Tag Archives: President Obama

The Senate and the Politics of US Foreign Policy

An interesting exchange took place between Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) today. Senator Rubio challenged Secretary Kerry on the question of Iran and how the US strategy in dealing with ISIS, and Secretary Kerry pushed back. The United States is currently engaged in negotiation with Iran in an effort to prevent it from securing a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the United States and Iran share a desire to weaken the position of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

US foreign policy on both questions were complicated earlier this week when 47 Republican Senators wrote an open letter to Iran’s hardline government warning them that any agreement with the United States would need to be approved by the Senate. Iran’s Foreign Minister dismissed the letter as a “propaganda ploy” while Vice President Joe Biden decried the letter as an attempt to “undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations” and “beneath the dignity [of the Senate].”

The most recent exchange between Secretary Kerry and Senator Rubio highlight the ongoing tensions between the Obama White House and the Republican-controlled Senate over US foreign policy, and suggest that foreign policy may be a central point of debate in the 2016 Presidential elections.

What do you think? Do recent efforts by Republican Senators to affect the outcome of US negotiations with Iran undermine the effectiveness of President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives? Has the Senate overstepped traditional boundaries in US foreign policy? Are the right to attempt to limit the White House’s autonomy in this area? And how would you address the situation if you were a Senator?

President Obama’s Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama last week delivered a speech at West Point outlining his vision of US foreign policy that would be increasingly reliant on diplomacy and public institutions, and less quick to resort to the use of force. The President noted that the major challenges to US interests abroad are likely to be regional conflicts like those in Syria and Ukraine that, because of the scope of interests involved, are unlikely to be effectively resolved through the use of force alone. “”American leadership in the 21st century,” the President observed, “is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.”

The President also noted that two of his primary policy concerns to address before leaving office are closing the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ensuring legal checks are in place to ensure that the US drone program avoids civilian casualties and protects privacy.



An Atrocities Prevention Board: Useful Tool or Farce?

President Obama at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. last week, President Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board.  This interagency body (with members from the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and others) is designed to monitor situations that could lead to mass atrocities and recommend timely actions to prevent escalation.  This announcement drew swift and scathing responses from a variety of critics.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, in an article called “While Syria Burns,” argued that the Obama administration talks tough on preventing atrocities but has stood idly by as 9,000 Syrians have been killed.  He calls the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board “embarrassing,” and suggests it is an excuse for inaction: “I kid you not. A board. Russia flies plane loads of weapons to Damascus. Iran supplies money, trainers, agents, more weapons. And what does America do? Supports a feckless U.N. peace mission that does nothing to stop the killing. (Indeed, some of the civilians who met with the peacekeepers were summarily executed.) And establishes an Atrocities Prevention Board.”

Another critic, realist scholar Stephen Walt, argues that the board is problematic for three reasons: (1) it will increase the likelihood that the U.S. will get involved in more unwise and costly interventions in an effort to be the “global police,” (2) it will do nothing about the core strategic problems that prevent states from intervening in humanitarian crises, and (3) it helps perpetuate the myth that the U.S. has clean hands and should be judging others’ behavior when it has been responsible for atrocities in the past.

But Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Center for Preventive Action argues in a response to Walt that the Atrocities Prevention Board has the potential both to prevent genocide and to reduce the likelihood of costly U.S. intervention abroad:

“The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don’t get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn’t even a side-show for policymakers; it was a “no show” in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake…

Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda?  Simply put: No.  As the board’s title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.”

Who makes a more persuasive case: the advocates of an Atrocities Prevention Board or its critics?  Are we kidding ourselves that this board can actually make a difference, or does it have the potential to be a useful policy tool that saves lives, saves money, and stops budding conflicts from escalating into the worst kinds of atrocities?

Realism, Idealism, and the fate of Chen Guangcheng

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng with his wife and son in 2005.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer, made a daring escape from house arrest this week and somehow made it to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he now sits.  This will make for an uncomfortable visit to China later this week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they meet Chinese officials in a “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”  As explained in this New York Times analysis, the politics of this case are complex and militate against an easy solution for several reasons: (1) President Obama is under domestic political pressure in his reelection campaign to show toughness on China, (2) the Obama administration has praised Mr. Chen as a human rights leader, making it difficult to simply hand him over to the Chinese authorities, (3) moderate Chinese officials are under pressure from hardliners who will likely claim this incident is part of a U.S.-driven conspiracy to embarrass China, and (4) China’s economic and military rise has given its leaders greater self-confidence in dealing with America than at any time in recent memory.

Beyond these broad political constraints, Mr. Chen’s fate will depend on whether the Obama administration is more willing to act according to realism or idealism.  These opposing approaches to world politics emphasize very different priorities and methods.  For realists, the national interest (defined largely in terms of economic and military power) reigns supreme, and issues like human rights, the environment, and economic development are frequently viewed as an unnecessary distraction unless they directly affect the national interest in some way.  For idealists, these “values” issues should not be crowded out by national interests, narrowly defined, since we live in a global village and cannot divorce ourselves from the fate of other human beings.

Realist presidents like Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush have been willing to downplay Chinese human rights violations because a stable security and trade relationship with the rising Asian power is seen as vital to America’s national interests.  Presidents with stronger idealist inclinations, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have decried the subordination of human rights to crass material self-interest but when in power have frequently pursued policies not much different from their realist counterparts.  If the Obama administration (which has shown some evidence of both realist and idealist tendencies at different times) chooses to focus on America’s economic and security interests, Mr. Chen may very well find himself back in the hands of Chinese authorities before long.  If, on the other hand, their concern for human rights (or fear of the domestic political costs of “caving” to China) is sufficiently strong, a prolonged standoff with China could result–with serious implications for the U.S.-China relationship.

What do you think?  Should the U.S. return Mr. Chen to Chinese custody?  What are the consequences of doing so?  Of refusing to do so?  Do you expect the Obama administration to act according to the dictates of realism or idealism in this case, and why?

Second-Term Presidents, Flexibility, and Obama’s Open-Microphone Moment

Oops...Presidents Obama and Medvedev didn't realize a "hot microphone" was recording their words during a sensitive exchange at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in late March 2012.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as when a politician tells the truth. On his recent trip to Seoul, President Obama was overheard (by an open microphone) making comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he no doubt intended to keep secret. In discussing nuclear arms control, Obama asked that the following message be relayed to incoming president Vladimir Putin:

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

A wide range of commentators, from conservative critics to left-leaning Jon Stewart, criticized the president for acting as if the American people and democratic elections were simply an impediment to his agenda.  But was he (as Michael Kinsley might argue) simply telling the truth?  Are presidents who no longer have to stand for reelection unconstrained by public opinion and able to finally act according to their own policy preferences?

Tufts professor Daniel Drezner says this bit of conventional wisdom is wrong.  He points out that presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all pursued policies that departed from their ideological “type” in their second terms (e.g., Reagan compromising with the Soviets, Clinton using force without UN approval, and Bush pursuing less aggressive and more multilateral policies toward “rogue states”).   Drezner thinks these shifts can be explained by the moderating influence of facing reality: “I’d argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than domestic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one’s personal ideology and embracing new ideas.”  In short, Drezner believes that the foreign policy powers of the executive branch in the U.S. system (both constitutionally granted and accrued over time) allow presidents to act relatively unconstrained throughout their presidencies.

Stephen Walt disagrees.  In a blog post entitled “How our election cycle screws up our foreign policy,” the Harvard professor and noted realist argues that presidents are actually constrained by domestic politics in unhealthy ways throughout their presidencies–but especially during the two years preceding the next presidential election.  Between fundraising, campaigning, and presidential primaries, two years of a four year term are filled with analysis, speculation, and preparation for the next election.  Walt shows that the American choice of a short presidential term and a long election process is unusual, cross-nationally:

“Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren’t unusual. But I can’t think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.”

Walt discusses a variety of problems America’s peculiar election cycle produces, most notably the tendency for presidents to cater to interest groups and the opportunity for foreign actors to take advantage of our domestic politics to further their own agendas.  If Walt is correct, then Obama was just telling the truth: the year or so leading up to the election is the period in which presidents will be least likely to step out and take controversial actions, while the beginning of a term is the time when the president enjoys the most latitude.

What do you think?  How constrained is the U.S. president in the realm of foreign policy?  If President Obama is reelected, do you expect him to act more liberal or conservative, more dovish or hawkish, than he did in his first term, and why?

Free Trade, Neo-Mercantilism, and the “Rules” of International Trade

President Obama shakes hands in the Oval Office with Xi Jinping, the current Vice President (and presumptive next President) of China.

President Obama welcomed Xi Jinping, China’s “president in waiting,” to the White House this week for a high profile visit.  Obama warned the visiting leader that China must play by the rules of international trade, a comment reflecting American concerns about Chinese currency manipulation, intellectual property transgressions, and other barriers to free trade.  But economic analyst Clyde Prestowitz questions the wisdom of Obama’s “lecture” in his latest blog post:

“It sounded right and fair and slightly tough as it was carefully crafted to do by top White House political advisers, and the president may even believe it. But he shouldn’t have said it.”

Why shouldn’t Obama have criticized China for not playing by the rules?  Prestowitz argues that there are no universally agreed upon rules for international trade; rather, there are (at least) two different games being played simultaneously, by different actors, with different sets of rules.  Some states embrace economic liberalism, or free-market capitalism, which emphasizes comparative advantage, free trade, and limited government intervention in economic affairs.  Others–particularly those who are not benefiting from the trend toward greater globalization and free trade–favor mercantilist policies, which emphasize national wealth and the protection of domestic industries from foreign competition through tariffs and other trade barriers.  Prestowitz spells out which parts of the world are playing each game: 

“The global economy is, in fact, sharply divided between those who are playing the free trade game and those who are playing some form of mercantilism. Of course, there is a spectrum of attitudes and policies, but roughly speaking the Anglo/American countries, North America, and parts of Europe are playing free trade. Most of Asia, much of South America, the Middle East, Germany and parts of Europe are playing neo-mercantilism. It’s like watching tennis players trying to play a game with football players. It doesn’t work, and insisting on playing by the rules doesn’t help, because both sets of teams are playing by the rules — of their game.”

What do you think?  Are America and Europe really playing by their own rules of free trade?  Is free trade or mercantilism (or some combination of the two) a better approach for achieving prosperity?  Does America have the right to tell China how to play the game of international trade?

When Doves are More Aggressive Than Hawks (and Vice Versa): The “Nixon to China” Phenomenon and President Obama

Can President Obama pursue aggressive foreign policy actions with greater latitude than any Republican?

An interesting paradox of world politics is that sometimes leaders who are known as “hawks” (hardline, confrontational leaders) are better able to appease foreign adversaries and make peace than their more “dovish” (cooperative and accommodative) counterparts. This also works in reverse: doves sometimes have more freedom to use aggressive tactics, including military force, than their hawkish colleagues. How can this be?

The classic example is Richard Nixon, the diehard anti-Communist who in 1972 became the first American president to visit Communist China and who strengthened American ties with China as part of his policy of detente (“relaxation of tensions”).  Ronald Reagan likewise made a career of fighting Communism, only to pursue a strategy of cooperation and conciliation (including sweeping arms control agreements) with the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  It was often said that “only Nixon could go to China.”  Many have also argued that only Reagan, among contemporary American leaders, could have moved toward Gorbachev in the way he did, hastening the end of the Cold War.  The reason why these leaders were uniquely positioned to reach out in cooperative ways to their enemies is that their hardline credentials were unquestioned, which gave them political cover on the right (the conservative end of the political spectrum).  If a more dovish leader, such as President Jimmy Carter, were to take the steps that Nixon or Reagan did, he would have faced withering attacks from the right as an appeaser who was “soft on Communism.”  But Nixon and Reagan could not be credibly attacked in such terms, freeing them to take steps that were more in line with the preferences of many on the political left. 

The same dynamic appears to be happening today with President Obama.    Stephen Walt’s recent blog post “Why Hawks Should Vote for Obama” makes this case as follows:

“So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it’s because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old “Nixon Goes to China” meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.”

What do you think?  Is this “Nixon to China” paradox the answer to Obama’s surprisingly hardline foreign policy actions in the above cases?  Would he really be a more hawkish president than any of the Republican challengers, as Walt seems to suggest?