After nearly a year in office for President Barack Obama, we are now in a position to fairly judge his direction on foreign policy.
We can’t entirely separate this analysis from domestic policy, which obviously has taken up the majority of our new president’s time. But nor can a fair-minded observer dismiss any perceived shortcomings in foreign policy by simply invoking our ongoing domestic difficulties.
The question: Has Obama been the transformational figure he promised to be? As a longtime observer of foreign affairs, and as a former military man (U.S. Army, 1990-94), I’m forced to conclude that the answer is a resounding no. Obama has generally followed George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda, in action if not in rhetoric or tone.
Nearly everyone — in the United States and abroad — has applauded Obama’s intelligence, style and clarity, a marked improvement from our former president’s oratorical shortcomings. However, it is, in my view, even worse to have an eloquent president issuing remarkable speeches on foreign policy while still following a damaging course of action, than having an ineloquent president following a damaging course of action. The lofty rhetoric from our new president is now simply obscuring the fact that the United States is still following a regressive foreign policy agenda.
Before I describe in detail why I am so concerned, a few words of praise are in order. The most important change Obama has ordered: trying suspected 9/11 terrorists in federal courts rather than military tribunals. This is a major step in adopting a law enforcement paradigm approach to terrorism instead of a war paradigm. It is little known that the United States is not officially at war because Congress has issued no declaration of war. Accordingly, a law enforcement paradigm is the appropriate approach.
Second, despite the fact that it’s easy to pooh-pooh or mock drug legalization efforts, Obama’s acquiescence to Mexico’s legalization of a number of drugs is a major step (Bush strongly objected to previous attempts by Mexico to legalize drugs). Mexico’s drug war, and the nascent spillover of the war into our country, is based almost entirely on the illegal drug trade. By legalizing drugs, Mexico is going in the right direction for ending its growing civil war, in which more than 10,000 people have died in the past two years, many in horrific mass murders and torture.
For the United States to do its part to reduce drug-related crime, Obama should strongly consider decriminalization or legalization of marijuana and other drugs.
Beyond these two examples, there’s a lot not to like in Obama’s first-year foreign policy actions, including:
» Escalating the war in Afghanistan, with two troop surges in one year (21,000 earlier this year and another 30,000 by next summer)
» Escalating the war in Pakistan, with a remarkable increase in illegal drone strikes. This is war by video-game remote control with no accountability for who is actually targeted because there is no one on the ground to confirm who was actually killed.
» Endorsing the Honduran post-coup November election, which occurred months after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from his house in pajamas and exiled
» Continuing the Bush policy of not joining the international land mine ban treaty, which has been joined by the vast majority of nations
» Continuing the Bush policy on executive privilege to shield major decisions from the public eye
» Backing away from earlier calls for Israel to halt all settlement activity in the occupied territories (the first President Bush was far more bold in actually withholding some of the massive funding the United States provides to Israel as a response to Israel’s intransigence; Obama hasn’t even threatened this course of action)
» Continuing the decades-long embargo on Cuba, which has been manifestly ineffective and actually props up the continuing Castro regime
» Expanding the military budget in a time of massive economic strife
And many others …
Obama doesn’t have the luxury of explaining his actions on foreign policy as a response to an intransigent Republican minority. To the contrary, on most foreign policy issues, Obama has practically unilateral authority (with advise and consent from the Senate) to impose his will.
Republicans did not and could not prevent Obama from ordering an immediate drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. To the contrary, a majority of Americans and members of Congress supported an immediate drawdown. It was his choice to take the hawkish alternative to escalate the war.
It is actually unsurprising that Obama has followed a right-of-center foreign policy because he chose a right-wing foreign policy team. From Jim Jones, a Republican, as national security advisor, and Robert Gates, a Republican, as defense secretary, to Hillary Clinton, an often hawkish Democrat, as secretary of state, and centrist U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice (who advocated non-United Nations-sanctioned strikes against Sudan), Obama’s foreign policy team is almost uniformly right wing or centrist. So the term “Bush-lite” is quite fair.
What should Obama be doing? He should be following through on his pledge not only to end the Iraq war but to “end the mind-set that got us into the war.” Despite our many contributions to the world, the United States has for more than 100 years too often played the militaristic aggressor, with often little difference between Republican and Democratic administrations.
Many books detail this history, but one in particular merits widespread consideration: Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow. The book describes the 14 U.S.-led coups since our first, in Hawaii, in 1893. The United States has been involved in many more coups than 14, but we have taken the lead in at least 14. This has to end.
If we are to live up to our ideals and truly help lead the world into this new century, we need a radical revision of our assumptions about the acceptable use of violence and military force.
— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney.