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Can Obama restore US credibility in international affairs?

Speaking softly and charming the socks off everyone is fine.  But when this strategy fails to turn wild and dangerous regimes into partners for peace and stability, what then? 

Firstly, without a big stick and the willingness to use it, friends can’t rely on you.  This means they are bound to make alternative arrangements – especially the weak ones and those nearer danger.  Two broad alternatives are possible for them: join an alliance against the danger or strike the best deal possible with it.   

Secondly, without a big stick and the willingness to use it, enemies don’t fear you.   This means they gain the confidence for hostile ventures because they can succeed and escape retribution – or think they can.   This means that weak leadership makes problems worse.  For example:

  1. i)    Weak responses from France and Britain to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland and his rearmament program led to the Austrian anschluss and then the takeover of Czechoslovakia.  That is, the lack of a decisive response encouraged Hitler’s belief that he could get away with it because the opposition to him was inconsequential.  At a later date, this massively raised the cost of reversing his aggression.
  2. ii) Weak US leadership in 1961, especially Kennedy’s disastrous meeting ‘without conditions’ with Khrushchev, which gave Khrushchev the confidence that rapidly led to the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin Wall and the war in Vietnam.

iii)   Initial unaware and disinterested British response to the Argentinean junta gave it the confidence that it was safe to occupy the Falkland Islands and led directly to the war.

  1. iv)   The weak response to Saddam’s threats to Kuwait fueled his belief that he could safely annex Kuwait, which led directly to the first Gulf War.
  2. v)   A weak international response allowed Hamas to take part in Palestinian elections 2006 – despite all democratic theory and all previous observations that democracy and armed militias don’t mix; despite Hamas being a genocidal, anti-Semitic terrorist organization committed to destroying a member state of the UN.  Result, Hamas went on to establish its dictatorship.

The essential problem with Obama’s leadership

In essence, US weakness creates uncertainty among friends.  At the same time, it creates hope and opportunities among enemies.  It tells them that they can get away with atrocious behavior and aggression.  

By contrast, whether leadership is nice or not, it’s supposed to lead somewhere.  But so far Obama’s international leadership is all in the wrong direction (see The Weakness of Obama’s International Leadership #1).  As a consequence, problems deteriorate.  This raises the stakes and raises the cost of eventually dealing with them.  In turn, this means that when decisive action is eventually undertaken, it does so in circumstances which are more difficult, dangerous and costly.

Can Obama Recover?

The big question is: will Obama get wise and get back on track to what America naturally does best:  obnoxiously convincing or cajoling friends and bullying or bribing enemies?  Friends can complain and can be relied upon in that department.  But so what?  That’s what they do best.  And US power provides them with the freedom to do it.

To a far greater extent than any known alternative, the exercise of US power has provided an absolutely crucial benefit to minimize international instability – reliability.  Friends have known they could rely on the US for protection – so their complaints are mainly postures.  Foes know that if they overplay their hand they would risk a whacking.  There is no other such effective mechanism 

As a result, friends stick closer and enemies are restrained.   With any other available method, foes get more confident and dangerous; friends get less friendly and reach the best deal they can with foes.  Everything gets worse.  The only question is, how much worse?

Who will suffer?

Unfortunately and predictably, with his ideological outlook to guide his international interventions, Obama now has zero credibility where it counts: among both friends and foes.  So how can he re-establish US leadership?   Is he up to it?   If not, who will suffer that wouldn’t have suffered otherwise?  And if he is up to it, what use of force will do the trick?   In other words, who will get hurt that otherwise wouldn’t have been?   

Crucially, what are the chances of this happening?  Well, it’s not looking good at the moment, that’s for sure.  My hopes for Obama are currently not high.  I think he may be far too ideological to be rapidly changed.  That is, his driving ideology may be too powerful.  If so, ever-worse crises will erupt.  But we’ll see.  Pressures on Obama will definitely mount at a similar rate to his mounting lack of success.  So the ideo-geo-political realities might pull him round. 

Obviously, this would disappoint his swooning fans who have placed vast amounts of totally unfounded emotion, faith, hope and trust in his ‘transformational leadership’.   But let’s hope Churchill was right when he said, “You can always trust the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve first tried the alternatives”

Transforming the transformational leader

Far from solving problems as promised, Obama’s ideological convictions are getting him into a bigger mess.  His entire reading of international relations is a dud.  In all essentials, he’s clueless and drifting.

This is why he is ineffective and unreliable.  This makes him dangerous.   Obama’s ineffectiveness isn’t necessarily because he’s a nasty guy.  I’ve no idea whether he is or not – he certainly appears charming.  The snag is Chamberlain was charming.  It wasn’t enough then and it isn’t enough now (see The Weakness of Obama’s International Leadership #2 ). 

Chamberlain & Obama

But there are huge differences between Chamberlain and Obama.  These are mainly to Chamberlain’s credit.  He had no substantial ideological, political or moral differences with Churchill.   For example, he proposed making re-armament a theme in the election of 1935 but was overruled by Baldwin.  Another example is that Churchill had no problem slotting him into the war cabinet.  A third example is the glowing appreciation Churchill wrote when Chamberlain had to resign through ill-health (he died shortly afterwards). 

So Chamberlain’s appeasement was quite different to Obama’s.  Chamberlain had a big, big logistic problem with the prospective of having to decide where or how Britain could possibly fight in 3 zones at once (the north Atlantic and Europe, the Med, and the Far East).  This was beyond him, or anyone else, so he attempted to put off a decision until events forced one on him.  Churchill realized much earlier that the main enemy had to be fought in Europe.  So India and the Aussies etc would have to fend for themselves as best they could with less than decisive British forces until the main enemy could somehow be beaten.

Like Chamberlain, Obama is faced with a lot of challenges in several zones.  It’s hard to fight all these at once, especially in an economic crisis where allies refuse to help out (they’ve got used to the idea of a more or less free-ride on US protection).  It’s even harder when you willfully weaken yourself and abdicate from using your strengths.

What is Obama’s exit strategy?

The really dangerous thing is that unlike Chamberlain in relation to Churchill, Obama has serious ideological and political inhibitions about the use of US power abroad and apparently no understanding at all of the geo-political (or ideological forces) at work that produce conflict (essentially, why can’t everyone just get along and be nice to each other?). 

But apart from his reluctance to exercise US power and rely on charm, what is left of his transformational alternative?   Remember how all the surrender-monkeys used to ask President George W Bush what his ‘exit strategy‘ was over Iraq?  Well, exactly the same question can be put to Obama.  Having got nowhere with charm, what then?

What to do when charm fails?

Here’s the answer: Kennedy initially tried the charm offensive briefly with Khrushchev.    When this was a disaster, Kennedy recovered fast by confronting Khrushchev over the Cuban missiles and sending troops to Vietnam.  In short, the risks and costs were massively escalated.   To put it another way, the price of niceness was high.  Reagan also used charm.  But he also had nukes ready and Star Wars in his back pocket – or at least the Soviets believed he had.  In other words, what Kennedy and Reagan had in common was that they spoke softly and carried a big stick.

The point is that a big stick is useless unless friends and foes believe it will be used.  As a result, it doesn’t usually have to be used much.  But Obama’s credibility with the decision-makers in the international arena is shot.  His mild admonishments to Iran of “consequences”(!) doesn’t get anyone pissing their pants.  So I reckon he will have to demonstrate a substantial commitment to use US power and probably provide a serious demonstration of power in order to get credibility back.  If so, the prime candidate as a target will probably be Iran’s nuclear facilities.   

Mistaking goodwill for expertise

In the meantime, because Obama’s views minimize the ideo-geo-political forces at work and the need for the US to throw its weight around, he mistakes his goodwill for expertise.  At the same time, he mistakes niceness for diplomatic skill.  These delusions make the world a much more dangerous place than it need be.  The conclusion is inevitable: charm alone will fail.  Without an early and favourable change of regime in Iran to rescue the situation, we are left with the question if and when Obama will comprehend the realities of international power-politics.  Does he have the ability?   Finding out the answer is going to be nerve-wracking.  

How Israel comes out of this is hard to say.   But if Obama doesn’t buck up fast and exert US power, the international bad guys will believe he’s handed them a brilliant free gift on a plate – the monopoly of the use of force.  Friends of the US will think the same.

Jon Dyson

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