Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Joystick Limitations

“Members of Obama’s foreign-policy circle say that when he is criticized for his reaction to situations like Iran’s Green Revolution, in 2009, or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in 2011, he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes.”
 —David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” in the January 27 issue of The New Yorker

We learned last week from David Remnick’s New Yorker piece that President Obama does not watch Sunday morning news programs. But we also learned that, on foreign policy, he reads and consults journalist/author Fareed Zakaria, who has a show on CNN. So maybe the president was watching when Zakaria called the U.S.’s interim agreement with Iran “a train wreck” on the cable channel’s New Day program on Thursday.

Zakaria was promoting his news-making interview with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in which the leader had stated unequivocally that Iran would not be destroying any centrifuges and that two heavy water reactors would continue in operation. “So this seems like, you know, this is still born,” said Zakaria. “I’m not even quite sure what they’re going to talk about if these are the opening positions.”

The White House’s reaction was interesting. Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated the now standard line about how you cannot really pay attention to any of the provocative things Rouhani says because, well, he’s only saying them to placate hardliners in his country. You know, the way governments always say things they do not really believe or that they know aren’t true to get around unreasonable factions.

Kind of like saying that the attack in Benghazi was a spontaneous display of mob emotion inspired by a YouTube video. Or saying that, if you like your healthcare plan and/or your doctor, you can keep them. These are, after all, just things governments say to placate extreme hardliners.

The difference, of course, is that the “hardliners” that the U.S. administration has to deal with are actual voters. Rouhani doesn’t have to worry about voters so much in his country. The only hardliners he really needs to placate are the mullahs who hold the real power. They don’t have to worry so much about losing power because of angry voters.

It is, of course, correct that the U.S. president does not have some sort of magic joystick that lets him manipulate events, and he certainly cannot be blamed for every bad thing that happens in the world. Even in the case of the Benghazi attack—where clearly signals were missed that shouldn’t have been—it is ultimately unfair, or at last unrealistic, to blame the president personally for not preventing it. On the other hand, he and his administration rightly deserve criticism for deliberately misleading the public about the nature of the attack in the days before his reelection. Even so, I blame the establishment press more than the president. After all, it is only natural for politicians to try to mislead us, while it is the press’s job to point it out to us when they do.

No, we cannot complain that the president did not somehow magically help the Iranian protestors in 2009 or transition Egypt to authentic democracy. But those of us who believe that people throughout the world are better off living under liberal democracy can indeed complain that he did not at least give moral support to those who took to the streets in support of greater democracy in the case of the Green Revolution. Apparently he was so keen, even back then, to start talks with the Iranian government that protests in the streets over election fraud seemed like an inconvenient distraction to him. What a wasted opportunity to speak up for Western liberal values.

In examining President Obama’s view of foreign policy, Remnick quotes his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes as saying, “In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention… In the Democratic Party, these debates were defined in the nineties, and the idealists lined up for military intervention. For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya—to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist.”

Obama’s “realism” is then described in the article by Zakaria, who says that it “comes from the idea that change is organic and change comes to countries in its own way, modernization comes in its own way, rather than through liberation narratives coming from the West.” If that is truly the president’s mindset, then it is no wonder that he seems passive—and at times hapless—as events unfold.

The above quotes equate the word idealist with meddler or adventurist and suggest that the only alternative to idealism is to engage diplomatically with other governments without regard to what their populations may be suffering—a notion that was reinforced by the foreign policy section of the president’s State of the Union speech.

The problem is that there are any number of actors (both government and non-government) out there actively competing throughout the world to evangelize their particular value system. The U.S. government may politely respect other countries’ right to sort out their own values, but the likes of Russia, China and Al Qaeda have no hesitation to push their ideologies through conversion, support and, if possible, by force.

The Western system of liberal democracy and liberal economic policies has been more successful than any other, and in places like Ukraine we see that people are hungry for Western values. Western countries should not be shy or apologetic about selling the benefits of freedom and democracy. And this does not have to mean military intervention. It means speaking out in favor of Western values, strongly criticizing injustice and giving active support to those factions whose values coincide with ours.

Too often the president seems under the illusion that those whose values are antithetical to ours can be wooed into accommodation. That is why he and his spokespeople work so hard at parsing distinctions between things like “core Al Qaeda” and mere affiliates and sympathizers.

The reality is that knowing what our values are and being willing to stand up for them and for people who share them does not have to require military intervention. In fact, such forthrightness can actually help to avoid it.

No comments:

Post a Comment