Obama Must Rewrite His Foreign Policy Legacy
With a more than comfortable margin of 332 to 206 electoral votes, President Barack Obama held onto office last Tuesday. Now the big question for foreign policy is whether Legacy Obama will be a bolder advocate for peace than the disappointing Campaign Obama.
The president will need to recast a foreign policy that has been weak or downright contradictory in standing up for the principles he himself has espoused. To do that, there are several key moves ahead. An agenda for change would have to include the following:
1. Put diplomacy first. This has been said many times before, but the absence of consistent follow-up places it in doubt. The idea behind real statesmanship (or stateswomanship) is not to speak softly and carry a big stick. It is to speak clearly and firmly—and leave the stick as a last resort.
This means really being the boss of the Pentagon. A hammer sees every problem as a nail—and sets out to pound. The mindset that the capacity to kill and destroy is a deterrent in favor of peace will never be uprooted among most military men, steeped in a patriarchal culture and trained to defeat enemies on the battlefield. Like the neocons, they believe a safe world can only be achieved through unquestioned domination and a permanent threat of, or use of, force—with a self-referential response to the question of “safe for whom?”
This mentality inherently violates the principles of self-determination and mutual respect, as well as the emphasis on diplomacy that the president has expressed. It ignores the fact that a world that is more just and more equal is also more stable.
During the campaign, Obama heralded his withdrawal from Iraq, his incomplete drawdown in Afghanistan, and his insistence on sanctions against Iran. He now must now review his administration’s actions on other fronts. A record $60-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is not a step in the right direction.
The touted “pivot to the Pacific” includes last year’s $5.8-billion arms sale to Taiwan, the basing of Marines in Australia, and ringing China with a missile defense system. Placing priority on the region makes sense, but a military pivot just changes the sights of the gun. Obama’s ambivalent portrayal of China as both a partner and an adversary increases tensions in a largely peaceful region.
It’s the president’s job to balance might and mind. In practice, he must rein in powerful interests. These include defense contractors and private security firms—the mercenaries who increasingly fight our wars. Diplomacy does not generate juicy contracts for them, but it is the surest road to peace.
2. Re-balance fiscal priorities. The United States has unparalleled military strength in the world. As Obama noted in the foreign policy debate, we devote more resources to defense than the next ten countries combined.
This is not something to be proud of. In the United States there are millions of children who go to bed hungry. Others attend schools that lack basic educational materials, or where a talent for art or music withers because these subjects—considered extraneous to the labor market but central to human development and happiness—have been cut from the curriculum.
Twenty percent of the U.S. budget—and more than half of all discretionary spending—goes to defense spending, often against ill-defined and trumped-up threats. Scarce taxpayer dollars flow into defense industry boondoggles.
The Boeing virtual fence on the Mexico border is a good example. This project, which was abandoned in 2010 after costing taxpayers a whopping $1 billion, alerted the National Guard to “terrorist movements” like grazing cows and autumn gusts of wind and tended to fail on hot days (even though it was designed for the Arizona desert). In Iraq, Halliburton received millions in government payments that were never accounted for.
Every once in a while, we—the forgetful citizenry of the land of one-day headlines—remember these things. And we wonder where we would be if our families and communities had received those millions instead of the voracious defense industry and gluttonous security firms. Many of us would feel safer if we had jobs, modern infrastructure, and a bright future for our children.
3. Take women’s voices into account. A “gender gap” is usually the discrepancy that reflects inequality between men and women. In the 2012 elections, it referred to the overwhelming support Obama received from women voters.
Now the government should listen to these women. They do not speak with a single voice—they are of different races, classes, and political parties. However, they do share some common concerns.
Women want to make decisions about their own bodies, and they punished candidates who threatened to take that right away. But they also generally favor more investment in their families and communities, and less in war. A gender perspective on foreign policy must consider the mounting number of women and children killed in the way we fight wars today and reverse the trend immediately. This includes ending the use of drone attacks and indiscriminate bombings of civilian populations. It includes halting security aid to allied forces that rape and kill women in their own countries.
It’s time to design a foreign policy that puts the security of women and children above that of states and investments.
4. End the drug war. The so-called “ war on drugs” has become a cloak for military expansion in Latin America. Military and counternarcotics spending (INCLE) have sucked up billions of dollars ostensibly to stop the flow of illegal drugs to the United States. That expenditure has been worse than useless, as 60,000 people have been murdered since the drug wars started in Mexico—yet drugs continue to flow into the United States unabated. Prohibition is not just failing; it’s killing and incarcerating America’s youth and citizens in Mexico, Colombia, and Central America as cartels turn more brutal and ruthless.
A new Obama administration must end the Merida Initiative to Mexico immediately. We must create a more balanced and logical way of relating to our southern neighbor, instead of spending millions of dollars on a violently counterproductive policy. Like the infamous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq, “narco-terrorism” in Latin America is a term invented to justify a war—it perpetuates senseless bloodshed and dangerously obscures the nature of the real threat from organized crime. The Obama administration must take responsibility for the thousands who have disappeared or been assassinated under this Bush-era policy that continues even today. In his second term, Obama must heed the calls of Latin American citizens and leaders to change it.
As William Hartung points out, the Obama military strategy unveiled in January shows “an expansion of U.S. military commitments that are more appropriate for a policy of global hegemony than they are for a policy of genuine defense.” More recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s trip to Latin America revealed an agenda to beef up military-to-military ties while bypassing governments and diplomatic paths.
To stand up to a retooled and more powerful than ever military-industrial establishment requires boldness and a deep commitment to peace. If President Obama seeks to leave a meaningful legacy in his second term, this is the place to start.
Laura Carlsen is Director of the CIP Americas Program in Mexico City www.cipamericas.org.
First published in Foreign Policy in Focus on November 8, 2012.