Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Befuddled Warlock


UmReeka: On foreign policy, Obama shoots at the right target. In this interesting op-ed, David Ignatius argues that

“Obama’s presidency has been a wager that we live in a rational world where other major powers will follow their interests, too. That’s certainly the premise of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s nuclear deal with Iran and his new attempt to start a peace process in Syria.”

Then, he contends that

“Obama knows his belief in rationality is hard to square with human history. As he said in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address, “Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary… is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

Only to conclude by saying that

“Obama has sometimes fired blanks in his foreign policy. But he’s shooting at the right target.”

There several things that require some additional clarification here:

* Obama’s blanks (pun unintended) have helped break up a country, strengthened and legitimate two major imperialist powers (Russia and Iran), and hastened the demise of the global order without offering any alternative.

* But Obama’s problematic behavior in the realm of foreign policy cannot be simply reduced to the issue of firing blanks. There is more to that. There is something inherently wrong in Obama’s basic view of the nature of the world we live in, and of what it means to be rational. First of all, ideology and traditional modes of belonging are still relevant in many parts of our contemporary world, and tends to shape the motives of the peoples involved and color their understanding, elites and masses alike, of otherness and of what constitutes a basic interest. People can behave very rationally even while motivated by any number of irrational ideological beliefs, but that does not mean that we live in a rational world or that we can agree on a specific definition of what constitutes interest.

* Since Obama acknowledges the existence of evil, and the limits of nonviolence when people like Hitler are involved, and since he is obviously not a moron, he should have foreseen how the nonviolent protest movement against Assad would fare. Still, he did nothing to prevent the mayhem we are witnessing today. Why? Because for all his self-righteousness and all his eruditeness, he didn’t think it’s any of his business. But now that the country is irrevocably broken and we have IS/Daesh controlling major swaths of it, and Iraq, and metastasizing everywhere, intervention has somehow become a must, and much more complicated than it would have been.

What manner of leader is a man with poor prognostic skills and no foresight?

Even when Obama and his acolytes diagnosed some problems correctly, they still ended up adopting the wrong policies, because there was something inherently wrong with their basic assumptions about the world.

Still I do agree with the assertion that Obama’s critics on the right are often disingenuous. For judging by their statements on foreign policy, it’s clear that many of them would have adopted similar or even worse courses of action, e.g. Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.

But his critics on the left have been spot on. Take this article by Steven Heydemann, a political scientist who specializes in the comparative politics and the political economy of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria, and a very good friend of mine. In his article, Heydemann argues that

“The authoritarian stabilization pact between Russia, Iran, and Syria that has kept Bashar al-Assad in power offers a stark example of an emerging international landscape in which democracies will find their room for maneuver increasingly constrained. Existing international institutions, notably the UN Security Council, have proven inadequate to respond to the challenges posed by the rise of such transnational authoritarian networks. Without a coordinated effort among democracies to overcome the institutional paralysis that has prevented decisive international action in cases like Syria, including formal legal standing for norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, democracies will find themselves at a significant disadvantage in resolving major regional and international conflicts, even as they—along with millions of Syrians—are compelled to bear the growing adjustment costs imposed by an increasingly polarized international order.” 

So, as a result of this major failure by democracies to coordinate their policies, at a time when autocracies are busy honing their coordination skills, diplomatic efforts such as the Vienna Meetings meant to resolve the Syrian conflict are meaningless, because they are designed to fail, and to be used as cover to advance undemocratic agendas at the expense of creating more misery for Syrians, among other peoples. Indeed,

“Such diplomatic dissembling would be easy to dismiss if it were not part and parcel of a larger, intensely coercive and deeply destabilizing effort to ensure the survival of the Assad regime; assert a rigid, absolutist conception of state sovereignty designed to insulate autocrats from accountability; contain the ability of democracies to act in support of populations that resist authoritarian repression; and advance authoritarian ambitions to weaken the institutions of global governance established as a check against precisely the kind of genocidal acts in which the Assad regime is complicit.