”

The voice spurred eastern Europe’s peoples. They believed Reagan. They also believed in themselves. Some three years later the wall did indeed come down.It was a superb moment in American diplomacy; yet in retrospect it was an easy moment. The Soviet union was already crumbling.

Far more difficult the moments of crisis, most unprecedented, to which the Obama Administration has had to respond : the “Arab Spring” ; the Syrian Civil war; Iran’s nuclear development ; relations with Russia ruled by the mercurial Vladimir Putin and with a secretive and cruel North Korea ; the antics of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela ; the fight against Al Qaeda. In every case where moves could be made — not much can be done about Kim Jong Un — the Obama Administration has moved very well indeed. We have managed relations with the uprising populaces of Libya, Egypt, and Syria about as well as these anarchic situations allowed. And if in Libya we miscalculated Benghazi — and still find it hard to keep up with its 26 shell games — we aced the big picture : most every tribe in Libya thanks us for our part in overthrowing Gaddafi. In Egypt, we avoided — while praising the Cairo “street” generally — committing fatally much to any faction, and thus we retain a fair reputation with all, even with the current military rulers. Secretary Kerry brokered a rapprochement between Netanyahu’s Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey without alienating Erdogan’s growing number of enemies.

Secretary Kerry — without realizing it at first, but once he did realize it, capitalizing superbly — found a means to a pact with Russia that ended the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stores and use. Most important of all, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and that interim agreement is now working. Granted, that the agreements and pacts that Kerry has achieved were brought about by both sides — it really does take two to tango; yet one can’t get diplomacy without doing diplomacy. Which means that the two sides have to respect one an other and openly accord each other that respect. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton before him, has done that.

Kerry’s diplomacy has not been the same as Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton made the world’s women her special constituency. The world is full of cultures in which women take second, even third place; Clinton never missed an opportunity to condemn the downgrading of women or to call upon women to assert their rights. Kerry is not female and cannot speak as Clinton spoke. His diplomacy has been much more old school. It reminds me of the diplomatic practice of British foreign ministers of the 19th Century — a diplomacy of personal relationship, of flexibility and tolerance, a diplomacy also of money deals. We have never pursued such a diplomacy because America had never benn, until recently, a satisfied nation as was Great Britain after the defeat of Napoleon. Until recently, we have either been an expanding nation, even an imperial one, or we have — like Britain during the era of Napoleon — confronted by a huge world-encompassing enemy (or two : Mao Tse-dong’s China as well as Soviet union). Today all that is past. Amderica has finished expanding, and e no longer confront huge rivals. We exist now in a multifold world of many powers, just as did the Great Britain of Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Lord Grey, and it is to President Obama’s great credit (and to John Kerry’s), that our diplomacy fully recognizes our current situation and seems quite skillful at sailing upon it. I know of no current Republican who similarly gets what is really happening outside our borders.

As i write, Kerry is taking America into perhaps his most delicate negotiations yet : the Syria peace discussions set to begin in Geneva as son as all the details can be worked. we already see how hard this negotiation will be in the affair of inviting Iran. First invited, then dis-invited, evidently because President Obama objects. But if Iran were to be invited, how to leave out the Kurds, who have a major presence in eastern Syria (and the bordering part of Iraq) and are pressing a world-wide campaign on twitter and facebook demanding that that they be included. This may take months to manage, and no success is at all assured.

As a foreign policy president Obama has also been lucky. As George Kennan pointed out in the book i mentioned at the start of this column, it matters greatly who in a country is doing the diplomacy. Much of our diplomacy during the Lenin and Stalin years failed because the preconceptions borne by our foreign  policy people ill accorded with the facts. (So too did diplomacy then often fail because of false preconceptions on the Russian side.) Our policy people also badly misread the situation in Nazi Germany; and of course Nazi Germany misread us. There seems to be less misreading going on these days in the foreign ministries of major nations — ourselves as well. In large part that’s the result of the internet and social media. No nation gropes to understand other nations 1000s of miles away as they did in the 1960s, 1930s, 1910s. This is the setting in which President Obama finds his good luck. But it isn’t all luck. it’s also how open foreign policy people are to the facts unfiltered by preconception. The Obama foreign policy people read the facts better than almost anyone.

His political opponents disparage him so much that they do not see what he (and secretary Kerry) are achieving, or why, or are solely fixated on the fight against Al Qaeda, a fight on which all our policy makers agree (a fight that Obama has pursued with a warlike ruthlessness) and also because they do see Obama’s great policy mistake ; the NSA and its huge, wartime-ish overreach. Obama really does see the fight against Al Qaeda as all-out war; and it is ironic that, on this score, his Republican opponents, until reecntly so military-minded, want to scale back. On this issue, I happen to agree with Obama’s Republican opponents. The threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists is not so mortal that we need compromise our civil liberties to fight them. It is time to curb NSA much more radically than Obama now proposes; maybe even to dismantle the department of homeland security, which seems to have inconvenienced many of us and violated the rights of some, to no great accomplishment. In these things, shrewd vigilance by all our people counts for much more than blanket micro-surveillance by headstrong bureaucrats. It would be a shame if Obama’s brilliant record, so far, of diplomatic accomplishment and near destruction of Al Qaeda were nicked and mocked by his insistence on a surveillance society.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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