Obama’s Foreign Policy Quagmires and Successes

As 2011 begins, it is useful to consider where the U.S. and the world are in terms of developing and implementing foreign policies that address the very serious problems that we face. We shall consider only a few areas here, but readers are encouraged to add their own analyses.

The New START Treaty

On December 22, 2010, the Washington Post reported,

The Senate ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, by a vote of 71 to 26, easily clearing the threshold of two-thirds of senators present as required by the Constitution for treaty ratification.

For the Washington Post, a margin of five votes amounted to “easily clearing” the requirement of Senate ratification of treaties by a two-thirds margin.

Peter Baker of the New York Times was more circumspect, reporting that

The treaty had the support of the nation’s uniformed military leaders and of a host of Republican national security veterans, including former President George H. W. Bush and five former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. But many of the party’s potential 2012 presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John Thune, came out against it, as did the two top Republican leaders in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Mr. Kyl, the lead Republican negotiator.

Still, he noted, ratification of the New START Treaty amounted to “what is probably the most tangible foreign policy achievement of Mr. Obama’s two years in office.”

It is an important achievement in an area in which there have been few.

The margin of victory, however, laid bare the opposition in the leadership of the Republican party to any major international agreements, even those that are manifestly in the nation’s interest (e.g., by allowing verification to resume). What is remarkable, moreover, is not so much that the treaty was ratified as how close it came to defeat.


On other fronts, the fact that a grand-coalition government has finally been formed in Iraq gives cause for hope, though the final observation of Thomas Ricks in his book, The Gamble, still rings true.

The heart of the Iraq matter still lies before us. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker maintained in both interviews with him in Baqdad in 2008, and he likely is correct. “What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves,” he said, “I think is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what’s happened up to now.”

“In other words,” Ricks concluded, “the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

–Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguinn, 2009), p. 325.

Nonetheless, the formation of a grand coalition government in Iraq, with strong U.S. encouragement, amounts to a significant success, at least for the moment.


With respect to Iran, U.S. policymakers might find satisfaction in the fact that they and others were able, through careful and sustained diplomacy, to develop a consensus within the U.N. Security Council that resulted in the imposition of new and tougher sanctions against Iran. Still, Iran continues its uranium enrichment program, which many believe is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability, or weapon, at the earliest possible date. To be sure, the introduction of the Stuxnet worm into computers involved in Iran’s nuclear program may have slowed the clock down, relieving immediate pressures for military action. On the other hand, there is a great need for public discussion and negotiation of new international legal norms and treaties limiting the use of cyber-warfare, of which the Stuxnet worm may be an early example.


Elsewhere, the landscape is considerably bleaker. Afghanistan is caught in an endless war in which allied forces continue to sacrifice lives and treasure, making progress in military terms, but with little if any evidence of progress on the governance front. There is a good deal of reporting that suggests that the situation vis-à-vis the Taliban, in the country as a whole, is deteriorating.

More ominously, the untimely death of Richard Holbrooke may have eliminated a strong voice from the civilian side of Obama’s policy-making team. Recent reports that the military are making plans to engage the Taliban and other insurgent groups more actively within the territory of Pakistan suggest that a narrow, military view of the struggle in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains ascendant in the White House.

–See Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins, “U.S. Military Seeks to Expand Raids in Pakistan,” New York Times, December 20, 2010.

The much-touted (and promised) December review of the degree to which progress had been made in Afghanistan following the “surge” of 2010, seems not to have occurred in any meaningful sense of the term. The results of the “review”–“stay the course”–were telegraphed well in advance of its formal conclusion.

Obama appears caught in a dilemma with no easy solution. While he succeeded in taking Afghanistan off the table in the 2010 congressional elections, and may succeed in doing so through the 2012 presidential elections as well, there is no viable strategy for improving governance in sight. A significant government collapse–perhaps on the order of the Hue Offensive in South Vietnam in 1968, could cost him the election in 2012.

Yet if he presses the fight against the Taliban and others too far in Pakistan, he may accelerate a destabilization of the government there which leads to a military coup. It is hard to see how Pakistan could be governable or a military government more effective in taking military action against the Taliban under such a scenario, while the risks and dangers of such instability in a nuclear weapons state are manifest.

North Korea

Meanwhile, on the Korean Peninsula, extremely dangerous confrontations involving the use of force occurred in 2010, while North Korea continued its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the context of a looming succession struggle.

Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Elsewhere, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a number of foreign policy events occurred that were highly significant. We shall offer our observations on some of them in future articles.

Economic Issues

Economic issues, of course, were at the center of some of the most important foreign policy events of 2010, but these lie beyond the scope of the present article. Europe came to the rescue of Greece and Ireland, in particular, and made clear that it would defend the euro and where necessary provide support to euro-zone countries whose financial systems came into crisis. In the United States, a sluggish recovery was underway, but employment remained extremely weak. With further stimulus efforts foreclosed by political divisions, the Federal Reserve Bank decided to start printing money under a program known as Quantitative Easing II or “QE II”. Wall Street has largely recovered, as has the auto industry as a result of a federal rescue package.

November, 2010 Elections

Voters were not impressed, and returned a Republican majority to the House of Representatives, while reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate by five notes–the precise margin of victory in the ratification vote on the New START Treaty.

The Trenchant Observer

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