Obama’s Foreign Policy: Change?

Ever since he took office, President Barack Obama has been understandably preoccupied with attempting to mitigate the economic recession. With respect to foreign policy, Obama’s overused mantra of “Change” actually seemed to mean something concrete; he talked about ending torture, rebuilding America’s soft power and speaking to countries with whom America has no diplomatic relations. In examining Obama’s foreign policy thus far, especially in the Middle East, it is important to consider whether or not his decisions have meaningfully changed America’s course.
Among the first things Obama did was issue an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay. The fact that he actually followed through on this promise was, admittedly, rather surprising. Regardless of how one feels about the torture of suspected terrorists, it seems as though the Obama administration is actually recalibrating America’s standard of legality to match the standards of legality accepted by the rest of the civilized world.
However, the Obama administration is also taking a somewhat contradictory stand in regard to the case of inmate Binyam Mohamed. Essentially, the Obama administration is refusing to disclose evidence of illegal activity (the collusion of the Central Intelligence Agency and Military Intelligence, Section 5 in the torture of British citizens) on the part of the Bush administration. That is incredibly odd, to put it mildly, considering that Obama was supposedly opposed to torture and criticized Bush for it. Allegedly – and this is somewhat difficult to believe – Obama is unaware of any evidence related to Mohamed and his torture, as the information was hidden from him by officials in his own government.
The head of the organization representing Mohamed, Reprieve, sent Obama a letter pointing out the evidence that Obama must be familiar with. Apparently, an attached two pages outlining the evidence was blacked out so that Obama couldn’t see it. Again, this is difficult to believe. The only definite fact that has emerged from this episode is that Obama may not be as keen to part with Bush-era policies as many had thought.
Another one of Obama’s major policy moves was that of increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan. This is also not groundbreaking. Not only is it somewhat unclear whether (and how) the move will be effective, but those seeking “change” must ask why Obama hasn’t committed the United States to increased nation-building. While it is true that doing so would cost money at a time when the government is already spending nearly $1 trillion to “stimulate” the economy, it is also true that a little bit of money can go a long way in a country like Afghanistan, especially when the Bush administration limited nation-building in that country to a minimum.
Instead, the Obama administration is hoping that the Europeans will focus on rebuilding the country while the Americans continue to fight the resurgent Taliban.
Obama is also supposed to be applying increased pressure on Hamid Karzai, whose government is viewed in Afghanistan as corrupt, weak and incompetent. While that makes some sense, it only exacerbates the problem by further weakening a frail government and giving Karzai less room to maneuver. Besides, Karzai’s control barely covers Kabul, and if the U.S. withdraws its support, he might lose Afghanistan’s forthcoming election.
To be fair to Obama, he might be awaiting a report from a committee chaired by Bruce Riedel, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, that reviews American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan before formulating a more coherent, specific and different plan. Nevertheless, he doesn’t need that report to realize that sending more troops to Afghanistan isn’t a significant departure from the Bush administration’s policy.
America’s policy toward neighboring Pakistan hasn’t been altered either. Obama criticized Bush for supporting Pervez Musharraf, whom despite his several successes was judged by Obama wholly on his failures and seen as nothing more than a military dictator. Fortunately for Obama, he hasn’t had to refuse support to Pakistan’s government at a time when America needed its help, because by the time he got into office, Musharraf was long gone. He was then replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, whose questionable past Obama is committed to forgetting.
Obama has also continued to use unmanned U.S. drones, launched from within Pakistan, to occasionally bomb Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. These attacks, for the most part, have been huge failures.
First, the simple fact that the vast majority of the strikes’ victims are civilians makes it a failure. Second, it increases the desire of Pakistanis to quit the “War on Terror,” and of course compels some to join the travelling circus of “Jihad.” This puts pressure on a Pakistani government that is already viewed by a large segment of its citizenry as corrupt and incompetent. While American policymakers and analysts constantly express worry that Pakistan’s “fragile democracy” will become destabilized, the U.S. contributes to the likelihood of such a scenario by attacking Pakistani territory. Obama could easily avoid this by parting with a flawed Bush-era policy.
However, it would be wrong to forget that Obama did reach out to Iran. This was not only a true departure from Bush’s rather childish policy of non-engagement but also a wise move. Iran should be reintegrated into the international community, especially economically, if it is to cooperate on issues of concern to the United States. It has already shown the capability and willingness to do so in Afghanistan, and it’s reassuring to see that Obama realizes that traditional American foreign policy is not always the best way to reach traditional American goals. If only he would feel that way about every other foreign policy issue.

Samier Saeed is a second-year economics major. He can be reached at ssaeed@uci.edu.