One of the things that perplexes me most about conservative criticisms of President Barack Obama is their general painting of a man who, from any sane perspective, appears to be a moderate Democrat, as the second coming of Stalin or Mao.
Liberals criticized Obama throughout his first term for not being leftist enough, yet conservatives babbled on about how the man secretly craved the destruction of global capitalism and the collapse of the U.S. global empire.
If there’s any sign that someone’s a moderate, it is this existence of this type of criticism. But, although I also consider myself a moderate leftist and despite the fact that I understand the reasons behind some of his controversially moderate decisions, I sincerely hope President Obama begins to enact more progressive policies—specifically in the field of foreign policy.
Throughout his first term, Obama played the part of a standard foreign policy realist. While realism (also known as realpolitik) was generally orchestrated and pioneered by conservatives like, perhaps most famously, Henry Kissinger, the unavoidable fact is that, whether Democrat or Republican, a degree of realist policy must be retained by our leaders in order to get anything done.
Now for those unfamiliar with the ideology, realism recognizes the anarchistic nature of the global society (i.e. there is no world government) and deduces that the best course of action for a state’s comfortable survival is to act first and foremost according to the state’s national interest. Now aspects of this worldview remain true; however, in the past realists have proffered an ill-defined and illiberal definition of national interest, often subtracting any morality from foreign policy. There are various reasons why politicians of the past chose this course, but today, in our current global society, there is no excuse for interjecting more morality into our foreign policy.
Although there are others, here are three areas where President Obama can inject a segment of morality into previously overly realpolitik policies:
- Cease ignoring the repression in Bahrain. The United States cannot claim to be a supporter of the Arab Spring in places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria on the one hand yet not only continue to ignore but also to complacently support the repression of a similar movement in the Shia-dominated country. Traditional realists will argue that the U.S. must continue its policy in Bahrain for numerous (mostly Iran-related) reasons—the area holds a key naval base for projecting U.S. power and containing Iranian regional hegemony; while the country now is dominated by Sunni elites at the expense of the Shia majority, a reversal of this situation could lead to a new country that is more “Iran friendly;” and pressuring Bahrain’s government risks straining ties with anti-Iranian, illiberal ally Saudi Arabia who is deeply dedicated to preventing reform in the region. All these arguments reek of short-term thinking. It is in the U.S. long term interest to support strong liberal, democratic movements. Supporting reform in Bahrain is not tantamount to supporting Iranian hegemony—it is supporting the democrats and liberals of Bahrain.
- Properly address Rwanda’s unconscionable support of the M23 rebels and their campaign of terror in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rwanda is a key ally of the U.S. in the region; however, allies should not be exempt from criticism when they commit heinous crimes. Lately it has become clear that the Rwandan government (as well as the Ugandan government) have been supporting the brutal insurgency of the M23 in the DRC. Instead of ignoring the situation like the administration did in its first term, the U.S. should take a proactive role in holding Rwanda and Uganda to account for their actions and facilitate a more peaceful way of resolving the various conflicts in those affected countries. Thankfully, signs look good on this front, as the U.S. recently blocked military aid to Rwanda over the summer in response to the M23 allegations.
- Begin to focus less on drones to do your dirty work in Pakistan and Yemen, and more on policy overhauls for those regions. Drones have their place in foreign policy and they will undoubtedly become a key part of future military actions. The same could have been said of tanks during the early 20th century. Yet the answer to every foreign policy conundrum in our time is not drones, as much as the answer to every global challenge in the 20th century was not tanks. Pakistan and Yemen face domestic challenges of a cultural, systematic and economic nature. These are the key areas that must be addressed. Bombing jihadi militants is merely treating the symptoms of overall disease. Militant extremists will be better attenuated in the long run from the growth of more effective, liberal, representative governments in those regions. And our long term policy should focus more in assisting in that growth than in “droning” our way out of regional anarchy.
This all being said, I still recognize the hard truth that realist policies will continue to hold a grip on our world for the time being. Most relevant of these policies is the reality that in some cases one must ignore one problem at the expense of another. For instance, Turkey remains an irreplaceable piece in assisting the Syria rebellion against the Assad regime. Yet Turkey remains an oppressor itself, specifically in its treatment of the region’s Kurdish population (although, I will note that things have gotten better in this area in recent years). In addition, assisting the rebellion in Syria may also entail directly or indirectly benefiting Sunni extremist groups. But such are the perils of our current foreign policy. Hopefully someday, through strengthened international institutions, cultural reform, and moral progression, these difficult choices will become a rarity.