The Obama strategy.


Many of us on the right have considered Obama to be feckless and uninterested in foreign policy. That seems to have been a mistake. He has strategy but it involves an alliance with Iran.

A lengthy essay by Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council, explains the strategy. He also explains why the Obama Administration is so determined to keep it a secret from the American public and, more importantly, the Congress.

How eager is the president to see Iran break through its isolation and become a very successful regional power? Very eager. A year ago, Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication and a key member of the president’s inner circle, shared some good news with a friendly group of Democratic-party activists. The November 2013 nuclear agreement between Tehran and the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—represented, he said, not only “the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian [nuclear] issue,” but “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy.” For the administration, Rhodes emphasized, “this is healthcare . . . , just to put it in context.” Unaware that he was being recorded, he then confided to his guests that Obama was planning to keep Congress in the dark and out of the picture: “We’re already kind of thinking through, how do we structure a deal so we don’t necessarily require legislative action right away.”

Things seem to be moving in the direction that Obama wishes but they are also increasing the danger of a disaster in foreign policy.

When he arrived in Washington in 2006, he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressional commission whose co-chairs, former secretary of state James Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, interpreted their mission broadly, offering advice on all key aspects of Middle East policy.

The report, published in December 2006, urged then-President Bush to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; and, last but far from least, launch a diplomatic engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria. Baker and Hamilton believed that Bush stood in thrall to Israel and was therefore insufficiently alive to the benefits of cooperating with Iran and Syria. Those two regimes, supposedly, shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.

Baker, who is now an advisor to JEB Bush, has been seen as intensely anti-Israel and President George HW Bush was no friend of Israel in contrast with his son.

Expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle. Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, once worked as an aide to Lee Hamilton; so did Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group’s report. Obama not only adopted the blueprint but took it one step further, recruiting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as another candidate for membership in the new club. The administration’s early “reset” with Russia and its policy of reaching out to Iran and Syria formed two parts of a single vision.

This is not a new concept and it has been nurtured in the State Department, which has seen Israel as an irritant for years.

Iran is now seen as our new best friend. They don’t agree, of course, but America has deluded itself before. Reagan aides thought they saw “moderates” in the Iran regime in the 1980s and ended with the “Iran-Contra scandal.” The moderate they thought they saw was, of course, the same man who is now president of Iran.

Obama has repeatedly stated, most recently in his 2015 State of the Union address, that the interim agreement “halted” the Iranian nuclear program. Or, as he put it in his March 2014 interview, the “logic” of the JPOA was “to freeze the situation for a certain period of time to allow the negotiators to work.” But the agreement froze only American actions; it hardly stopped the Iranians from moving forward.

For one thing, the JPOA restricts the program only with respect to enrichment capacity and stockpiles; it is entirely silent about the military components: ballistic missiles, procurement, warhead production. For another, to call what the JPOA achieved even in these limited domains “a freeze” is a gross exaggeration. Iranian nuclear scientists have continued to perfect their craft. They are learning how to operate old centrifuges with greater efficiency. And thanks to a loophole in the JPOA permitting work on “research and development,” they are also mastering the use of new, more effective centrifuges.

Therefore, the Iranian nuclear program is poised to surge ahead. The moment the JPOA lapses—a date first scheduled for July 2014, then rescheduled to November 2014, then re-rescheduled to June 30 of this year, possibly to be re-re-rescheduled yet again—Iran will be in a stronger position than before the negotiations began. This fact gives Tehran considerable leverage over Washington during the next rounds.

This is a potentially disastrous policy, somewhat similar to the policy of Neville Chamberlain, although some modern historians are more sympathetic to him. These historians assume that, had Chamberlain refused Hitler’s demands, immediate war would have occurred. Obama may assume that Iran would go to war if we denied their nuclear ambitions but it is more likely that he sees a great triumph for himself if his policy is successful. I believe Chamberlain had similar feelings. There is even a school of thought that the Czechs might have been able to defeat Germany alone. That is an interesting discussion. At present, there is little prospect of war between Israel and Iran. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, that calculation might change drastically. Obama and the Iraq Study Group assumed that Iran was a rational country and not inclined to do self destructive things. The same was assumed of Hitler.

Others, responding to the Doran essay, have less confidence that Obama knows what he is doing.

Given all we know, I would argue that Obama’s mission is to guide America not only out of Bushland (as Doran puts it) but out of Rooseveltland, Kennedyland, and Clintonland—and indeed to reverse most of the foreign-policy legacy of his own party, with the exception of that of [Henry} Wallace and its 1972 candidate for the presidency, George McGovern. The ideas espoused by Obama “incubated” decades ago, and were most likely adopted back at Columbia University or in the Chicago kitchen of his friends of Weathermen fame, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.

That may be a bit extreme but he continues the argument.

The enduring hold of that ideology is visible not only in his Iran policy but also, most recently, with respect to Cuba. There, too, he has reversed decades of American foreign policy, and has done so, as in the case of Iran, without seeking any deep concessions from the Castro regime.

In concluding the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action with Iran, Doran notes, Obama accepted a “basic asymmetry,” trading permanent American concessions [in exchange] for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.” Similarly, in Cuba, Obama’s recent deal—call it another “Joint Plan of Action”—abandons previous American demands for real political change on the island prior to any lifting of the embargo. And just as he has offered his regrets to Tehran for the (long exaggerated) American role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government, so too has he expressed apologies—in this case, in a telephone call with Raul Castro—“for taking such a long time” to change U.S. policy. In both instances, Obama has acted not to advance American national interests but to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.”

I think there is merit in this conclusion. “to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.”

That sounds about right. Others have somewhat different interpretations while largely agreeing with Doran.

an excellent new study, The Obama Doctrine, by Colin Dueck, forthcoming from Oxford in May.

In Dueck’s judgment, Obama’s approach to the world is predicated first and foremost on his bedrock intention to be a “transformational” president. The transformation in question is largely domestic—hence his preoccupation with the Affordable Care Act, which remakes a rather large swath of the American economy. Abroad, and in aid of the main focus on his domestic agenda (“nation-building at home”), the president’s overwhelming objective has been to keep international affairs at bay. But when world events do inevitably impose themselves, Obama is no less confident of his unique ability to exert a transformational impact. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Doran quotes him as saying, an attitude fully in keeping with his expressed view that “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

This suggests Obama’s narcissism may be at work.

Understanding this strategy of retrenchment and accommodation is a useful vehicle for explaining many apparently discrete episodes in Obama’s tenure, from the early “strategic reassurance” of China, to the “reset” of relations with Russia, and of course to the “open hand” approach to Tehran that Michael Doran dissects so well. It also clarifies the chronic neglect of allies, and it illuminates, as Abrams rightly underlines, the president’s chronic need—the political equivalent of Tourette syndrome—to express regret and apologize publicly for past exercises of American power in pursuit of our national interests.

Thus, he may consider American policies to have been incorrect in acting as “The World’s Policeman.” Here, he may share some of Ron Paul and the extreme Libertarian views of our role in the world.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used to say, every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has come a cropper in the vain search for Iranian moderates.

What distinguishes Obama is the ideological aversion to American power and the formulation of a strategy whose overriding impetus is to constrain that power. The scandal is not that the administration has kept this a secret but that a supine press and intellectual class have failed—“declined” may be the better (if much too polite) word—to explain it to the American people.

Ron Paul has a different view of much of American policy but he seems to agree with Obama on this. Rand Paul may do so as well. From a Ron Paul speech in Congress:

What if diplomacy is found to be superior to bombs and bribes in protecting America? What happens if my concerns are completely unfounded? Nothing. But what happens if my concerns are justified and ignored? Nothing good.”

If he is wrong Nothing happens ? How about World War II when Chamberlain was wrong ?

Losing Yemen might be a hint.

If his, and Obama’s concerns are “completely unfounded” disaster may yet strike. We are entering an era similar to the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s.

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