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Barack Obama, Unilateralist

Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

This is billed by Rice as “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.” In fact it’s a more high-handed and unilateralist approach. How so? Because it rests on the assumption that the administration can choose to get involved only in the issues it has pre-determined beforehand are of interest, and that it can pursue a predetermined approach to those issues even if it flies in the face of reality and what our allies advocate.

This is a natural continuation of the president’s conceit that he can “end” wars by pulling U.S. troops out; in fact in Iraq he has re-started a war by pulling U.S. troops out. But it is part and parcel of Obama’s overweening self-regard that he imagines that his actions, and his actions alone, will determine what happens in far-off regions.

It hardly works that way. The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East–to take but one example–will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it. Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.

If President Obama were actually listening to what U.S. allies in the Middle East want, he would be focusing on toppling Bashar Assad and doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program rather than engaging with the Iranian regime. Nor would he be loudly proclaiming his desire to disengage from the Middle East and never again to use force. Like his ill-considered timeline in Afghanistan, those are signals that encourage aggressors and discourage our friends. Which may be why both the Saudis and Israelis, different as they are, both are signaling their disenchantment with the administration’s policies.

Meanwhile Obama has been alienating France, Germany, Brazil, and other countries over alleged NSA spying. The U.S. may have a strong case for what it is doing, but even those of us who defend NSA actions have to admit they’re–yup–unilateralist. So who’s the unilateralist now, President Obama?


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