Obama’s Foreign Policy: Best We Can Get?


The Obama administration has focused a considerable amount of energy on foreign affairs over the past few months.  Three initiatives are of particular importance – moving toward normalized relations with Cuba, fighting the spread of ISIS, and negotiating a nuclear proliferation standstill with Iran  Changing our stance with Cuba is something that is long overdue.  While I understand emotions run deep in certain communities on this topic – the political and economic calculus has changed dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union and even the resurgence of a militant Russia does not alter that.  How far this relationship develops will take time to assess but beginning the negotiating and healing process is an important step.

The war with ISIS and negotiations with Iran are horses of a different color and are intertwined in interesting ways.  President Obama has a number of conflicting priorities he is trying to balance including supporting Israel, addressing the Palestinian homeland issues, maintaining our relationship with Saudi Arabia, eliminating the ISIS threat, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.  And that says nothing about the idealistic concept of “peace” or the more capitalistic idea of protecting energy supplies.  While I am no expert on international affairs much less on the Middle East, I struggle to find the common threads of a consistent strategy in all of this.  At its heart, our current policy feels like a set of reflexive responses grounded in the necessities of the moment when what we really need are a set of principles to guide our actions.

If we step back a bit from the tactics, a coherent set of principles might look like this:obama2

  1. Support Our Allies: While we are not perfectly aligned with either Israel or Saudi Arabia, they have been our closest and most reliable allies in the region.  While leaders change with some regularity, there are longstanding, productive relationships with both countries.
  2. ISIS Is Evil: As I argued in United We Stand, ISIS is a black and white evil group that must be contained and then eliminated (in whatever form that might take).  Importantly, we must ensure that what replaces ISIS is more aligned with our interests.
  3. Distrust and Verify: Ronald Reagan is famous for pursuing a “trust but verify” strategy when negotiating nuclear deals with the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, outside of a few countries, I don’t think we’ve achieved that level of engagement with most groups in the Middle East.  They don’t trust us (and won’t soon) and we have to act accordingly.
  4. Economic Tools of the Trade: Given our military capabilities, it is easy to assume that these represent our best weapons in a conflict.  In fact, when focused properly and in concert with others, the strength of our economy presents the most effective way to negotiate and influence others.
  5. Less is More: For all of the effort we’ve applied to this region, the results have been mixed at best.  When cause and effect are difficult to evaluate and the implications of certain actions are far from clear, pursuing fewer, more focused policies might actually achieve more.

In the context of these principles, let’s consider the nuclear framework recently negotiated with Iran.  Where does that fit into our set of principles?  Does it advance our efforts in the region?

I am an avid reader of The Week, and two recent opinion pieces addressed this issue quite effectively.  In “The Willful Ignorance of the Hawks Who Oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal”, Shikha Dalmia (a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation) makes the argument that while the proposed nuclear framework is far from perfect, it is “the best we can do.”  In summary, she says “These conservatives are probably right that the administration could have negotiated a better deal. Still, contrary to their claims, a bad deal is better than no deal. That’s because all the other options — maintaining sanctions or launching military strikes — would be less effective in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

In “Five Reasons to Distrust the Iran Deal,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (a fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center) argues the opposite side of the coin.  He agrees that the deal has some positive elements but essentially declares that liars [Iran] don’t change their spots and there is no way to anticipate or evaluate whether the Iranians are rational and/or serious about abiding by a deal.  In effect, they don’t think like “westerners” so our analysis of their intentions is likely to be misguided.

lead_largeNeither of these writers represents the extremes of the issue – they both make rational, centrist arguments for their points of view and reach different conclusions.  Our task then is to test their arguments against the principles we’ve established.  When I do that, I conclude that supporting the framework is a mistake – it works contrary to our partner’s needs, requires a level of trust that the Iranians have never demonstrated nor earned, and unleashes a set of forces that we don’t understand much less have a hope of managing.  Iranian support of the war on ISIS should not be misinterpreted – it has nothing to do with supporting the coalition and has everything to do with Iran’s intentions to create a Shia stronghold across the arc of the Middle East all the way from Iran to Lebanon.  Independent of nuclear ambitions, a stronger Iran would be bad for us and our allies. In the end, “the best we can do” is in fact dramatically worse than the status quo.  We will have to use other, possibly more aggressive means to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region.