Monday, April 20, 2009


For some reason, Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post thinks that after a mere three months the White House should reexamine its foreign policy.
Obama is not the first president to discover that facile changes in U.S. policy don't crack long-standing problems. Some of his new strategies may produce results with time. Yet the real test of an administration is what it does once it realizes that the quick fixes aren't working.
There must be something in the water in DC that keeps the pundit class falling into the same short-term thinking that exacerbated the current economic situation. Diehl writes of the longevity of the foreign policy problems facing the US as if the discovery that they're old is somehow new.

North Korea has been a problem for 60 - count'em, sixty - years now. The current situation is merely one turn in a relationship never good, frequently very bad and once dissolved into open war. The behaviour pattern of that government has been unpleasant, but predictable. Showing surprise - genuine or not - that regime would immediately display bad behaviour on the world stage regardless of what tactic the US chose to deal with it is rather like reading a recipe for a Manwich and discovering that there aren't any humans listed as ingredients: this is North Korea's typical behaviour toward the outside and has been for decades. Assuming that a mere three months of less strident rhetoric would have instant effect is uninformed to say the least.

Likewise with Diehl's other examples in Russia, Iran and the Middle East. The mock surprise Diehl presents imply a belief in the near-magical capacity of the "newest President" to change world opinion and international dynamics, whether he ascribes to such or not. Each of those problems is at least generational in duration, and require patience and persistence to address.

Diehl, to his credit, doesn't overtly subscribe to the idea that all international issues can be addressed within 100 days. But the subtitle to his article - "What happens when the president can no longer blame Bush for international strife?" - clearly indicates an acceptance of that concept, and the fact that he feels he actually has to describe the foreign policy challenges facing the US in 2009 as predating 2000 is facile if not downright foolish.

The Korean question is at least generational. Relations with Russia span the entire history of the US and modern Europe, and can be traced back well over a millennium. As for the Middle East, regardless of any comparatively recent development, that region has been a hotbed of sectarianism, unrest and war as long as there has been recorded history, and archaeological evidence points to a similar pattern thousands of years previous to the first writing. None of these problems will be solved overnight.

Further, the US has two great additional problems on the global stage in 2009. We have eight years' recent history of ineffective if not downright counterproductive foreign and domestic policy, and we have an economic crisis which has diminshed the US' primary weapon - trade - in the diplomatic sphere. Neither of these problems is any more likely to have been solved by now than the foreign relations they complicate.

The the US the world saw from 2000 through 2008 was a nation little interested in its principles and more concerned with its reach. Human rights advocates overseas learned quick and bitter lessons about pointing to the United States as an example for their own nations as the US proceeded down a narrow, theologically-inspired and injury-driven "good v. evil" path to foreign and social policy. As the costs and consequences of that direction mounted the US lost global credibility: as a military giant through becoming bogged down in a war launched on questionable grounds with a third-rate military power; as a defender of human rights through its regressive domestic policies toward women and the poor, and most shockingly toward the fighters it captured; and as an economic giant as ever more production capacity was shunted elsewhere and as bubble after economic bubble popped and decimated the nation's wealth. The prestige and perceived might of the US shrank noticeably during those years, and foreign powers are learning that they can assert themselves on the global stage and not face the just wrath of a US-led West. That they can do this is partly a measure of their own strength relative to the US' position and partly because the US squandered whatever justification it had in wielding that strength.

The Japanese, when they considered war with the US at the beginning of World War Two, were hesitant - not because the US had a formidable military machine at the outset, but because the US had the capacity to build one, and build it quickly. As the war progressed they learned that this hesitation was well-founded. It was not the "strong military" the Conservatists tout so often that defeated Japan and Germany in 1945: it was the unmatched productivity the US could muster, coupled with the will to employ it.

As late perhaps as 1980 that productivity remained unaltered. But the last three decades have seen industry do everything in its power to eliminate the most basic foundation of the US economy in the name of Efficiency and short term profit. The steel industry has been savaged along with most commodity-based businesses, the semiconductor industry that powered so much of early high-tech growth has been farmed out to Asia, the intellectual capital associated with industry has been sent overseas or re-imported as foreign professionals working for US business, and the earning power - and therefore inherent wealth - of the average US citizen has declined. When the GWoT was announced, rather than suggest that the nation needed to put its shoulder to the wheel and get the job done, the then White House urged the nation to shop. Left with little means to prop up its standard of living, the nation bet its very homes on both the premise that we could buy our way (with cheap imported products) to victory and the concept that such capital would always be available to us. Now we are losing our homes from having overbought and undersaved, and the value we counted on is much more than gone.

Even if the US is capable of rebuilding its net worth, it will takes years or perhaps decades to resume its place at the pinnacle of industrial might and unspent potential. It is this potential that has given the US leverage over its adversaries through its history. Now, without it, it is hardly surprising that the US' position on the global stage is diminished, and that others are stepping into the void our implosion created.

In turn, the tendency of recent memory has been to view international affairs through the lens of the corporate executive. As US business increasingly focuses on the next fiscal quarter and year, the economic approach has become increasingly myopic. The industrial focus on the short-term should by now have been thoroughly discredited, as giants from Enron to Lehmann to GM have been brutally chastened for looking after their share prices and quarterly forecasts more than their product. Short-term efficiencies have robbed the US of a key engine of recovery: the ability to produce our way out of recession. Likewise, in the political sphere the assumption that our voice (having been based on this massive economic engine we have proceeded to dismantle) is loudest is running into the harsh reality that Europe is now as wealthy as the US and at least as egalitarian and supportive of human rights, that China produces more and has the capacity to produce much more than that, and that even the smallest regional power is becoming unafraid of us simply because we no longer have the moral high ground or industrial capacity to outmatch them. In addition we have a popular impression if not an outright foreign policy advocacy based on the idea that what the US does today will influence the world tomorrow: there is no short-term advance in international affairs, only the long slow application of influence and the ultimate gradual capitulation to demand. That there have been setbacks registered as quickly as they have does not mean that progress can be achieved anything like as quickly. Yet somehow the punditocracy fails to see that advantage cannot be achieved on the global stage according to the accountant's calendar.

Again, none of these issues are new. But the unhappy synergy of the timing and ferocity of current setbacks has robbed the US of key foreign policy tools just when they are needed.

Reading back, it's quite possible that some British or French journalist was writing something remarkably similar in 1919. The Great War had ended, but the victors' domestic economies were in shambles and their empires mortgaged to the hilt to pay for the struggle. The cause of nationalism had been suddenly and loudly challenged by the Bolsheviks, and the brutality of trench warfare and the outdated strategies employed in the war had discredited both the military leadership and the class-based promotion system it followed. Europe was poor, exhausted, and facing a long hard road to rebuilding for peacetime. For the leadership, there was a new problem: a newly-powerful United States, lately come to the global stage and now wielding substantial industrial might and a very modern set of ideals: standing in the way of that juggernaut would be something not unlike suicide. But the US, having "won the war" was already packing up and heading home, leaving Europe to itself, so whether US ethics were palatable or not having to face them in order to gain US support was fast becoming a tolerable cost of an ideal but impossible prop.

Diehl suggests that the problems we are facing are not new, and that new approaches will not immediately yield results. This was good advice for our last president, who needed such lessons but little heeded them. The current White House should be very aware of them: indeed, the domestic political action of the first quarter indicates the Obama administration has a firm understanding of the long game and is prepared to play it and play it well, which ought to translate into the foreign policy sphere as it has in that of domestic policy.

Diehl's article also implies that the same bad choices are on the table now as in 2001. Demonisation of North Korea and Iran, however, was no more appropriate than welcome of Russia into US good graces based on some nebulous warm fuzziness between the US leader and Russia's: both the harsh words and the soft ones proved unfounded. The prior administration was apparently willing to base policy on personal relations between the president and foreign leaders: already the current administration has consciously avoided doing such, so at least that mistake will likely not be repeated.

Diehl's presumption that the Obama administration is able to blame all these ills on its predecessor is also facile, for the reasons I have stated. Bush certainly didn't create the animosity between the US and North Korea, between Sunni and Shia, between Palestinian and Israeli, or any of the other conflicts where the US has been at least interested. But hyperbolic, oversimplified grandstanding on the global stage, coupled at once with military adventurism questionable in both its incitement and consequence, with multiple economic collapses left essentially untended and with the implementation of narrow partisan ideology as national policy has certainly diminished US effectiveness. Those failures can and should be laid at Bush's feet.

The great tragedy of the matter is that in no sphere will doing so produce immediate results beyond the shocked recognition, from any conservative with a conscience, of the Orwellian state they allowed to flourish. The US' influence on the environmental and humanitarian stages will take years if not a generation to rebuild. The industrial clout may be gone for good. The military cudgel the US once wielded has taken a body blow, and the nation is not in any position to spend more on a Defense Department bloated by questionable weapons systems and both fattened by special provisions funding its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and sucked dry by the contractors required to support those activities. The various components that provided foundation and justification for US leadership on the global stage are in severe disrepair, and much blame for that can be attached to the policies - or lack thereof - of the last eight years. Merely announcing that those days are over, and that we now have a change of leadership, is not enough to alter either the frailty of the current US position on the global stage or the long-term policies and plans of other nations whose ideal results are still unknowable years or generations from now.

Yet once again, in Diehl we have a pundit writing what should be obvious: that history didn't start over with the the last election, that the short-term rarely produces gains on the international stage, and that not all the US' troubles are entirely the fault of the last president. In the last century or so there has been but one president who did not grasp that basic premise, and his term ended three months ago.

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