By Patricia H. Kushlis
I’m not good at reading either tea leaves or crystal balls so have hesitated to speculate on the future directions of the Obama administration’s foreign policies. First, it’s still very early in his tenure and Obama has a major economic crisis at the top of his list to contend with and second, I certainly don’t know enough about what's happening behind the scenes to jump to conclusions.
From what I’ve seen thus far, however, certain US policies have fundamentally shifted for the better – like last week’s change in US policies towards Mexico. Others - like adding more combat troops to Afghanistan - are more problematical and only time will tell.
Engaging the neighbors
I think that this administration’s approach to Iraq is far closer to the policies recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Commission than W’s in part because a key Commission recommendation was that of engaging the neighbors – all of which have more of a vested interest in the region that the US does – a policy something W could not bring himself to sanction. Yet, I think this is the only way Iraq will ever stabilize enough for us to get our troops out without the breakout of civil war round two – or round whatever.
The question of numbers or types of residual US troops left in the country, I suspect, will depend upon how stable is stable, where those troops are located and whether their presence is a help or a hindrance to stability which should be the primary US foreign policy goal.
These are the dilemmas. Dilemmas which, of course, the Bush administration should have considered before March 2003, but didn’t – leaving this still huge mess for his successor to clean up. And it’s not going to be easy.
Foreign policies do not usually change instantly
Meanwhile, it’s rare when a country’s foreign policy makes an about face especially in the early days of a new administration. There’s testing, assessing, reassessing, watching for and reacting to developments. Sometimes it’s like seeing water drops fall off a glacier; other times it’s like watching a championship ping pong game nearing its frenzied conclusion. Furthermore, never, or rarely are a country’s foreign policies made or implemented in a vacuum.
I’m old enough to remember when Richard Nixon campaigned on a “get us out of Vietnam” platform but refused to say how. It took several more years and far too many more casualties before the US military was withdrawn: turns out Nixon had no secret plan despite his campaign rhetoric and once in office discovered that getting out was harder to do than he and Kissinger had ever realized.
Reagan and Gorbachev were not instant buddies
Right now I’m reading James Mann’s new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War and will probably write a review essay once finished.
What makes Reagan interesting here is that he entered office as a Soviet basher – even harder-line anti-Communist than Brzezinski, Carter’s NSC advisor – but changed direction in his second term to meet the new conditions that had developed under Gorbachev - to the consternation of not only the Republican right but also Republican geopolitical realists including Nixon, Kissinger and Scowcroft who just did not believe the Soviet leadership could change its spots.
Yet, lest anyone forget, Reagan and Gorbachev did not agree to meet instantly – their first meeting was in November 1985 eight months after Gorbachev became General Secretary and the October 1986 Reykjavik Summit – which concluded nothing – came eleven months after that. The first concrete arms control breakthroughs didn’t happen until the following year.
George W. Bush, too, made certain changes in foreign policy direction but only under duress and only in the aftermath of the Republican Party’s drubbing in the 2006 mid-term elections. Donald Rumsfeld became that administration’s sacrificial lamb.
But what Reagan did – which W could never bring himself to do with the Iranians, Syrians and too many others – was to stop the name calling and start to deal with the Soviet leadership as people with huge economic and social problems on their hands. The rhetoric that replaced the “Evil Empire” was “Trust but Verify.” It became Reagan’s own mantra – and it served him, his successor and this country well.
Now I realize that Iran, for instance, is not the Soviet Union – it is a regional power, not a super power – and US-Iranian and US-Soviet relations have far different histories. But impatience and name-calling in the foreign policy arena are usually a mistakes. Difficult change takes time to effect and too often nothing is as it seems from the outside looking in.
For now, I plan to watch, wait and see.