National Security Network

Obama Charts New Foreign Policy Course

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Report 3 August 2009

Diplomacy Diplomacy Foreign Policy Obama Administration progressive foreign policy Progressive national security


With Congress heading home to their constituencies this weekend, conservatives are continuing their attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy. These attacks have followed a familiar pattern – conservatives reflexively attack Obama in every way possible in the hopes that one of their claims stick – even if the attacks contradict each other. For example, neoconservative Elliot Cohen argued yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that Obama’s foreign policy is the same as the Bush administration’s, even as former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, assert that Obama is dismantling Bush-era policies that protect America.

These arguments are incoherent and baseless. In his first seven months, Obama has charted a new foreign policy course that has made the United States stronger abroad and safer at home. The Administration has prioritized the most urgent security challenges by pushing efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and refocusing our defense priorities. The Administration has also opened up the foreign policy tool kit and dusted off diplomacy as a key U.S. foreign policy instrument, garnering significant achievements that have advanced U.S. national interests – on the global economic crisis, improved relations with Russia, China and India, and stronger international stances against North Korean and Iranian provocations. Furthermore, Obama’s efforts have already paid off by demonstrably improving the image of the United States. The American public also recognizes these achievements, strongly supporting Obama’s approach and rejecting conservatives’ attempt to return to past failures.

Obama has made America safer.  Conservatives, led by former Vice President Cheney have continued to make the baseless argument that the Obama administration’s security and defense policies have made America less safe.  In March Cheney said, “he [President Obama] is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack." His daughter, Liz Cheney, made a similar statement in Wall Street Journal op-ed last month saying, “Perhaps Mr. Obama thinks he is making America inoffensive to our enemies. In reality, he is emboldening them and weakening us. America can be disarmed literally -- by cutting our weapons systems and our defensive capabilities -- as Mr. Obama has agreed to do.” Yet prominent neoconservative and former Bush administration official contradicted the Cheney’s, arguing instead in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal that Obama is no different than Bush: “Just how different is this administration’s foreign policy from its predecessor? And will such departures where they exist make much difference? ... Continuity is the dominant note,” argues Cohen. Yet Cheney and Cohen are both wrong.  President Obama has charted a new course that has made us safer:

  • Obama administration’s defense budget makes America safer.  Instead of wasting billions on weapons systems that do nothing to enhance our security, the Administration has focused on the wars we are in and the challenges we are most likely to confront. Secretary Gates and President Obama successfully led a bipartisan effort to end production of the F-22 fighter jet – using the money saved for an expansion of the ground forces.  Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said the F-22’s capabilities weren’t the central issue in the Senate vote. “This debate was about whether having more F-22s is worth having less of something else.” [National Security Network, 6/10/09. Bloomberg, 7/21/09]
  • The Administration’s efforts to limit and control nuclear weapons make America safer.  A Council on Foreign Relations task force explains, “The Obama administration has stated that it intends to work for the ultimate global elimination of nuclear weapons, but that until that goal is achieved it will maintain a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent... The steps leading to this shorter-term goal should reduce nuclear dangers from their present level...  The objective of ensuring that a nuclear weapon is never used is central to creating the political conditions that would allow the world to take practical, near-term actions to make us far safer than we are at this moment.” [CFR, 4/09]
  • Obama announces withdrawal from Iraq in February – withdrawal going ahead of schedule. The Post wrote in February, “President Obama yesterday fulfilled a campaign promise by setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, declaring that while the country they will leave behind will not be perfect, the United States will have reached its ‘achievable goals’ and must move on.” ABC News reported last week, “Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that US troops may pick up the pace of withdrawing from Iraq this year. Gates said yesterday he has been ‘heartened’ by progress since US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities a month ago, allowing Iraqi forces to assume more responsibility for security…Gates said of the pace of US troop withdrawal: ‘I don't think there is anything in the cards for a slow down, I think there is some chance for a modest acceleration.’”    [Washington Post, 2/28/09. ABC News, 7/29/09]

Closing Guantanamo Bay prison makes America safer.  Experts agree that the existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility served as a key piece of propaganda for Al Qaeda and served to undercut America’s moral authority around the world. As General Petraeus said, closing Guantanamo Bay detention center “in a responsible manner, I think, sends an important message to the world, as does the commitment of the United States to observe the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of detainees.” Admiral Mullen added, "I've advocated for a long time now that it needs to be closed... The concern I've had about Guantanamo in these wars is it has been a symbol, and one which has been a recruiting symbol for those extremists and jihadists who would fight us. So and I think that centers -- you know, that's the heart of the concern for Guantanamo's continued existence, in which I spoke to a few years ago, the need to close it." Furthermore, Secretaries of State Kissinger, Albright, Powell, Baker, and Christopher all agreed that closing Guantanamo Bay is vital for repairing the damage it has caused to America’s image.  
[Dick Cheney, 3/15/09. Liz Cheney 7/13/09. Elliot Cohen, 8/2/09. CNN, 9/20/08. Harper’s Magazine, 12/18/08. General David Petraeus, via Radio Free Europe, 5/24/09. Admiral Michael Mullen, 5/24/09. Senate Armed Services Committee, 12/08]

Through diplomacy, Obama has garnered significant international accomplishments.  Just over 6 months into his administration, President Obama has advanced U.S. interests considerably.  Politico wrote of the President’s first diplomat endeavors, “On a day of dizzying diplomacy with three world powers, Obama made one thing clear: The Bush era of foreign policy is over.  In strokes of symbolism and on issues of substance, the president’s international debut was starkly different from the approach America’s allies and adversaries grew to know — and often bitterly complain about — over the past eight years. Gone was diplomacy by towel-snapping, Bush’s effort to kindle bilateral relationships as much through chummy asides and the occasional shoulder-rub as by serious policy discussion.” Despite a common refrain from conservatives that the President is a “foreign policy neophyte,” whose accomplishments amount to nothing but “great pictures” and “nice words,” it is clear that the President has already achieved a tremendous amount on the internationals stage:

  • Administration resets and revives U.S.-Russian relations – gains Russian cooperation on range of security challenges.  As the New York Times reported, “President Obama kicked off a new chapter in Russian-American relations with significant progress on several fronts,” including the development of a follow-on treaty to START, a joint threat assessment on Iran, a critical transit route agreement to supply the war in Afghanistan, and a joint Presidential commission aimed at fostering dialogue.  [New York Times, 7/07/09]
  • U.S. leads global response to international economic crisis at G-20 meeting. Despite differences between G-20 members, President Obama was able to manage these disagreements and achieve significant progress on key issues, such as:  reforming and bolstering the IMF to limit the further spread of the crisis (which was led by the U.S.); a re-commitment to open trade, and a ground-breaking agreement on an international framework to regulate global finance. [USA Today, 4/02/09. AP, 4/02/09. WSJ, 4/02/09]
  • Administration marshals international response to North Korean aggression. Painstaking work by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others within the Administration to craft a forceful policy toward North Korea is paying off.  The most noteworthy manifestation of the Obama administration’s approach came several weeks ago, when it successfully pushed for sanctions at the UN Security Council.  The New York Times deemed the sanctions “tougher than previous versions largely because China and Russia, the closest thing North Korea has to friends, agreed to a mixture of financial and trade restrictions designed to choke off military development.” [NY Times, 6/26/09]
  • Administration lays ground work for closer partnership with rising power India - establishes historic strategic dialogue. The two governments agreed to establish a ‘Strategic Dialogue’ backed by five pillars – strategic cooperation; energy and climate; education and development; economics, trade and agriculture; and science and technology - to be explored by bilateral working groups. [NY Times, 7/20/09]

  • Obama administration broadens scope of strategic dialogue with China. Heading into last week’s strategic dialogue with China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner laid out the strategic case for U.S. – China cooperation: “Simply put, few global problems can be solved by the U.S. or China alone.” Already, this emphasis on cooperation has paid off, allowing the U.S. and China to “forge common cause on issues like North Korea,” according to the New York Times. Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, via the WSJ, 7/27/09. NY Times, 7/28/09]
  • Clinton signals U.S. desire for partnerships in Southeast Asia. Secretary Clinton demonstrated America’s renewed commitment to Southeast Asia by signing a nonaggression pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia of 1976.  Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, commented: “This represents in concrete terms, a shift of strategy on the part of the new US administration towards ASEAN.” [Hillary Clinton, Remarks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu, 7/21/09. ASEAN Secretariat, 7/22/09. CSM, 7/23/09]

Obama is winning the national security argument at home and abroad. Progressives have closed the so-called “security gap.” In a poll conducted in May, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that, “For the first time in our research, Democrats are at full parity on perceptions of which party would best manage national security, while they have moved far ahead of the GOP on specific challenges such as Afghanistan, Iraq, working with our allies, and improving America’s image abroad.” In addition, younger voters “trusted Republicans more on national security by a 27 point margin in 2003; now they trust Democrats more by 18 points, 50 to 32 percent.”  

Opinion has changed in America and the world. A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project found, “The image of the United States has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama. In many countries opinions of the United States are now about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office... Signs of improvement in views of America are seen even in some predominantly Muslim countries that held overwhelmingly negative views of the United States in the Bush years.” [Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 5/19/09. Pew Global Attitudes, 7/23/09]

What We’re Reading

In a ceremony conducted by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was formally endorsed as Iran’s leader for a second term. Several of his most prominent opponents, who have called his election fraudulent, did not attend the event. Meanwhile, the Iranian government put 100 reformists and moderate politicians on trial, accusing them of working with foreigners to foment a popular uprising. Three Americans who were arrested at the Iranian border are being accused of spying for the CIA.  

A bomb explosion near Herat, the main city in western Afghanistan, killed at least 12 people. Six American troops were killed over the weekend as well.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani pledged to resolve disputes over land and oil. Meanwhile, a bombing at the office of a Sunni political party in central Iraq killed seven.

NATO’s new civilian chief called on the UN and EU to provide more international aid to help secure and rebuild Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration is considering whether to transfer some detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison to a new facility in the US that would contain courtrooms for federal criminal trials and military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects.

Religious violence in Pakistan over the weekend left several members of the predominately Muslim country’s Christian minority dead. Some see the violence as further evidence of the growing influence of the Taliban.

Cuba offered to talk to the US, a move that could ease half a century of enmity.

New evidence shows that Venezuelan officials have continued to assist the commanders of Colombia’s largest rebel group, helping them to obtain weapons deals and false identity cards.

Israel’s gay community is left feeling vulnerable after a gunman’s attack on a gay community center in Tel Aviv killed two.

Nigerian clerics accused authorities of ignoring dozens of warnings about a violent Islamist sect until it attacked police stations and government buildings last week, eventually killing over 700 people.

China has sealed off the town of Ziketan, where several people have become infected with and two have died from the pneumonic plague.

Sri Lanka is facing a massive aid shortfall.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times praises the House for voting to end the F-22, but calls on lawmakers to further trim unnecessary defense spending.

Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry writes that the issues at stake in this month’s elections have serious implications for the future of the country.

Marc Stanley, Chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, refutes claims that Obama isn’t talking to Israel.

Small Wars Journal’s editors call on the U.S. to enlist the help of Afghanistan’s tribes as part of a strategy to confront violence.