A Word From Afar: Morning Clouds on Obama’s Horizon
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
Barring some unanticipated event, Barack Obama is set to become the 44th president of the United States come January 2009. The thirst for change is so
strong amongst the American electorate, the support for change so urgent amongst US allies, and the desire for change so
great around the world that the US cannot do otherwise but give this agent of change a chance. But that is not all that
skews the race in his favour, and that does not mean that he will have an easy ride once in office.
John McCain is a worthy presidential candidate with more than enough credentials to do justice to the job. But in a
sense he is playing to lose, and the Republican Party knows it. Burdened by association with the George W. Bush
administration, rendered by internecine quarrels between its moderate and evangelical conservative factions, unable to
offer policy solutions to the economic and social woes of a nation in recession, mired in foreign conflicts that, in at
least one instance, was more the product of (neo-conservative) neo-imperialist ambition than pragmatic threat
assessment, and cognizant of the depth of the problems confronting the winner of November’s election, the Republican
Party offers their candidacy to McCain as his swan song and reward for loyal services rendered. The hope is that he can
close the gap with Obama by appealing to disgruntled Clinton supporters and whites uncomfortable with the prospect of a
liberal black president. But closing the gap merely makes the election less of a rout, not a McCain win. With Congress
likely to become more firmly controlled by Democrats after November, and given the magnitude of the problems confronting
the next president, perhaps that is what GOP leaders are hoping for.
With defeat in the 2008 presidential election the GOP can regroup under new faces untainted by association with the W.
Bush administration while Obama confronts the daunting liabilities that are its legacy. Should he be unable to remedy
them, a rejuvenated GOP can present a major challenge to the Democratic administration in the 2010 congressional and
2012 presidential elections.
The election is, consequently, for Obama to lose. That looks unlikely. His campaign is working smoothly, there is no
dirt yet uncovered on the candidate or his family, he has dealt with negative publicity accorded some of his past
acquaintances, he has garnered the support of the Clintonites and other members of the Democratic establishment, and, as
his swing through Europe demonstrated, he has the hopes and aspirations of more than just his American base riding along
with him on the campaign. He may not be able to walk on water, but to many he is a secular messiah sent to bring the US
out of the self-inflicted miseries of the last eight years. To be clear: even if Obama is inexperienced, vague in his
promises and more style than substance, the inauguration of a black US president is of epic importance regardless of
historical context. It has the potential to be course-altering as well as history-making.
But trouble looms on Obama’s presidential horizon. It looms in the area of foreign affairs and international relations,
and its presence will be felt early. It comes in several guises.
Because Barack Obama is a neophyte in foreign affairs, the global system requires that he be tested early in his
presidency. That is because he will be the leader of the global superpower in a time of flux, with its pre-eminence in
international relations under challenge. How he responds to his first foreign crisis will frame international relations
for the next four years. An early foreign policy test gives both opponents and allies the opportunity to assess his
mettle. Such a test is not just required by individual nations that wish to assess their position vis a vis the US under
his leadership. It is a systemic requirement—the international system as a whole needs to judge Obama’s foreign policy
acumen early in his tenure so that the immediate structure of international relations can be determined and courses of
action thereby charted in a variety of areas (trade, security, environmental protection, humanitarian relief, etc.).
The precipitant for the test could come from an adversary (say, Iran, Venezuela or an unconventional warfare actor
hosted or protected by another state), from a former and potentially future rival (China or Russia), from an ally
(Israel, Pakistan or Taiwan), or from the interplay of others (say, Israel and Iran or Taiwan and China). The potential
test scenarios are many. The purpose of the test will be to ascertain Obama’s balance and perspective and well as his
resolve. If he over-reacts, he might involve the US in a conflict far bigger than anticipated, which coming on the heels
of the W. Bush debacles could spell the death knell for US use of hard power in the near future. If Obama under-reacts
to a crisis, he will appear weak and indecisive, which will embolden adversaries and force allies to strike out on their
own or find new alliance relationships to overcome the perceived weaknesses of his administration. It will also force
him to over-compensate in subsequent crises, which could exacerbate conflict and contribute to global instability.
His foreign policy test is as inevitable as it is essential. Until Obama is tested in a foreign crisis, the world
political landscape is left in limbo. Since certainty is the priority goal of all foreign policy-makers (followed by
continuity rather than change), it is incumbent upon the system to engage Obama early so as to develop some guidelines
and framework for dealing with the US over the next few years.
There are precedents in recent US history to suggest that an inexperienced president will be evaluated early in his
tenure by foreign actors. John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis as his tests; Gerald Ford had the
Mayaguez incident; Bill Clinton had Somalia and Serbia; George W Bush had 9/11. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were
confronted by foreign policy crises in the first three years of their terms. The common denominator was that none of
these presidents had a proven track record in foreign affairs prior to the inauguration. Only Richard Nixon and George H
.Bush could claim that honour (and even Bush Senior was confronted early in his tenure by the first Gulf War, which he
handled far differently than his son subsequently did precisely because he had the wisdom of prior experience). For his
part, John McCain embodies foreign policy continuity in both security and trade, and his personal attributes in the face
of past adversity suggest steadfastness of purpose and firmness of resolve. He espouses realist views of international
relations (Henry Kissinger being his leading foreign policy advisor), and he has not equivocated in his belief in the
pre-eminence of US power. That makes it less likely that he would be subjected to an early foreign policy test simply
because his positions are clear and his views well-known.
Then there are specific foreign policy issues. In order to court domestic constituencies, Obama has sounded off against
free trade agreements, including the NAFTA and CAFTA accords with immediate neighbours and the Colombian FTA advanced by
his two predecessors. He has railed against Chinese dominance in the US consumer market and called for measures to stop
the exportation of US jobs to foreign soil (and lower wage markets). This puts him at odds with Senator McCain and
leading sectors of the US business community as well as foreign trading partners such as New Zealand. He will therefore
have to reverse the US’s commitment to free (if not fair) trade, or betray his protectionist promises and abandon his
working class supporters once in office. There is no middle ground.
The same is true for his stance on Israel. He claims that he will break the deadlock in US Middle Eastern policy by
taking a fresh critical look at its relationship with Israel, but then promises that the his administration will never
do anything to compromise the special bond that the US has with the Jewish state. He promises to address the
Palestinians as full partners in the peace process, but then speaks of a unified Jerusalem in direct contraposition to
the Palestinian stance on the sacred city. He cannot have it both ways. As a result, he will have to backtrack on at
least one of his promises with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which augers poorly for the prospects of
effecting real change in the status quo.
Senator Obama, like so many others, speaks of eliminating foreign oil dependency. Yet he opposes off-shore and
land-based drilling in the US (including natural gas exploration in federal conservation areas). This is a diplomatic
issue because he criticises Arab petroleum monarchies for human rights abuses and religious extremism, yet also speaks
of them as committed allies of the US in the “war on terror.” Although the Saudis, Kuwaitis and various smaller Emirates
understand that election rhetoric destined for domestic consumption does not necessarily mean a shift in ongoing
relations given their strategic importance to the US economy, it does mean that continuance of these relations could
have negative domestic repercussions for an Obama presidency down the road. The reverse holds true as well: if he is
serious about reducing US dependence on foreign oil by pushing domestic energy alternatives, then the entire latticework
of pro-US economic and security agreements with petroleum oligarchies is weakened at its foundations. The same criteria
apply to a number of other foreign policy issues—what he says to his domestic constituency is at odds with the reality
of foreign relations.
Whether his choices are bad or good on moral or ethical grounds is beside the point (although one hopes that his choices
will be guided by some moral compass as well as the national interest and global common good, rather than by political
expediency). There will be a political price to pay regardless of the choice made, and the issue here is how he weighs
his decision, and specifically whether he is prepared to make and stick with hard choices in the field of foreign
There is his proposal to talk with adversaries like President Ahmadinejad of Iran and the Castro brothers in Cuba. This
is a laudable goal, one that the Bush administration tardily started to consider with its diplomatic talks with North
Korean and Iranian envoys about their nuclear programmes after years of silence. It is laudable because it can establish
a dialogue and broader parameters for interaction that might set the stage for more focused negotiations on specific
areas of contention. After all, the thawing of Sino-US relations began with so-called ping-pong diplomacy and
Kissinger’s secret conversations with Mao, so the precedent is there. But what happens if the other side makes public
demands or forces ultimatums? Does Obama back down and disengage? That would make the whole exercise appear to be futile
and counter-productive. Does he ratchet up the confrontation because he was upstaged? That would be impolitic and
provocative, perhaps inopportune for US strategic interests and inimical to global peace and stability.
Then there is his claim of “change.” If he is to be believed, the Obama presidency will herald the dawn of a new US
foreign policy rooted in “soft” power, humanitarianism, multilateralism and respect for all persuasions. He will eschew
hard power options except where already committed (Afghanistan) or where no soft options remain, and even then he
proposes to shift the mantle of leadership onto a more multinational platform. Yet he will not enter office with a blank
slate. Instead, he will inherit a web of prior agreements, commitments, institutional relationships and vested
interests. Hence the game he is about to play is a “nested” game in the sense that it is very much bound by the
arrangements and commitments that preceded his election. This foreign policy “game” is also rooted in past history, the
course of which cannot be changed overnight.
Rather than a new chapter in the historical book, foreign policy-making under first term administrations is
path-dependent (i.e. it is a product of past choices, which delimit the range of current choices available to policy
makers) as well as rooted in a larger web of relationships and contexts. It is not susceptible to dramatic or immediate
change (short of by war or revolution), but instead, is best shaped under conditions of regime continuity via an
incremental gains approach in which the cumulative effect of discrete changes is the path to policy reform or
re-direction. But that runs counter to Obama’s promises of whole-scale change in foreign policy direction. Once again,
he can do one or the other, but not both. The odds are that once in office his foreign policy changes will be more
pragmatic than revolutionary. Although realistic, that approach will not sit well with his grassroots constituency who
believed he was the herald of change.
Two other factors enter into the troublesome foreign policy equation for an Obama presidency. His foreign policy team is
largely made up of Clinton re-treads. Although advocates of soft power, human rights, democracy and multilateralism,
they were often outflanked or outwitted by foreign actors bent on their own contrary objectives as well as blind to the
rising threat of Wahabist and Salafist extremism and the strategic implications of a resurgent Russia and emerging China
and India. Confounded by uncooperative foreign actors, the Clinton administration either disengaged entirely (the
Rwandan genocide) or increasingly turned to the US military to extricate it from overseas “adventures” that started out
with good intentions but which ended in either disaster (Somalia) or policy-reversal (Kosovo). That makes for a mixed
foreign policy track record, which all foreign actors are bound to note and which darker-minded agents are sure to
Over-reliance on the military because of the failure of “soft” power or multinational approaches makes the president and
his foreign policy advisors increasingly beholden to the uniformed command. That is dangerous because it reverses the
natural relationship between foreign policy architect and military instrument in a democracy. Foreign policy made by
civilians under elected leadership should dictate military-strategic perspectives, not the other way around. Although
some strategic interests are long-term and enduring, it is for the civilian leadership, not the high command, to
determine the near-to medium approaches to the advancing of those interests. Among other sins, the Bush 43
administration is guilty of ceding military control of foreign policy in conflict zones in which it is engaged, which
makes Obama’s task all the more difficult when attempting to re-orient the thrust of that policy.
That is a particularly thorny issue. Barack Obama has a limited and tenuous relationship with the US armed forces, and
his closest foreign policy advisors have a history of poor relations with the military. That means that they assume
office having to establish a rapport with the US military leadership before asking them to fulfil their obligations to
the country and constitution. Obama’s refusal to recognise that the so-called “surge” strategy has borne fruit in
reducing levels of violence and promoting indigenous political solutions to post-invasion nation-building efforts in
Iraq only complicates the picture. Should he appoint individuals to the Defence Department who share his views, the
situation could rapidly become unworkable. As the saying goes, the military will obey his commands, but that does not
mean that it consents to his authority.
All of which to say that it could be a bumpy early ride in foreign affairs for the prospective US President. That does
not mean that Obama will not be up to the tasks that lie ahead, or that his first foreign policy test will end in
failure. What it does mean is that much is staked on how he handles that test. Presumably, in understanding of this
fact, Senator Obama has created a futures forecasting group that is charged with scanning the international horizon for
potential crisis points so as to develop contingency plans for responding to them. If he has not, the possibility
increases of decisional errors occurring at the moment of crisis.
Three months out from the November election, it is unknown if Senator Obama is aware of what is coming his way, much
less how to address specific foreign policy challenges. The party conventions loom and partisan squabbles could well
override his long-term planning. He could still lose the general election. Yet, the prospect of a McCain presidency
remains a long shot, so the possibility of a foreign policy crisis early in an Obama presidency remains the odds-on
Maybe that is why outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke nicely, albeit whimsically of the current status of
New Zealand-US relations during her recent visit. That is because six months from now both the bilateral as well as
global situation might change, and not inevitably for the better.
*A condensed version of this essay appeared under the title “Foreign policy potholes loom for an Obama presidency,” in
the New Zealand Herald,
July 29, 2008.
Paul G. Buchanan is a former US Defence Department analyst and consultant who studies comparative and international