Thursday, May 29, 2014

Obama's audacious claim: U.S. is retooling foreign policy from a position of strength

Back in December 2008, in an interview with Time's Richard Stengel, Obama set for himself what struck me as a "modest and ambitious agenda" to make a significant beginning on several long-term challenges.  I posited in early 2012 that he'd done reasonably well by his own yardstick.

In an interview airing on NPR today, Obama set himself an ambitious set of benchmarks in a narrower range: not foreign policy per se, but the legal and ethical framework in which foreign policy -- and military action -- is formed and executed.  Here's the agenda:
On his foreign policy goals before leaving office:
"I'm going to keep on pushing because I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability, that he or she has the capacity to — to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate.

"Closing Guantanamo is one. Making sure that we have the right legal architecture for how we conduct counterterrorism and that there's greater transparency, as I discussed today, that's another.

"Making sure that people have a sense that when we use drones, we do so lawfully in a way that avoids civilian casualties and in ways that are appropriate. Making sure that our national security apparatus is – has, you know, enough legal checks and balances that ordinary folks, not just here in the United States but around the world, can feel assured that their privacy is being respected.

"You know, these are all parts of what I consider a – a major piece of business during my presidency, which is recognizing we've got very real threats out there and we can't be na├»ve about protecting ourselves from those threats."

Obama has voiced all these goals before, but as far as I know he's not invited judgment on the progress made by the time he leaves office. It's a tough set of marks to clear. With respect to Guantanamo, perhaps this year he'll prove serious in his threat to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if it does not end restrictions on the executive's power to transfer detainees. Re NSA surveillance, I suppose some watered down restrictions may pass Congress, and he can declare victory on that front.  As for drone attacks, I'm not sure what Obama has in mind to convince other countries that U.S. use of this weapon is acceptably rule-based, or to deter other countries from following a perceived U.S. precedent of picking off perceived enemies at will. But the expressed willingness to be judged on his progress in these matters indicates that action is coming.

That agenda needs to be understood in the context of Obama's broader understanding of the country's place in the world, and the general state of world affairs.  In the 2008 campaign, Obama took heat for suggesting that threats facing the U.S. were less ominous than those of the Cold War. Again in this interview, as in his West Point speech yesterday, Obama suggested that the world is a safer place than it's ever been and that the U.S. position is stronger -- if, paradoxically, less dominant -- than it's ever been.  It's key to grasp that he sees the recalibration he's calling for as one undertaken from a position of strength. At a time when he's widely lambasted for foreign policy weakness (as was Eisenhower by anticommunist preocons), that takes a certain audacity. Listen:
Is there an overarching theme to his foreign policy, like President Reagan's opposition to communism?
"I'm not sure I can do it in a sentence because we're fortunate in many ways. We don't face an existential crisis. We don't face a civil war. We don't face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life.

"Instead, what we have is, as I say in the speech, this moment in which we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong economy that is getting stronger, no military peer that threatens us, no nation-state that anytime soon intends to go to war with us. But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.

"And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well."
Political scientist Julia Avari, a close student of presidential rhetoric, recently asserted that Obama has failed to redefine domestic issues in a way that would offer the public "new ways of understanding" them. As a longtime admirer of Obama's rhetoric, I have it on my agenda to consider that charge more closely.  Here, though, it strikes me that over time Obama has offered new ways of understanding America's place in the world: as first among equals in strengthening and in part reinventing multilateral institutions. Whether that redefinition has been backed up by action is another question: many critics sympathetic to his stated wish to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy would say no. But I have often been struck -- e.g., in the Goldblog interviews -- by the clarity and coherence of Obama's large foreign policy frame: placing current threats in perspective, and articulating the goal of multilateralist leadership.

P. S. I may be over-disposed to hearing echoes of Lincoln in Obama's utterances, but Obama has by his own testimony steeped himself in Lincoln's conduct and rhetoric. In any case, the conclusion of his goal-setting above, charging the U.S. with "the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well,"  seems to me to evoke Lincoln's final injunction in his Second Inaugural: "let us strive do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

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