Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just what is the United States retreating from?

I have a problem with the way Mark Landler frames recent Obama administration diplomatic activity -- the scheduling of a Syrian peace conference as well as the interim agreeement with Iran:
At one level, the flurry of diplomatic activity reflects the definitive end of the post-Sept. 11 world, dominated by two major wars and a battle against Islamic terrorism that drew the United States into Afghanistan and still keeps its Predator drones flying over Pakistan and Yemen. 

But it also reflects a broader scaling-back of the use of American muscle, not least in the Middle East, as well as a willingness to deal with foreign governments as they are rather than to push for new leaders that better embody American values. “Regime change,” in Iran or even Syria, is out; cutting deals with former adversaries is in.
To call these initiatives "a broader scaling-back of the use of American muscle" seems to me a distortion of historical US foreign policy norms. Regarding Iran: when has the U.S. ever imposed military muscle to halt another country's (professedly peaceful) nuclear program?  It is only the bluster of the neocons -- the crew who blundered into Baghdad -- and of a Congress always eager to show fealty to Netanyahu that makes a preemptive strike at Iran seem like a kind of default response to that country's nuclear program.

As for Syria: what post-Cold War precedent suggests that robust intervention in its civil war would be a normal exercise of "American muscle"?  Perhaps that impression is a mirage, born of Obama's "Assad's got to go" declaration (a mistake), the Libyan intervention (a very different case), and the Iraq invasion (not a civil war intervention, and itself a departure from U.S. norms).

There's a false dichotomy, too, between "regime change" and "cutting deals with former adversaries."  Forcing regime change in Iran was never more than a neocon fever dream.  The Green Revolution of 2009 raised the intoxicating possibility of peaceful change from within -- and this spring's election of Rouhani feels like a kind of minor-key reprise-in-progress. Obama never presented American-driven regime change as an overarching goal. That too was a Bush Jr. deviation from historic U.S. norms.

In a similar vein, Landler assumes a false norm in U.S. public opinion:
Still, diplomacy is a protracted, messy business with often inconclusive results. It is harder for a president to rally the American public behind a multilateral negotiation than a missile strike, though the deep war weariness of Americans has reinforced Mr. Obama’s instinct for negotiated settlements over unilateral action.
Can anyone remember the last time a U.S. president tried to rally the public round a missile strike?  Like, maybe three months ago? Obama turned to Congress because the public was overwhelmingly opposed to a  strike against Syria. And that's not just a matter of the "deep war weariness" Landler cites -- the American public almost never rallies around military interventions of choice. Conversely, there is overwhelming popular support (by 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 margins) for pursuing a diplomatic course with Iran.

One final neocon tinge to this portrait of a president retreating from muscular militarism:
For all of Mr. Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy, analysts noted that the United States often depends on others to take the initiative. In the case of Iran, it was the election of Hassan Rouhani as president, with his mandate to seek a relaxation of punishing sanctions. 

In the case of Syria, it was a Russian proposal for President Bashar al-Assad to turn over and destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles, an option the White House seized on as a way of averting a military strike that Mr. Obama first threatened and then backed off from.
The U.S., and the P5 +1 as a whole, has negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program in fits and starts throughout Obama's presidency. In fact this most recent initiative began last March, before Rouhani's election. It picked up steam once Rouhani surprised the world -- that is, when the opportunity presented itself. Then the administration moved with energy and stealth.  The U.S. "depended on others" only insofar as it takes two to tango. Moreover, the U.S. end-ran its allies to get the ball rolling -- because it's hard for seven to tango.

The Syrian chemical weapons deal, admittedly, was an odd bit of improv, and the administration was arguably forced into a passive position by its own hesitance.  But one case does not an "often" make.

The norm Obama has left behind is the norm established by the Bush administration its first term -- from which Bush himself in large part retreated in his second term.  Obama won office in part by promising to restore a prior norm emphasizing multilateralism and diplomacy and exemplified by George Herbert Walker Bush. Execution of that restoration may have been wobbly in some instances. But it's a dangerous myopia that implicitly casts Bush era adventurism and the current demands of its unreconstructed architects as something Obama is retreating from rather than leaving on the ash heap on which it belongs.

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