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Passing the buck: a foreign policy Update

Stephen Walt is calling Barak Obama a buck passer when it comes to foreign policy. Is this a criticism in a country where presidents are supposed to announce "the buck stops here!" or is it, as Walt argues, a sound policy that has been undermined by what he consider "self-inflicted wounds" in Afghanistan and Iraq?Walt writes: "[Obama] is a buck passer. And despite my objections to some of what he has done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position."He goes on, "the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force)." Read it here.So what do you unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists think?UPDATE: Apropos of a discussion about Libya in the comments below, take a look at the David Brooks column today in the NYTimes. In defending Victoria Nuland, State Dept. spokesperson, in the Benghazi matter, Brooks points out how much this was a CIA operation for which the State Dept. is taking the hit. Interesting, if true.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Best article on all-round foreign policy I've read in years. Thanks, Ms. S.I agree that the drone policy's morality needs to be thought through, and the policy definitely needs some limitations. But war is not what it used to be, and the whole world needs to recognize that fact.

Margaret - would Libya, in which we 'led from behind' or some such, be consonant with this thesis?

@Jim Pauwels - Margaret can speak for herself, but it seems to me that it would. As I recall, France had the most immediate self-interest (among Western powers) at stake. The French government feared a humanitarian disaster leading to tens of thousands of Libyans fleeing across the Mediterranean to ask for asylum in France.From a distance it sure looked like President Obama said (not in so many words), "If it's that important to you, then you put "boots on the ground". As your ally we'll provide support (air force, logistics, CIA, etc.)."

Obama is not an isolationist nor is he a libertarian a la Ron Paul. As far as not being involved, or Obama not being engaged, this is a half truth. For example, there have been more drone strikes used in the "war on terror" than before. Commonweal commented on this earlier. There have also been clandestine operations. I read that part of what occurred in Benghazi was that the US consulate in Benghazi was arranging, through Libya, arms to be transferred from the military installation in Libya, through intermediaries, to the Syrian resistance. This by the way, if anyone is at all interested, is illegal and is what landed Reagan in hot water in the entire Iran-Contra affair.That aside, I am more on the Ron Paul side of the divide when it comes to US involvement in foreign affairs. I guess that makes me a crypto-libertarian. I rarely, if ever, hear Democrats talking this way.

"Led from behind?" It would seem so if we fully know yet how all of that worked. France and England were in the forefront of wanting action but I suspect it was the U.S. that lent most of the force--airplanes for no-fly zones, ships for taking foreigners to safety etc. And as we see in the current brouhaha in Congress over the Benghazi affair, the State Department (covering I think for the CIA) played an active role in delivering arms and equipment to the rebels and then afterward tried to negotiate stabilization, which is what I think Ambassador Christopher Stevens was doing when he was killed. But the lesson of Libya is being played out in Syria and so I take it that the lesson learned is lie low, or as Walt says, Passing the buck to others, mostly in this case the Gulf nations plus Jordan and Turkey. For the Syrian opposition, I would speculate, the lesson learned from Libya was start the fight, advertize the atrocities, and the rest of the world will come to your rescue. Hasn't happened. I think Obama's caution should prove salutary to future revolutionists, but he may pay a high price in attacks from the like of McCain, Graham and, as Walt writes, "unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists."

Every time I hear someone say Obama has failed to "provide leadership" in Libya or Syria or Mali or wherever, I'm grateful for his leadership. Admitting that his drone dependency is the Achilles heel of his low-cost foreign policy, it nevertheless remains true that little has cost more American blood and treasure than the presidential quest for legacy through world leadership. Enough. Often I think Obama's most important legacy will not be healthcare or the drawdown in Iraq, finally putting some boundaries on the imperial presidency. As much in his dealings with Congress as in foreign policy questions he has abandoned the president-as-Caesar model that says we must demand that the president should lead in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in every nook of the globe. I suppose this is a terrible disappointment to neocons and Wilsonians. But we've seen where their way leads.

Obama's foreign policy must be understood through the lens of Niebuhr and the inherited overreach and alienation. Niebuhr ,not simply in the need to recognize and confront evil but in also recognizing the limits of American power

Here's some speculation on my part. Vietnam and post-Vietnam, 1965-1980, were a time of serious reflection on foreign policy and on U.S. practices, especially the CIA in Latin America primarily, but elsewhere as well. Lessons learned included military over-reach, political lies, and intelligence rearrangements to suit military and political needs. Some reforms were enacted (the Church Committee, 1975) and the CIA in particular was reined in. Those lessons were repudiated by Reagan and Bush II; Clinton hesitated over Bosnia perhaps because he remembered those lessons. Now we have a president who came of age in the 70-80s (he was born in 1961). Perhaps he remembers discussion about those lessons especially as an undergrad. Add to that a special awareness that African-Americans were disproportionately killed and maimed in Vietnam. The Obamas have both made a distinct out reach to veterans and their families. When members of both parties remembered those lessons, through the Carter years, the U.S. had more modest foreign policy goals. The Reagan Administration stoked the anti-Communist fires and the Republican forgot those lessons. In time, the Democrats responded to Republican charges that they were weak on defense and forgot the lessons as well. Okay, wild speculation!

A supplement to your wild speculation:The 60s and 70s saw the rise of the Third World. We look back and see the conflict between the 1 st and 2nd world, the West and the Soviets, or even the US and the Soviets, with the 3rd world as a battleground for those 2. But in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the issue was colonialism and imperialism. That is the context for "leading from behind" rather than imposing our policies by decree.Even wilder!

I think Stephen Walt is onto something meaningful with his "buck passer" tag to describe Obama in his approach to foreign policy. This president has wisely chosen to pass on hasty commitments of new legions of American boots on the ground-style interventions in the cases of Libya, Iran and Syria. This approach has demonstrated welcome restraint without appreciable apparent damage so far to national security, especially following close upon Bush's headlong rushes into battle accompanied with merely token troop/financial commitments from allies, sending sizeable numbers of our troops and treasure straight into the quicksands of multiyear quagmires. These precipitous campaigns have ultimately mostly served to drain the US of blood, treasure and international respect without bringing appreciable improvements in living condition or other mission objectives to benefit the Iraqis or Afghans, the folks we allegedly rushed across the globe to help. What folly! As for the cheapskate connotation of "buck passing," I say that it's about time that the US insist that other allied nations bear their fair proportionate shares of the various burdens of policing international crises.

On the buck passing theme: Bracket the successful U.S./Nato invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to get Al Qaeda and don't bracket our useless occupation of the country since: Why isn't Afghanistan a bigger issue for Iran, Pakistan, China, and all of the other Stans than for us and for NATO?

Applying Occam's razor, my sense is Obama's shift is that it has less to do with ideology and vision than it does for pragmatic analysis of capacity and cost. The US literally cannot afford the military industrial complex any more. That is the simplest, and therefore, probably truest explanation.

It seems to me that whichever party is in power at the moment - Democrats or Republicans - receive dinero from the military-industrial complex. Until the Dems took control of the senate in 2006, they hollered routinely hollered on about Iraq and no-bid contracts. Once they got hold of the reins, they went silent.Gitmo is still trundling along and president Obama has ordered more drone strikes than Bush dreamed of. Indeed, those in power now are busily setting about setting the stage for drones hovering all over the USA. Drone salesmen (and eventually, drone contractors and drone training schools) no doubt are dreaming of (banking on) incredible profits.As a Republican, I tend towards isolationism, or at least on trying to keep our focus on our own hemisphere. The thing is some party ought to put America first, and let places like Syria resolve their own problems.

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