NEW YORK TIMES:
October 25, 2011
Barack Kissinger Obama
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Who would have predicted it? Barack Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policy than Bush was, but he is less adept at implementing his own. The reasons, though, are obvious.
In his own way, President Obama has brought the country to the right strategy for Bush’s “war on terrorism.” It is a serious, focused combination of global intelligence coordination, targeted killing of known terrorists and limited interventions — like Libya — that leverage popular forces on the ground and allies, as well as a judicious use of U.S. power, so that we keep the costs and risks down. In Libya, Obama saved lives and gave Libyans a chance to build a decent society. What they do with this opportunity is now up to them. I am still wary, but Obama handled his role exceedingly well.
No doubt George Bush and Dick Cheney thought that both Iraq and Afghanistan would be precisely such focused, limited operations. Instead, they each turned out to be like a bad subprime mortgage — a small down payment with a huge balloon five years down the road. They thought they would be able to “flip” the house before the balloon came due. But partly because of their incompetence and lack of planning, it took much longer to flip the house to new owners and the price America paid was huge. Iraq may still have a decent outcome — I hope so, and it would be important — but even if it becomes Switzerland, we overpaid for it.
So let’s be clear: Up to now, as a commander in chief in the war on terrorism, Obama and his national security team have been so much smarter, tougher and cost-efficient in keeping the country safe than the “adults” they replaced. It isn’t even close, which is why the G.O.P.’s elders have such a hard time admitting it.
But while Obama has been deft at implementing Bush’s antiterrorism policy, he has been less successful with his own foreign policy. His Arab-Israeli diplomacy has been a mess. His hopes of engaging Iran foundered on the rocks of, well, Iran. He’s made little effort to pull together a multilateral coalition to buttress the Arab Awakening, in places like Egypt, to handle the postrevolution challenges. His ill-considered decision to double down on Afghanistan could prove fatal. He is in a war of words with Pakistan. His global climate policy is an invisible embarrassment. And the coolly calculating Chinese and Russians, while occasionally throwing him a bone, pursue their interests with scant regard to Obama’s preferences. Why is that?
Here I come to defend Obama not to condemn him.
True, he was naïve about how much his star power, or that of his secretary of state, would get others to swoon in behind us. But Obama’s frustrations in bagging a big, nonmilitary foreign policy achievement are rooted in a much broader structural problem — one that also explains why we have not produced a history-changing secretary of state since the cold war titans Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.
The reason: the world has gotten messier and America has lost leverage. When Kissinger was negotiating in the Middle East in the 1970s, he had to persuade just three people to make a deal: an all-powerful Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad; an Egyptian pharaoh, Anwar Sadat; and an Israeli prime minister with an overwhelming majority, Golda Meir.
To make history, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by contrast, need to extract a deal from a crumbling Syrian regime, a crumbled Egyptian regime, a fractious and weak Israeli coalition and a Palestinian movement broken into two parts.
We don’t even bother anymore to negotiate with the flimsy civilian government in Pakistan. We just go right to its military, which only wants to perpetuate the conflict with India — and exploit Afghanistan as a chip in that war — to justify the Pakistani Army’s endless consumption of so many state resources.
Making history through diplomacy “depends on making deals with other governments,” says Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert (and co-author with me on “That Used to Be Us”). “But now, to make such deals, we actually have to build the governments we want to negotiate with — and we can’t do that.” Indeed, in so many hot spots today, we have to do nation-building before we can do diplomacy. So many states propped up by the cold war are failing.
And where states are stronger — like Russia, China and Iran — we have less leverage because leverage is ultimately a function of economic strength. And while many of America’s companies are still strong, our government is mired in debt. When a nation is in debt as deep as we are — with severe defense cuts inevitable — its bark is always bigger than its bite.
The best way for us to gain leverage on Russia and Iran would be with an energy policy that reduced the price and significance of oil. The only way to gain more leverage on China is if we increase our savings and graduation rates — and export more and consume less. That isn’t in the cards.
So, Mama, tell your children not to grow up to be secretary of state or a foreign policy president — not until others have done more nation-building abroad and we’ve done more nation-building at home.