Thursday, January 16, 2014

Gambits and Endgames

  “With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined
  to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election.”
   —Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

As I like to say, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who always divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I am firmly in the former category. Here’s an example. In terms of foreign policy, there are two kinds of U.S. presidents: those who have a geostrategic orientation and those who react to situations based on a set of values.

Generally, most presidents in my lifetime have been of the geostrategist variety. Only two, in my view, have been more values-based decision makers. Those would be Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

So what exactly do I mean by the labels “geostrategist” and “values-oriented”?

The geostrategist sees the world as a massive chessboard. He accepts that the United States, because of the sheer size of its economy and military footprint, will inevitably affect the rest of the world and that the rest of the world will react, sometimes preemptively, to that impact. His primary aim will be to protect and indeed further American interests and to safeguard the country’s security. Because the world is complex, he will try to look several moves ahead to see the consequences of every move the U.S. and other countries make internationally. The geostrategist tends to be comfortable with the use of military force abroad.

The values-oriented leader, by contrast, operates by a code of international good conduct. His priority is to be faithful to a set of values that is consistent with the American character as well as an understood code of behavior for the way nations should treat their citizens and other countries. This type of president is comfortable with foreign involvements when it is clear that it will improve a situation, but his default position is to focus on matters at home and not get entangled abroad. Like the geostrategist, he is concerned with American security but is less inclined to act preemptively to protect it.

Of course, my two descriptions are over-simplified. In reality, every president has a mixture of the two tendencies. But, as I say, most have been stronger on the geostrategist side than the values-oriented side. It is not a coincidence that the two exceptions were elected after the U.S. had been involved for years in wars that seemed to many to be intractable. Carter was elected after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and Obama was elected as the war in Iraq was winding down. It is possible to see those two presidents’ elections, at least in part, as a collective drawing inward by the American people.

What we can also see from the Carter example is that an inward-drawing phase tends to be followed a return to military muscle-flexing. Carter was succeeded by Ronald Reagan, who was quite comfortable with the use of military force and with bold assertiveness toward the Soviet Union. Americans don’t like getting bogged down in a war far away from home, but they don’t like to see their country acting too passively either.

President Obama was elected after campaigning to bring troops home from Iraq. This was an easy enough promise to keep since the troop withdrawal had already been negotiated by his predecessor before Obama even took office. What he neglected to then do was to secure a Status of Forces agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force in the country. He went through the motions of trying to negotiate an agreement, but it seems pretty clear that his heart wasn’t in it. Like most other Americans, he just wanted to be done with Iraq altogether. Now al-Qaeda has retaken ground in Ramadi and Fallujah, places where many American lives were spent in expelling al-Qaeda forces.

Americans did not want to get involved in Syria either. And after an amazing display of the president threatening to use force and then retracting his threat, the civil war in Syria rages on—with more casualties than ever. Some critics contend that backing indigenous rebels early on could have resulted in the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and a new government that was not completely anti-American. We will never know if that was true because now the rebel movement is now increasingly dominated by Isis, a ruthless al-Qaeda affiliate made up of mostly foreign fighters.

If the Obama administration is to point to any success in the Middle East, it might be the talks with Iran over its nuclear program. And yet the curious thing about the interim agreement that made those talks possible is that it was an agreement that the administration could have had any time during the previous year. Iran did not actually change its position on anything to get partial relief from sanctions. So what changed to make the agreement possible? It was purely down to a change in Iran’s presidency. The antagonistic and provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was replaced by the more presentable and reasonable-sounding Hassan Rouhani. Otherwise, nothing has really changed. What is striking is how eager the president and his Secretary of State John Kerry were to relax the sanctions and how desperate they are to stop a move by a majority of Senators to restore the sanctions automatically in the event that Iran does not live up to its side of the bargain. Why would he be against that? Because it sets a firm deadline for the talks to succeed. The president does not want the talks to be cut off—apparently for any reason.

It seems pretty clear what the president is thinking. He probably believes that it is inevitable that Iran will become a nuclear power. He may well be right, and maybe that was always going to be true—regardless of who was president. In any event, his current efforts seem to be concentrated entirely on making sure that, when Iran does get its nuclear weapon, it happens on some other president’s watch.

History suggests that the next president will be more of a geostrategist. And what will that president find on the chessboard that has been left for him or her? It will be a swath across the Middle East consisting of Syria and Iraq (with al-Qaeda on the rise in both) and Iran (for years on the State Department’s list of leading sponsors of terrorism) with de facto nuclear weapon capability.

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