A Memo for President Obama

November 18, 2008 Region: Americas

A Memo for President Obama

The president-elect has a lot of foreign-policy problems on his hands—but inaction in certain areas might be just as beneficial as strenuous exertion in others.

In domestic policy, president-elect Obama faces the need for urgent and radical action, above all of course concerning the economy, but also on health coverage and financing social security. In foreign policy, matters are rather different. There, what he does not do will be just as important as what he does. After the hyper-activism of the Bush presidency, there is an urgent need for a long period of caution and restraint.

Military overstretch, financial constraints and cooperation with other powers to deal with the world economic crisis all make this necessary. Obama's own admirably calm and balanced character also make such an approach seem likely. But one can never be entirely sure. The president-elect is inexperienced in international affairs, and any U.S. administration finds itself under multiple pressures for international activism and ambition from a range of lobbies, interest groups and ideological advocates. Already, his probable appointments in the field of policy towards Russia and the other countries of the former-Soviet Union inspire little confidence that the next administration will follow a more cautious policy than the last.

What the next administration does need to do in foreign and security policy is the following: First and foremost to mobilize world capitalism behind economic recovery. That is, to seek the cooperation of China, the other East Asian states and Russia, with their huge sovereign funds and currency reserves, in stimulating international economic growth.

Linked to this should be a new program of international industrial renewal and regeneration based on a shift to renewable sources of energy. Recent Chinese suggestions for technology transfers in return for caps on emission are well worth examining in this regard. This will be a painful process for the U.S. economy-but a time when the United States is already undergoing severe crisis, and previous free market certainties have been shattered, may well be the right time, or even the only time, when such a strategy can succeed.

As the world economic crisis spreads to Latin America and the Caribbean, it is likely to become more and more necessary for Washington to concentrate on stabilizing its own backyard, and finding the very large sums in aid which may be necessary to do so. Frankly, the sight in recent years of the United States fooling around in the Caucasus while Haiti starves and Mexico sinks into drug-fuelled violence has been neither morally edifying nor strategically sensible. These are areas that pose direct threats to the wellbeing of U.S. citizens-in ways that the status of South Ossetia most assuredly does not.

Partly for this reason, the next administration will need to extricate itself from both Iraq and Afghanistan with at least the appearance of dignity and success. This is not only because of the cost of these operations and the strain that they are imposing on the American military, but because Afghanistan in particular is beginning seriously to destabilize neighboring Pakistan-a country which poses vastly greater dangers than Afghanistan to the United States and the world.

Above all, it is essential that the administration not be led by the pursuit of a chimerical "victory" in Afghanistan into direct ground attacks over the border into Pakistan, such as occurred in August-September. Such attacks are the one thing that could provoke mutiny in the Pakistani army and destroy the Pakistani state, with all the appalling horrors and dangers that would result.

Given growing financial constraints, and the need to strengthen U.S. ground forces, it is essential that cuts be made in other parts of the U.S. military budget. A situation in which America provides half of the world's military spending on the basis of just over a fifth of the world's GDP is only sustainable if the U.S. population is asked for higher taxes, and domestic programs are slashed.

Neither of these things is possible. Already the emphasis on military spending has led to the gross neglect of those tools of international economic assistance which during the cold war were regarded as crucial to defeating communism. And in any case, the United States simply does not need so many aircraft carriers, fighter jets, battle tanks and nuclear weapons to deter the Chinese and Russians from doing something which they have no intention of doing anyway-namely attacking U.S. allies or vital U.S. interests (I mean real U.S. allies like Poland or Japan, not a delinquent incubus like Georgia). This is especially true since when it comes to combating Islamist extremism and (at least in the case of China) guaranteeing energy security, their vital interests in any case match those of the United States.

In policy towards China, no major change to existing policy is necessary, since this is one place where the Bush administration in recent years has pursued a generally cautious and pragmatic approach. There are certain areas, however, where a Democratic administration might be tempted to take a new approach, with extremely dangerous results. The first is obviously protectionism, spurred on by the suffering of U.S. industry. This would risk wrecking not just the relationship with China but the whole world economy.

The second would be if increased unrest in China due to economic hardship leads the American administration to launch a much more active policy (if only in rhetoric) of support for "democracy" in China. The more endangered by mass unrest the communist state feels itself to be, the more ferocious will be its response. There seems little doubt that the new administration will emphasize "democracy" in its relations with Russia and that these will suffer as a result. Presumably, this will include U.S. support for "democratic" opposition leader Garry Kasparov and his neo-fascist allies.

Unless the present Russian administration comes under serious internal threat-which still appears unlikely, though not impossible-this U.S. approach will be only an irritant. A much more serious threat to relations will be a continuation of the existing American policy of pushing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership.

This is something which the Obama administration most emphatically should not do. As the events of August demonstrated, ill-considered U.S. meddling in this region can lead to actual wars, further destabilizing the world economy and imposing new financial burdens on the United States. Since Russian policy at the moment is overwhelmingly a reaction to what the West is doing, simply to put the whole NATO issue on hold (without abandoning it formally at this stage) would lead to a significant improvement in relations.

Above all, President Obama should pay the closest attention to the fact that at present the U.S. does not even have an army that it could send to defend Georgia and Ukraine, even supposing that any American president would actually contemplate such a move. And it is hard to imagine that anyone as intelligent as Mr. Obama could believe that the Europeans will be much use in this regard.

This is another thing that the Obama administration should not do: Spend any serious effort in seeking additional European military assistance in Afghanistan. It ain't worth a hill of beans. What would be useful is if the British could pull out of Iraq and use some of the additional troops in Afghanistan. Even additional European money for Afghanistan is not necessarily a good thing, because it involves even more complicated and divided decision making processes-and it is precisely these hopelessly snarled-up and endless international negotiations which have so far helped make a rational development or political strategy for Afghanistan impossible.

A real help for Afghanistan would be U.S. détente with Iran, and the return of Iran to the role it played in Afghanistan before and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11-until Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech wrecked everything: That is to say, as a force deeply opposed to the Taliban and anxious to contribute to Afghanistan's stability and economic development. Obviously, there are many reasons why Obama should not rush into agreements with Iran, but he does need to move with deliberate speed to start improving relations. One fruitful approach might be to start talks on the issue of the Afghan heroin trade, which poses a major threat to Iran.

How much of this is likely? Eight years in Washington left me with considerable pessimism about the capability of the U.S. policy elites-Democrat as well as Republican-to carry out radical changes in policy if these required real civic courage and challenges to powerful domestic constituencies or dominant national myths. On the other hand, if the worst economic crisis for seventy years isn't the right moment for radical new thought, then there never will be a right time.


Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation, is a senior editor at The National Interest.