Obama yet to show vision, courage for right policies

Business Times - 05 Apr 2011

Obama yet to show vision, courage for right policies


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama's response to Libya's civil strife has been hailed as a masterpiece of pragmatism, based on lucid cost-benefit analysis of American interests and values and the resources available to advance them.

From that 'Obama-is-Pragmatic' perspective, the president concluded that core US strategic interests were not at stake in Libya and decided that, together with members of an effective international coalition, Washington would support a 'time-limited, scope-limited military action' aimed at averting the massacre of civilians in Libya.

There was, indeed, something refreshing in a US president who, unlike his predecessor, insisted that the intervention in Libya wasn't the prelude to the making of either a grand strategy or a new ideological crusade that would help Washington control the upheaval in the Middle East. Instead of trying to remake the Middle East or even pretend that it could control developments there, 'No-Doctrine Obama' would apparently evaluate each crisis in the region on the basis of the particular local and regional conditions and examine their potential to affect US interests, and make his decisions case by case: behind-the-scene diplomacy in Egypt or missile and air strikes aka 'No-War' in Libya. What about the anti-government unrest in Syria or Jordan or Bahrain or even Saudi Arabia? Well, we'll cross the bridge when we'll get there.

Indeed, while neoconservative pundits have described Mr Obama's address on Libya as 'Kennedy-esque', comedian John Stewart's paraphrasing of John F Kennedy's inaugural address seemed to be more fitting. 'Let the word go forth that from this day forward, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, up to a certain point, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty, subject, of course, to steely eyed pragmatic assessment of what we in the business would call the pros and cons of doing so.'

Advocates of pragmatism in the service of foreign policy do warn decision-makers of falling into the trap of rigid dogmas that make it difficult to identify the nuances of each international development. Hence, American presidents applying narrow Cold War doctrines ended up attaching the labels 'communist' and 'pro-Soviet' to a generation of nationalist leaders in the Third World, an approach that ended up drawing the US into several military quagmires, including in Vietnam.

At the same time, by trying to construct an all-encompassing doctrine to deal with the threat of international terrorism posed by the imaginary Islamofascism, former president George W Bush created the conditions for a series of strategic fiascos in the Middle East, including the Iraq War. So it wasn't too much to expect that Mr Obama, who had inherited his predecessor's interventionist policies in the Middle East and elsewhere and pledged to reverse them during his election campaign, would start drawing an outline of an alternative strategy, explaining what exactly are US interests in the Middle East and how he was planning to advance them. Instead, he has held a series of media events in the form of televised addresses to Middle Eastern audiences and has made a series of adjustments to the Bush agenda.

As demonstrated in the way he made his decision to increase the troop level in Afghanistan or for that matter, his management of global trade policies, Mr Obama's modus operandi reflects a lack of broad strategic vision and the pursuit of incrementalism. Pressure from powerful political, bureaucratic players, and interest groups end up determining the parameters of the final outcome.

Incrementalism and appeasing political allies can sometimes be applied successfully to managing policy. But when confronting major policy issues, a president should do more than make ad hoc decisions in response to pressures and without having a coherent strategy to guide him or her.

That the US is now being sucked into a tribal war in Libya by a president who was bulldozed into military action by the 'humanitarian interventionists' in his administration in the name of supporting a bunch of 'rebels' who may or may not have ties to Al-Qaeda is a dramatic manifestation of what could be the shape of things to come as more governments in the Middle East are finding themselves under attack at home and the Obama administration comes under pressure to 'do something'.

While Mr Obama has proven to be quite successful in terms of managing the policymaking process, he has yet to demonstrate that he has the vision and the courage to make the right policies. He seems to be allowing the process to shape the substance of his policies. And that could prove to be the not-most-pragmatic thing to do.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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