Obama is the realist, not neocon critics

Business Times - 11 Jun 2009

Obama is the realist, not neocon critics


IN THE aftermath of his Cairo address to Muslims last week, neoconservative critics of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy are portraying him as a spacey idealist who, in the tradition of president Woodrow Wilson, is trying to recreate the international system based on a wild fantasy that, as Robert Kagan puts it, 'nations will act on the basis of what they perceive to be the goodwill, good intentions or moral purity of other nations, in particular the United States'.

In particular, out-of-job neocons are blasting the supposedly naive approach of the current White House occupant towards the Middle East with his emphasis on the need to open a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria and promote a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And they warn that a region where players operate based on crude Realpolitik principles would be resistant to Mr Obama's lofty notions of democracy and peace, and that his policies would end up eroding US power.

That's delicious coming from Mr Kagan and a bunch of, well, spacey ideologues who, since 9/11, have been trying to convince Americans that their fantasy of launching a crusade against Islamo-Fascism and remaking Iraq and the entire Middle East along the lines of Western-style liberal democracy would help bring stability and peace, and create the conditions for resolving Israeli-Palestinian peace. And on top of all that, it would have strengthened US influence in the region, no less.

There is no need to do here another retrospective about the eight years of the presidency of George W Bush in order to conclude that his naive foreign policy approach weakened US position in the Middle East and elsewhere, helped strengthen the influence of Iran and its satellites in the region, including Iraq. Worse, the US invasion of Iraq played into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists.

If anything, it was Mr Bush with his Freedom Agenda and his commitment to remake the Middle East, the world - if not the entire galaxy - safe for democracy, who seemed to have tried to do a lousy impersonation of president Wilson.

And by the way, Mr Bush's policies failed to advance political and economic freedom in the Middle East and to bring about an Israel/Palestine accord. In fact, the series of Bush-induced 'colour revolutions' around the world proved to be nothing more than colourful media events.

Unlike Mr Bush's foreign policy, Mr Obama's is grounded in the traditional mode of realism. During his Cairo address, Mr Obama did reiterate American commitment to the principles of liberal democracy, including the support for rights of women and religious minorities.

The difference between Mr Obama and Mr Bush is that the new president, unlike his predecessor, doesn't consider the promotion of American values as the overriding issue in US foreign policy. Protecting US security is the core national interest and that sometimes requires engagement with authoritarian regimes such as Iran and Syria, not to mention close alliances with the kind of governments that rule Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

And in any case, America doesn't have the will or the power to remake the world in its image. It can best 'export' its values through example (soft power) - which is one of the reasons why it needs to close down Guantanamo prison camp - and through diplomatic engagement, global trade and the exchange of ideas.

Hence, Mr Obama's rejection of the notion that there is an inevitable 'clash' between the West and Islam - the two, as he explained, are not monolithic entities - and his emphasis on the need to deal and resolve real issues. This includes the US occupation of Iraq and the plight of the Palestinians as well as Palestinian terrorism and Iran's seeming desire to develop nuclear capability.

There is nothing idealistic or dreamy about Mr Obama's goals in the Middle East or in other parts of the world, such as his interest in improving relationships with China and Russia. It is a vast improvement over the never-ending sermonising that characterised much of the Bush administration's attitude towards these countries.

The current US military build-up in Afghanistan and the more muscular approach towards Pakistan make it clear that Mr Obama is willing to apply military power when necessary - but not as the first option to achieve American interests and not as a means to launch ideological crusades.

That doesn't mean of course that Mr Obama is likely to achieve all or even most of his foreign policy goals. Much will depend on the ability of the president and his aides to ensure that their costly objectives match up with available US power resources.

That is the kind of exercise that was rarely tried by Mr Bush and his neocons, and explains why Mr Obama is being forced now to clean up the horrible mess that his predecessor had made.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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