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Flunking Foreign Policy 101

A Los Angeles Times news article notes that Obama’s blowup with Israel followed rebuffs in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil — and that the harsh treatment of Netanyahu was intended to send a broader message:

Arab diplomats say the United States has also not been seen as forceful in dealings with Lebanon, which has seen an increase in Syrian influence, or with Iran. The United States and Western allies have been pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program, but they continue struggling to impose tough international sanctions. …

President Obama made little progress with the Chinese during his visit to Beijing in November. When Obama visited Saudi Arabia in June to raise money for the Palestinians, he was given a polite but firm no.

When Clinton visited Brazil this month to try to win support for tough new sanctions on Iran, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced in a public appearance with her that his country simply would not go along.

One senior U.S. official acknowledged that the tough U.S. position is not just about Israel and the settlements issue, but about “sending a message more broadly about what we’re willing to put up with. … This couldn’t continue.” [emphasis added]

Here’s a thought experiment, a kind of one-question foreign-policy exam: Assume you’re a superpower worried about not being seen as forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Which of the following strategies might change that impression?

(a) Become more forceful in dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil; or

(b) Land hard on Israel — to show Lebanon, Syria, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil how forceful you can be.

Obama chose “b.”

Lee Smith’s perceptive article describes one of the strategic consequences of that choice: he notes that the Obama administration has “all but announced that it has resigned itself to an Iranian nuclear program” and is moving toward a policy of “containment and deterrence” — and that such a policy will be undermined by Obama’s decision to land hard on Israel:

Of course, really effective deterrence would require us to make sure that our Israeli allies were perceived as highly volatile and unpredictable actors who might just take matters into their own hands and bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. That scenario would have a better chance of cornering Iran and its allies, compelling them to seek relief from us, the rational senior partner. Instead, we’ve just pulled off the strategic equivalent of beating our pit bull on a street corner to show the neighborhood tough guys that we mean business.

Substitute “ally” for “pit bull” in Smith’s last sentence and you have a pretty good summary of Obama’s foreign policy over the past year: if you were an ally, you were snubbed (the UK and Germany); your aid was cut off and your visas revoked (Honduras); your strategic defense was traded for magic reset beans (Poland, Georgia, and the Czech Republic); your free-trade agreement was withheld (Colombia); and your long-standing understandings and written commitments became “unenforceable” (Israel).

If you were an adversary (Iran, Syria, North Korea), you got an outstretched hand — with no deadline for shaking it and no serious consequences if you didn’t. It was only if you were an ally that you had to worry about Obama’s being forceful.



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