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November 11, 2009

No he won't - Brendan Simms on how Barack Obama has reneged on his election promises

Posted by Brendan Simms

Barack Obama, in terms of his foreign policy, has not lived up to the hopes many invested in him at the time of his election - argues Brendan Simms, Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge.

It wasn't meant to be like this. Barack Obama was elected just over a year ago amid near-universal expectations of a fresh start in US foreign policy. His supporters looked forward to a new drive on Palestine, where a more "even-handed" approach (code for putting pressure on Israel) would re-energise the peace process; a process of "engagement" with Iran; and a "new chapter" in its relationship with the world more generally.

Those who felt that the Bush years had brought "humanitarian intervention" into disrepute, hoped for greater emphasis on Tibet and Darfur. After all, the President-elect's team included many genuine interventionists such as Tony Lake, Bill Clinton's first national security advisor, and Samantha Power, author of the famous book on Genocide (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide), and - at least until a disastrous speech attacking Hillary Clinton as a "monster" - widely tipped as new National Security Advisor.

In particular, Obama had promised a more robust policy in Afghanistan, which his campaign defined as a war which the United States and its allies could not afford to lose. Even critics, such as this author, believed that he would wind down the unpopular campaign in Iraq, rally Americans behind the "good war" there, parlay his undoubted popularity among Europeans into concrete troop commitments which had eluded Bush, and "get real" with Pakistan, whose military establishment continued to see the Taliban as potential allies against India. The announcement that Richard Holbrooke, the "bruiser" who had knocked heads together in the Balkans in the 1990s, would lead a new drive in Afghanistan, only strengthened this impression.

A year on, and the President has clearly lost his way. Some of the disappointments were inevitable, and were the product of absurdly high expectations for which he cannot be blamed. Health-care reform, for example, is a notoriously tricky issue over which many have come to grief in the past. Likewise, nobody should blame Mr Obama for his failure - so far - to make any headway over the Middle East peace process.

What unsettles friends and sceptics is his complete inability to get to grips with Afghanistan.

The Europeans, far from queuing up to provide more troops, are eyeing the exits. And who can blame them, when Mr Obama himself has sounded such an uncertain trumpet. True, he authorised a substantial force increase at the beginning of the year, but he sat on the recommendations of his commander General McChrystal for more than two months. The interminable seminar on "options" for Afghanistan has demoralised the coalition effort on the ground, and created the impression of unsteady military leadership. It is widely decried by British and other European strategists as the reason why they are unable to commit more troops themselves.

The events of the past weeks, when promised paltry force increases were so hedged about with qualifications, and demand for matching deployments, as to make them meaningless, have confirmed this picture. Worse still is the political vacuum. Mr Holbrooke has become increasingly invisible. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai has successfully seen him off on more than one occasion, and most recently over the flagrantly rigged election.

All this, unfortunately, is of a piece with Mr Obama's foreign policy across the board. He bowed to Russians objections to the proposed missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic - thus deeply embarrassing two loyal European allies - but failed to secure Moscow's support over Iran in return. He has indulged the Chinese government, first by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Beijing with the explicit promise to relax criticisms of the regime's human rights record, and then by refusing to see the Dalai Lama. He deeply disappointed Iranian Democrats by his weak criticism of the stolen election in their country, and yet the mullahs have thrown his offer of a fresh start back in his faces, not least by their increasing belligerence over the nuclear issue. Israel, which needs to be persuaded to stop building settlements for its own good, has more or less told him to get stuffed, and he has meekly accepted this. Finally, Obama has shown virtually no interest in Africa in general, and in Darfur in particular.

In part, this restraint can be excused by the fact that the United States is militarily over-stretched and in serious economic distress. That does not explain, however, why the President does not even do what he promised to do: to draw down in Iraq and to use the spare fiscal and troop capacity to step up operations in Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton said that while American leadership had been "wanting" during the Bush years, it was still "wanted" by the world. The President seems to be much less sure of this, talking a low profile whenever anything of substance is on the agenda. Obama's hesitancy clearly stems much more from a fundamental unease with the concept of intervention and democracy export itself. One way or the other, the President obviously does not believe that those who refused to be persuaded may ultimately have to be compelled.

"Yes, we can", Obama famously promised last year. Reviewing the record, it seems clear that he can't - or, worse, - that he simply won't.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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