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Obama’s Foreign Policy Trifecta of Foolishness

The Obama administration has been strikingly inept in the last few days in foreign policy, making a series of gaffes and counterproductive gestures that, had George W. Bush made them, would be igniting howls of anger and ridicule from the New York Times and the Left blogosphere. Now the crickets are chirping.

In a short span of time, the White House has managed to 1) embarrass visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; 2) enrage Jerusalem by offering Gaza almost  $ 1 billion ( in return for….?) while HAMAS is still firing rockets at Israelis ;and 3) pull the rug out from under our NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic with of a give-away-the-store offer to Moscow on missile defense, while pleading for help with Iran. A clumsy and premature gesture that President Medvedev treated with contempt and left Prague and Warsaw, which stuck their necks out in agreeing to host the missile systems, scrambling for diplomatic fig leaves. I wonder to what degree the Czechs and Poles had been consulted beforehand?  None of these actions appear to have been properly vetted and they left the new administration looking very green, slightly impulsive, indifferent toward America’s allies and fairly arrogant.

In fairness, almost every new administration makes first and second year blunders in foreign policy, most of which are completely forgettable in the long run. For example, as a student, an old professor of mine who was an eminent authority in Southeast Asian studies, once recounted to me LBJ giving ” the Johnson Treatment” to the King of Thailand, whose person is considered sacred to Thais and was, probably, in any event, unprepared for being put into a giant Texas bear hug.  Ronald Reagan did not give Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prior notice of the invasion of Grenada and had initially waffled in the early days of the Falklands War. At other times, the early mistakes prove decisive, such as John F. Kennedy’s failure of nerve during the Bay of Pigs ( or alternatively, approving a cocked-up covert-op plan in the first place) which helped precipitate the later Cuban Missile Crisis.

The one bright spot in foreign policy was the unveiling of the Obama administration’s new National Security Council structure which seems to have been judiciciously considered with an eye toward improving interagency DIME integration in policy formation and enforcing real discipline in execution. On paper, it’s a very good plan with some important changes for improving the national security community’s performance.

Now they need to put it into practice.

37 Responses to “Obama’s Foreign Policy Trifecta of Foolishness”

  1. Krenkel Says:

    Since the missile defense in Eastern Europe is not a NATO project but only an American one, you should not be concerned about "our NATO allies". Much more because the Bush administration did not consult the other NATO allies before they started this project.
    I’m not a big fan of Obama but this move was one of the best he could make.

  2. Mark Says:

    The humanitarian situation in Gaza is beyond tolerable, independent of Hamas provocations, intransigence, and illegitimacy. I hardly see why aid to the region must be roped into the tit-for-tat mindset that has ground progress towards even marginally peaceful coexistence to a virtual halt.

  3. Eddie Says:

    Israel is partially responsible for the mess that Gaza is (having connived with Bush in 2006 to foolishly boost Fatah’s chances without a credible read of the political situation in Gaza, a move that only diminished Fatah further and helped Hamas to victory and led an illegal blockade of Gaza that has destroyed the economy there for the last year, only strengthening Hamas further by destroying its political rivals and the moderation of the business community) and the Obama Administration needs to shore up its credibility in the Arab and developing world by giving aid to the Gazans. I somehow doubt McCain and Bush would not have done the same.

    Missile defense as crafted by Bush and co. in Eastern Europe is dubious at best (not to mention a collasal waste of time and increasingly precious money), and was (as Krenkel notes) not done within NATO. Does Obama have to cover for every unilateral Bush mistake simply because its allegedly the right thing to do?

    The Brits are far more along the path to insolvency than we are, and Brown’s desperately clingy staff had only set the tone for disapointment by talking up what their boss would get from Obama. I imagine Obama prefers Cameron anyway, who is set to take one of the world’s worst jobs next year.

    Perhaps what would be far more interesting would be your take on how silent Obama has been on the EU’s mishandling of the Eastern Europe boondoggle, North Korea and his lack of assistance to Mexico in their dire time of need.

  4. zen Says:

    How are unilateral a priori concessions a superior negotiating position than unilateral a priori demands ?
    The missile defense in E. Europe is not a "NATO Project" – never said it was – but Poland and the Czech Republic are NATO allies. The Russians would like the missile defenses gone, as they have previously stated. Giving away all your leverage as an opening move doesn’t leave you holding much at the negotiating table. knowing that the Obama administration is killing missile defense regardless means that Putin and Medvedev need extend no help on Iran whatsoever.
    The situation in Gaza is very bad, from a humanitarian perspective and Israel shares the blame with HAMAS, I agree. That’s also irrelevant to the diplomatic execution. Sending in aid that HAMAS is in a position to siphon off, as they have guns and control the ground there, in return for nothing ( the goodwill of the Arab world is nothing. Concrete gestures are something) is again an exceedingly poor starting position for negotiations. Presumably, Obama can make it clear that he is not George W. Bush to Arabs without having a huge amount ofU.S. taxpayer dollars go to re-arming HAMAS.
    Negotiations are not a thing in themselves but means to ends. This is flailing about.

  5. Dan Nexon Says:

    Mark, you are really offbase here.

    The Daily Mail piece is a right-wing hit job attempting to stir up controversy; I’ve had trouble finding equivalent claims elsewhere in the British press. The piece you link to does not suggest that Jerusalem is  "enraged" about the reconstruction pledge for Gaza; right after the donors conference Clinton went to Israel and made very strongly worded statements about the strength of US-Israeli relations. Poland and the Czech Republic are not upset about the possibility of trading the BMD deployments; Poland, for example, says it <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=aSAMgE650A2M&refer=europe">mainly wants the Patriots</a> (recall that the Poles would NOT agree to accept the BMD interceptors until the US offered a bunch of security goodies to them, which the US only capitulated to after the Russia-Georgia war). The Obama position on slowing or halting the BMD deployments for greater cooperation isn’t a giveaway at all; the system is of dubious value to us but a great bargaining chip. Don’t confuse Medvedev’s official response to Obama’s letter–which has a lot to do with domestic politics in Russia–with how this is likely to go down.

    Have you been hanging out a lot on anti-Obama blogs lately? Some of this is pure fantasy.

  6. NYkrinDC Says:


    I think, at least with regard to Russia, that Obama is trying to reset the relationship. Insofar as this is his goal, he is willing to get rid of the missile shield, and make a play for concessions from the Russians in return. In these economic times, it was unlikely that the shield would go forward anyway, and Obama probably reasoned that since he was going to ax the program anyway, he might try to see if he could get anything in return. That was his mistake.

    The Russian response was to be expected b/c they always viewed the shield as a line that should not have been crossed and something for which they would give nothing for to correct (in terms of concessions). That is, from their standpoint they’ve already been insulted, and asking them for a favor/concession in return for not continuing with the insult is not something they would be willing to contemplate in any case.  Obama doing away with the missile shield, however, shows he is pursuing a different route, and sends a signal that the US is ready to start again. The problem with the administration’s approach hence, was more that they asked for something in return (help with Iran’s nuke program) at all. They could have achieved their end goal without the attendant embarrassment by just doing away with the shield w/o any requests for aid on Iran from Russia.

    That said, you are right that the Czech’s and Poles are going to need something in return. Given the current economic malaise of the global economy, they may prefer economic aid far more than the missile shield. For Obama, as I said, this is far more about the hitting the reset button with Russia than anything else.

    As for Gaza, the issue for Obama may be more about building his own credibility as an impartial negotiator. That said, it is not clear to me that most of the almost $1B is going to Hamas, but rather seems to be in response to Mahmud Abbas’ request of aid to Gaza, something he sought at Sharm al Sheik. Additionally, after the aid was announced, Hamas agreed in principle to join a unity government with Fatah, something it had been refusing to do, even in principle, for a while now.  If anything, then, the US seems to be putting close to $1B on the table as a means of building up the credibility of Abbas and Fatah at the expense of Hamas. After all, even if Hamas siphons off some of the money, you can bet that Fatah will go out of its way to tell Gazans that they got the money and not Hamas.

  7. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I’m going to offer some of the same sort of advice I’ve offered my "lefty" friends: Chill.
    Diplomacy doesn’t happen instantly. And it’s best conducted from other than the lectern.
    Eight years of brainless hectoring has ruined a lot of people’s concept of how diplomacy is done. Some of the commenters here have it right; for the most part the MSM is still looking to the lectern.
    Now that we’ve got some adults in the government, we can expect that we won’t see all that goes on in diplomacy and that what we do see is part of negotiations and therefore includes various tactical considerations. That means that getting excited about a single report is probably counterproductive to understanding what is going on. It’s going to be the bigger pattern and longer-range outcomes that are important.
    I’ve written a bit about the <a href="http://whirledview.typepad.com/whirledview/2009/02/back-to-diplomacy.html">situation with Russia.</a> After I wrote it, I realized all the other things I could have added in. Think multidimensional chess with multiple players.

  8. purpleslog Says:


    I just want to be clear:

    You don’t see anything wrong with with the US providing aid Gaza while the governing authority of Gaza (Hamas) is attacking US ally Israel? Do you not think the aid like this from the US enables Gaza/Hamas to do things like attacking Israel?

  9. Eddie Says:

    It has been noted in all the press reports that the majority of the Palestinian aid is going to bolster the PA (itself a dubious proposition).  There is simply no way for the UN or the US to keep aid from going to Hamas. The Israelis did a smashup job of destroying Gazans’ consideration for other actors in Gaza, given how useless the PA and others were to halting the Israeli assault.

    American policy in the Bush Administration was tilted more to Israel than at any prior point in the modern Israeli-Palestinian era. If Obama happens to be asserting those days are over, so much the better for all involved, including the Israelis.

    Btw, goodwill does matter in the sense that America’s reputation is so shot in the MENA theater that a few doses of respect and consideration from Obama could very well go a considerable way towards easing some of the anger. It could help our allies in the region by reliving pressure on them for even dealing with us at all.

    I second the British right wing hit job observation, though I’d heard reports that Brown’s staff members were getting overzealous in promoting his relationship with Obama.

  10. NYkrinDC Says:


    According to Reuters, Obama denies that he made any quid pro quo proposal to Russia.

    "What I said in the letter is what I have said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed toward, not Russia, but Iran," Obama said after meeting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "And what I said … was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for a missile defense system," he said.

    However, the administration seems to be trying to tie both issues together. Gates, in that article is quoted as saying that there are two options on this, either persuade Iran not to go ahead w/ ballistic missile program, or make Russia a full partner in missile shield. Medvedev seems to agree with Obama’s characterization:

    "If we are talking about any ‘swaps’ (Iran for missile defense) this is not how the question is being put. This would not be productive," he said.

     Cheryl,Are you channeling Barnett here? Think multidimensional chess with multiple players where there are no rules except those that each player can get the others to accept.

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Dr. Dan

    I’ve been to the Duck of Minerva lately 🙂

    The Economist.com  does not have a story up yet on Brown-Obama. Telegraph is critical, BBC is positive but mentions the no press conference and The Times focuses on Brown’s speech to Congress, which helps compensate ( or perhaps overcompensates) for yesterday. Nevertheless, we have all been watching US-UK relations for some time and this was not red carpet treatment for Brown.

    UK Telegraph


    The Times

    Regarding the value of the missile system, which I agree has dubious military value, now lacks value as a bargaining chip as well due to the manner in which the administration raised the issue with the Russians. The system is going away on Obama’s watch regardless, is how Putin and Medvedev read Obama’s letter. Playing to their own nationalist yahoo constituency at home came after policy was decided, the yahoos did not drive their policy.
     NYkrinDC raised the issue of "re-setting" America’s relationship with Russia. As you both probably know, I’m all for doing that. Right now, however, Moscow is trying to take Obama’s measure and is likely to engage in provocative antics in order to try and throw him off of his game to see what his mettle is prior to entering any genuine negotiations over substantive questions. The administration needs to quickly decide what they can offer Russia  and what they intend not to tolerate and then they will be able to get down to constructive dealing.

    I will reiterate an inconvenient fact. With Gaza, HAMAS controls the ground. Period. Unless you have outside NGO’s doing all the humanitarian work in Gaza and you are giving them the money, then aid will be going in part to HAMAS. Route it through Fatah and they will steal some of it prior to cutting in HAMAS. Some of it will go to poor Gazans but only as much as Fatah and HAMAS feel they absolutely need to deliver.

  12. NYkrinDC Says:


    Oddly enough, with regard to Gaza, Sec State Clinton seems to be following the Bush line once again. She recently said that even if, as I noted above, the Palestinians form a unity government, the US or anyone else, would deal with Hamas unless 1) It recognized Israel’s right to exist 2) renounce violence and disarm.

    As any observer of the Israeli Palestinian issue knows, Hamas will not do either absent a comprehensive settlement with Israel. This, given that it criticized Fatah heavily for giving away its negotiating positions in return for nothing. That is, Fatah did both of the above a long time ago, and they have yet to achieve the dream of a Palestinian state. Setting these two pre-conditions is likely to push Hamas further away, and to reduce the power of those within the movement to form a unity government with Fatah anytime soon.

  13. NYkrinDC Says:

    sorry, meant would not deal with Hamas unless…

  14. zen Says:

    Note to commenters – if you use more than 2 links, your comment is automatically held for moderation. I approve them ASAP but that is not always as quickly as some folks would prefer.

  15. Eddie Says:


     I agree and believe that this is all theater by the Obama Admin, especially knowing they will have to deal with the extreme-right administration in Israel that will be busier trying to entrench and expand settlements than anything else. The OA may be seeking to reassert ties with Syria while seeking any potential peace between Israel-Syria that the IDF supports but its current leaders may not.

    Upon further reflection, while the missile shield is of little value, I do have to concede Mark’s point about the way the OA went about this decreasing its value further while causing needless political headaches for Poland and the Czechs, who are in enough hot water as it is because of the econ crisis.

  16. Cheryl Rofer Says:


    Not only has President Obama said that that’s not what he said, President Medvedev has also said that’s not what’s in the letter. I haven’t followed it up yet, but it wouldn’t be the first time the press got it wrong.
    I’m not intending to channel Barnett, but I’ve been reading his latest book and have the first part of a review up at WhirledView. I hope to have the second up in a day or so. I think I would have made the comment about multidimensional chess anyway. Don’t forget that chess is practically the Russian national sport.

  17. Dan Nexon Says:

    1) I don’t see any evidence that the Russians believe the missile system will go away no matter what they do. The Obama administration has been pretty careful about saying it will only disappear if it serves no military purpose. Despite some hyperventilating from the "we’re caving to the Sov… er… the Russians" people, the Obama team’s been doing as good a job with the Russians as anyone could hope for.

    2) The Brown stuff just hasn’t been that big a deal. Sure, there’s been some nattering, but the piece you link to is an <i>attempt</i> to stoke the flames; even the Telegraph blog just calls the whole thing curious and deploys a bit of typical Brit sarcasm about the whole thing.

    So I’ll come back to my point: your post seems–and this is very unlike you–detached from what’s actually going on with respect to these fronts.

  18. Eddie Says:

    Of course, perhaps Obama has it in for the British because they tortured his grandfather. Not quite Andrew Jackson’s brother, but it has got to smart somewhat.


  19. zen Says:

    "the Obama team’s been doing as good a job with the Russians as anyone could hope for"
    Well, if this episode represents a peak of that order then we may be in for a rough ride.
    Dr. Dan, I have to disagree. This exchange over missiles, while far from the worst that’s ever happened in post-Soviet Russo-American relations but in this area we are dealing with a very low bar, given the last, oh, 16 years or so. I’m not arguing that Obama is a foreign policy disaster, these are relatively minor errors but they are in my view slipshod errors of not thinking matters all the way through.

  20. Eddie Says:

    For more insight on how pathetic the Brown circus was in D.C. this week…


  21. Dave Schuler Says:

    I think, at least with regard to Russia, that Obama is trying to reset the relationship.

    Reset it to what? We have no default position WRT Russia. . Russia, on the other hand, is following a foreign policy tack that goes back 200 years.

  22. NYkrinDC Says:

    I meant reset it from what we had during the Bush administration which placed such an emphasis on Democracy promotion, NATO expansion and missile defense that it failed to articulate a means for Russia to not only engage us in addressing issues of mutual concern, but also placed them in the defensive by attacking issues of major concern to Moscow (i.e. missile defense, anti ballistic missile treaty, encroachment on its near abroad). In other words, remove unnecessary irritants in the relationship.

  23. Dave Schuler Says:

    We haven’t done any democracy promotion within Russia to speak of, have we?  The admission of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary to NATO was in 1999.  It can hardly be considered a Bush legacy but rather Bush continuing the pattern set by the Clinton Administration.
    We’ve been following substantially the same policy WRT missile defense for the last 20 years, haven’t we?
    This is no reset.

  24. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    NYkrinDC, not only that, some of Bush’s advisors (and perhaps the man himself?) either couldn’t move their minds beyond the Cold War opposition (one enemy is so much easier in concept than a multiplicity of actors in various flavors) or actively wanted One Big Enemy to, I suppose, unite the country.
    Dave, under Clinton, missile defense was a much more R&D thing than Bush’s installations in Alaska and proposed in Europe. And Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty to pursue those installations, a big danger sign to Russia. We may disagree with their view of it, but to them, withdrawal from the ABM treaty signaled an American desire for a first-strike nuclear capability.

  25. Negotiating With Iran Says:

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  26. Dan Nexon Says:

    Mark: Mea Culpa. I was wrong about the Brits, and condescending about it too. My profound, and public, apologies.

  27. Dan Nexon Says:

    Mark: on the Russians, this is a complicated dance. The Russians and the US both have reasons to be very suspicious of one another, and you’re going to see events like this in any attempt to re-normalize the relationship. My own view is that the Russians have more legitimate concerns than a lot of the foreign-policy hawks here realize, but there are also lines we can’t agree to cross. Mostly, though, the Russians want to feel secure and paid attention to. The main problem is that, in order to feel secure, they want us out of a number of places we need to be in, e.g., Central Asia.

  28. zen Says:

    Hi Dr. Dan,
    No worries. The comment section is meant for open ended debate.
    Re: Russia – I agree that the Russians have legitimate gripes with the U.S. and EU. Unfortunately, their idea of a "just arrangement",  as you point out, involves their being granted an unmerited and overbearing dominion over neighboring states that have grievances of their own against Russia and no desire to be "Finlandized" by Putin. Russian demands here are always going to exceed the reality that they are no longer the superpower they once were. A task of talking Moscow down to Earth is going to be a painstaking process.

  29. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    Much thanks for the link at Outside the Beltway !

  30. UNRR Says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/7/2009, at <a href="http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/">The Unreligious Right</a>

  31. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hi Mark –

    This post, and some other discussions I’m having, along with the analysis by the MSM prompted me to write about what we’re likely to see in diplomacy from the Obama administration. Quite a change from what we’ve unfortunately gotten accustomed to under Bush.

  32. NYkrinDC Says:


    We haven’t done any democracy promotion within Russia to speak of, have we? The admission of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary to NATO was in 1999. It can hardly be considered a Bush legacy but rather Bush continuing the pattern set by the Clinton Administration.

    I was referring here to our heavier involvement in Ukraine (Orange revolution), Georgia (Rose revolution), and our proposed inclusion of both countries within NATO and eventually EU. While not actively promoting democracy within Russia,  from Russia’s standpoint, we did plenty outside its borders. The Russo Georgia war, I think is pretty much acknowledged as being part of Russia’s attempt to push back and send us a message that it would not tolerate Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO or the EU farther down the road. This, of course, was exacerbated by the fact that NATO made it clear that though they would have relations with Russia, the country itself could never belong within the organization.

    We’ve been following substantially the same policy WRT missile defense for the last 20 years, haven’t we?

    As Cheryl pointed out above, we have not. The Bush admin withdrew from the ABM treaty to pursue the capability in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to protect Europe from the Iranian ballistic missile threat. However, following Georgia’s miscalculation and Russia’s response, the Bush admin immediately acquiesced and gained Czech and Polish permission to further the development of the missile shield. To Russia, this confirmed what they feared following Bush admin’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty, that the US missile defense in E. Europe was intended not against Iran, but rather against Russia’s own arsenal and hence a first strike capability.

    The Obama admin is trying to move away and attempting to move to a less confrontational policy that focuses more on our common interests while minimizing our disagreements. This does not mean we will allow Russia to have free rein in its near abroad, but working in a way that minimizes friction, (i.e. taking away Saakashvili’s ability to decide when Russia and the West go to war) .

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