The Riddle of Obama’s Foreign Policy
By Robert Parry. This article was first published on Consortium News.
For nearly seven years of his presidency, Barack Obama has zigzagged from military interventionist to pragmatic negotiator, leaving little sense of what he truly believes. Yet, there may be some consistent threads to his inconsistencies, writes Robert Parry.
Nearing the last year of his presidency, Barack Obama and his foreign policy remain an enigma. At times, he seems to be the “realist,” working constructively with other nations to achieve positive solutions, as with the Iran nuclear deal and his rapprochement with Cuba. Other times, he slides into line with the neocons and liberal hawks, provoking ugly crises, such as his “regime change” tactics in Honduras (2009), Libya (2011), Syria (over several years) and Ukraine (2014).
Yet, even in some of those “regime change” scenarios, Obama pulls back from the crazier “tough guy/gal” ideas and recognizes the catastrophes such schemes could create. In 2013, he called off a planned bombing campaign against the Syrian military (which could have led to a victory for Al Qaeda or the Islamic State), and in 2014, he resisted a full-scale escalation of Ukraine’s war against ethnic Russian rebels resisting the new U.S.-backed political order in Kiev (which could have pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war).
President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Yet, Obama also won’t stand up to the neocons and liberal hawks by sharing crucial information with the American people that could undermine pro-intervention narratives.
For instance, Obama has held back the latest U.S. intelligence analysis describing who was responsible for the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack that almost precipitated the U.S. war on the Syrian military, and he won’t release the intelligence assessment on who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, the tragedy which ratcheted up the crisis with Russia over Ukraine.
In both cases, I’m told U.S. intelligence analysts have backed off early rushes to judgment blaming the Syrian government for the sarin attack, which killed hundreds, and the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian rebels for the MH-17 crash, which killed 298 people. But Obama has left standing the earlier propaganda themes blaming the Syrian and Russian governments, all the better to apply American “soft power” pressure against Damascus and Moscow.
Thus, Obama’s foreign policy has a decidedly zigzag nature to it. Or as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently described Obama: “On the prudential level he’s a realist. But his vision is more ideological than strategic,” a typically cryptic Kissingerian phrasing that I interpret to mean that Obama is a prudent realist when it comes to major military actions but – short of all-out war – ideologically embraces neocon/liberal-hawk interventionism.
My view of Obama is somewhat different. It strikes me that Obama is what you might call a “closet realist.” He understands the limits of American power and wants to avoid costly military entanglements. But he also doesn’t want to challenge the neocon/liberal-hawk dominance of Official Washington.
In other words, he’s a timid opportunist when it comes to reshaping the parameters of the prevailing “group think.” He’s afraid of being cast as the “outsider,” so he only occasionally tests the limits of what the neocon/liberal-hawk “big thinkers” will permit, as with Cuba and Iran.
Obama is also fundamentally an elitist who believes more in manipulating the American people than in leveling with them. For instance, a leader who truly trusted in democracy would order the maximum declassification of what the U.S. intelligence community knows about the pivotal events in Syria and Ukraine, including the sarin attack and the MH-17 shoot-down.
An elitist would keep the public in the dark while letting the hasty initial judgments stand, which is what Obama has done.
Redirecting Conventional Wisdom
Obama never trusts the people to help him rewrite the narratives of these crises, which could create more space for reasonable compromises and solutions. Instead, he leaves the American public ignorant, which empowers his fellow “smart people” of Official Washington to manage national perceptions, all aided and abetted by the complicit mainstream U.S. media which simply reinforces the misguided “conventional wisdom.”
Despite his power to do so, Obama won’t shatter the frame of Official Washington’s fun-house mirror of reality. That’s why his attempt to invoke the memory of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “we all inhabit this small planet” speech at American University in 1963 fell so flat earlier this month when Obama went to AU and offered a pedestrian, point-by-point defense of the Iran nuclear deal without any of Kennedy’s soaring, universal rhetoric.
Presumably Obama feared that he would be cast as a starry-eyed idealist if he explained to the American people the potential for using the Iran agreement as a way to begin constructing a more peaceful Middle East. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Pragmatic Appeal for Iran Peace.”]
These limitations in Obama’s personality and world view have probably doomed his legacy to be viewed as an overall failure to reshape America’s approach to the world, away from a costly and confrontational strategy of seeking endless dominance to one favoring a more respectful and pragmatic approach toward the sensitivities and needs of other nations.
I realize some Obama critics feel that he is simply a tool of American imperialism putting a slightly less offensive face on the same interventionist policies. And no doubt he has served that role in many instances. He even boasted during his Iran speech that “I’ve ordered military action in seven countries.” If some other world leader – say, Russian President Vladimir Putin – had made that claim, we would be hearing demands that he be dragged before the World Court as a war criminal.
But there is also the Obama whom Kissinger described as “on the prudential level he’s a realist.” And there is significant value in sidestepping the maximalist catastrophes that would be caused by policies favored by the neocons and liberal hawks, such as U.S. bombing to destroy the Syrian military (and open the gates of Damascus to a reign of Sunni terrorism) or a U.S. military escalation of the Ukraine crisis (to the point of a nuclear showdown with Russia).
While Obama’s modicum of “realism” may seem like a modest thing, it isn’t when you recognize that Official Washington’s favored choices could contribute to the mass executions of Syria’s Christians, Shiites, Alawites and other minorities under the swords of the Islamic State or could provoke a thermonuclear war with Russia that could end all life on the planet.
That acknowledgement aside, however, Obama has fallen far short of any profile in courage as he’s allowed dangerously false narratives to develop around these and other international conflicts. The most hazardous of all is the Putin-bashing storyline about Ukraine, which holds that the entire ugly civil war was part of some nefarious scheme cooked up in the Kremlin to recreate the Russian Empire.
Though this notion that the Ukraine crisis was simply a case of “Russian aggression” is held by virtually every important person in Washington’s current power circles, it was never true. The crisis was provoked by a U.S.-backed coup on Feb. 22, 2014, which overthrew Ukraine’s elected President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin reacted to that provocation; he didn’t instigate it.
Kissinger’s Take on Ukraine
And if you don’t believe me, perhaps you might listen to Henry Kissinger who explained the reality in a July interview with National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn, who noted: “we have witnessed a return, at least in Washington, DC, of neoconservatives and liberal hawks who are determined to break the back of the Russian government.”
Kissinger: “Until they face the consequences. The trouble with America’s wars since the end of the Second World War has been the failure to relate strategy to what is possible domestically. The five wars we’ve fought since the end of World War II were all started with great enthusiasm. But the hawks did not prevail at the end. At the end, they were in a minority. We should not engage in international conflicts if, at the beginning, we cannot describe an end, and if we’re not willing to sustain the effort needed to achieve that end. …”
Heilbrunn: “How do you think the United States can extricate itself from the Ukraine impasse — the United States and Europe, obviously?”
Kissinger: “The issue is not to extricate the United States from the Ukrainian impasse but to solve it in a way conducive to international order. A number of things need to be recognized. One, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s.
“So, what happens in Ukraine cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe, not that close to Stalingrad and Moscow. In that context, one has to analyze how the Ukraine crisis occurred. It is not conceivable that Putin spends 60 billion euros on turning a summer resort into a winter Olympic village in order to start a military crisis the week after a concluding ceremony that depicted Russia as a part of Western civilization.
“So then, one has to ask: How did that happen? I saw Putin at the end of November 2013. He raised a lot of issues; Ukraine he listed at the end as an economic problem that Russia would handle via tariffs and oil prices.
“The first mistake was the inadvertent conduct of the European Union. They did not understand the implications of some of their own conditions. Ukrainian domestic politics made it look impossible for Yanukovych to accept the EU terms [for an association agreement] and be reelected or for Russia to view them as purely economic. …
“Each side acted sort of rationally based on its misconception of the other, while Ukraine slid into the Maidan uprising right in the middle of what Putin had spent ten years building as a recognition of Russia’s status. No doubt in Moscow this looked as if the West was exploiting what had been conceived as a Russian festival to move Ukraine out of the Russian orbit. …
“If we treat Russia seriously as a great power, we need at an early stage to determine whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities. We should explore the possibilities of a status of nonmilitary grouping on the territory between Russia and the existing frontiers of NATO.
“The West hesitates to take on the economic recovery of Greece; it’s surely not going to take on Ukraine as a unilateral project. So one should at least examine the possibility of some cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily nonaligned Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis is turning into a tragedy because it is confusing the long-range interests of global order with the immediate need of restoring Ukrainian identity. …
“When you read now that Muslim units are fighting on behalf of Ukraine, then the sense of proportion has been lost.” [For more on this reference, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine Merges Nazis and Islamists.”]
Heilbrunn: “That’s a disaster, obviously.”
Kissinger: “To me, yes. It means that breaking Russia has become an objective; the long-range purpose should be to integrate it.”
When Kissinger Makes Sense
It may be a little scary when Henry Kissinger makes relative sense, but that’s only in contrast to the current dominant neocon/liberal-hawk “big thinkers” of Official Washington.
For Obama the Realist, the most practical way to begin moving toward a pragmatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis would be to stop the endless propaganda emanating from the U.S. State Department and repeated by the mainstream media and start telling the public the full truth – how the crisis really began, why the mantra “Russian aggression” is false, what on earth the U.S. government thinks it’s doing collaborating with neo-Nazis and Islamic jihadists in killing thousands of ethnic Russian Ukrainians, and who was responsible for the key escalating moment, the shoot-down of MH-17.
But Obama the Timid Soul – afraid of being ostracized by all the well-connected neocons and liberal hawks of Official Washington – doesn’t dare challenge the “group think,” what everybody knows to be true even if he knows it to be false. In the end, Obama the Elitist won’t trust the American people with the facts, so these international crises will continue drifting toward a potential Armageddon.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.