This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Barack Obama is
a smart guy. So why has he spent the last four years executing such a dumb
foreign policy? True, his reliance on “smart power” — a euphemism for giving
the Pentagon a stake in all things global — has been a smart move politically
at home. It has largely prevented the Republicans from playing the national
security card in this election year. But “smart power” has been a disaster for
the world at large and, ultimately, for the United States itself.
Power was not
always Obama’s strong suit. When he ran for president in 2008, he appeared to
friend and foe alike as Mr. Softy. He wanted out of the war in Iraq. He was no
fan of nuclear weapons. He favored carrots over sticks when approaching America’s
His opponent in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton, tried to turn
this hesitation to use hard power into a sign of a man too inexperienced to be
entrusted with the presidency. In 2007, when Obama offered to meet without
preconditions with the leaders of Cuba,
North Korea, and Iran, Clinton
fired back that such a policy was “irresponsible and
frankly naïve.” In February 2008, she went further with a TV ad that asked
voters who should answer the White House phone at 3 a.m. Obama, she implied,
lacked the requisite body parts — muscle, backbone, cojones— to make
the hard presidential decisions in a crisis.
take the bait. “When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the
one — the only one — who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from
the start,” his response ad intoned. “Who understood the real threat
to America was al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Who led the effort to secure
loose nuclear weapons around the globe.”
successful politicians, Barack Obama could be all things to all people. His
opposition to the Iraq War made him the darling of the peace movement. But he
was no peace candidate, for he always promised, as in his response to that
phone call ad, to shift U.S.
military power toward the “right war” in Afghanistan. As president, he
quickly and effectively drove a stake through the heart of Mr. Softy with his pro-military, pro-war speech at, of all places, the
ceremony awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.
abilities have come to the fore in his approach to what once was called “soft
power,” a term Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined in his 1990 book Bound
to Lead. For more than 20 years, Nye has been urging U.S.
policymakers to find different ways of leading the world, exercising what he termed “power with others as much as
power over others.”
when “soft” became an increasingly suspect word, Washington policymakers began
to use “smart power” to denote a menu of expanded options that were to combine
the capabilities of both the State Department and the Pentagon. “We must
use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal
— diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking
the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation,” Hillary
Clinton said at
her confirmation hearing for her new role as secretary of state. “With
smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.”
has not been at the vanguard of Obama’s foreign policy. From drone attacks in Pakistan and cyber-warfare against Iran to the vaunted “Pacific pivot” and the expansion of U.S. military intervention in Africa, the Obama
administration has let the Pentagon and the CIA call the shots. The president’s
foreign policy has certainly been “smart” from a domestic political point of
view. With the ordering of the Seal Team Six raid
into Pakistan that led to
the assassination of Osama bin Laden and “leading from behind” in the Libya intervention, the president
has effectively removed foreign policy as a Republican talking point. He has
left the hawks of the other party with very little room for maneuver.
But in its
actual effects overseas, his version of “smart power” has been anything but
smart. It has maintained imperial overstretch at self-destructive expense, infuriated strategic competitors
like China, hardened the position of adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and
tried the patience of even long-time allies in Europe and Asia.
Only one thing
makes Obama’s policy look geopolitically smart — and that’s Mitt Romney’s
prospective foreign policy. On global issues, then, the November elections will
offer voters a particularly unpalatable choice: between a Democratic militarist
and an even more over-the-top militaristic Republican, between Bush Lite all
over again and Bush heavy, between dumb and dumber.
Softy Goes to Washington
Mr. Softy went
in 2008 and discovered a backbone. That, at least, is how many foreign policy
analysts described the “maturation” process of the new president. “Barack Obama
is a soft power president,” wrote the Financial Times‘s Gideon
Rachman in 2009. “But the world keeps asking him hard power questions.”
this scenario, Obama made quiet overtures to North
Korea, and Pyongyang
responded by testing a nuclear weapon. The president went to Cairo and made an impressive speech in which he
said, among other things, “we also know that military power alone is not going
to solve the problems in Afghanistan
But individuals and movements in the Muslim world — al-Qaeda, the Taliban —
continued to challenge American power. The president made a bold move to throw
his support behind nuclear abolition, but the nuclear lobby in the United States forced
him to commit huge sums to modernizing the very nuclear complex he promised
to negotiate out of existence.
this scenario, Obama came to Washington
with a fistful of carrots to coax the world, nonviolently, in the direction of
peace and justice. The world was not cooperative, and so, in practice, those
carrots began to function more like orange-colored sticks.
This view of Obama is fundamentally mistaken. Mr. Softy was
a straw man created from the dreams of his dovish supporters and the nightmares
of his hawkish opponents. That Obama avatar was useful during the primary and
the general election campaign to appeal to a nation weary of eight years of
cowboy globalism. Like a campaign advisor ill-suited to the bruising policy
world of Washington,
Mr. Softy didn’t survive the transition.
example, Obama’s speech in Cairo
in June 2009. This inspiring speech should have signaled a profound shift in U.S. policy
toward the Muslim world. But what Obama didn’t mention in his speech was his
earlier conversation with outgoing president George W. Bush in which he’d
secretly agreed to continue two major Bush initiatives: the CIA’s
unmanned drone air war in Pakistan’s
tribal borderlands and the covert program to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program with
just continue these programs; he amplified them. The result has been an unprecedented expansion of U.S.
military power through unmanned drones in Pakistan
and neighboring Afghanistan
as well as Somalia and Yemen. The use
of drones, and the civilian casualties they’ve caused, has in turn enflamed
public opinion around the world, with the favorability rating of the United
States under Obama in majority Muslim countries falling to a new low of 15% in 2012, lower, that is, than the rock-bottom standard set by the Bush administration.
campaign has undermined other smart power approaches, including that old
standby diplomacy, not only by antagonizing potential interlocutors but also by
killing a good number of them. Along with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,
often cited as one of Obama’s signal accomplishments, the drone war has by now
provoked a slow-motion rupture in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
cyber-war initiative against Iran’s
nuclear program, conducted with Israeli cooperation, produced both the Stuxnet
worm, which wreaked havoc on Iranian centrifuges, and the Flame virus, which
monitored its computer network. Instead of vigorously pursuing diplomatic
solutions — such as the nuclear compromise that Brazil
cobbled togetherin 2010 that might have
defused the situation and guaranteed a world without an Iranian bomb — the
Obama administration acted secretly and aggressively. If the United States had been the target of such a
cyber attack, Washington
would have considered it an act of war. Meanwhile, the United States has set a dangerous
precedent for future attacks in this newest theater of operations and unleashed
a weapon that could even be reverse-engineered and sent back in our direction.
diplomacy ever actually on the table with North Korea. The Obama team came in
with a less than half-hearted commitment to the Six Party process — the
negotiations to address North Korea’s
nuclear program among the United States,
China, Russia, Japan,
and the two Koreas,
which had stalled in the final months of George W. Bush’s second term. In the
National Security Council, Asia point man Jeffrey Bader axed a State Department cable that would have reassured the
North Koreans that a U.S.
policy of engagement would continue. “Strategic patience” became the euphemism
for doing nothing and letting hawkish leaders in Tokyo
unravel the previous years of engagement. After some predictably belligerent
rhetoric from Pyongyang,
followed by a failed missile launch and a second nuclear test, Obama largely
dispensed with diplomacy altogether.
did indeed move quickly to increase the size of the State Department
budget to hire more people and implement more programs to beef up diplomacy.
That budget grew by more than 7% in 2009-2010. But that didn’t bring the
department of diplomacy up to even $50 billion. In fact, it is still plagued by
a serious shortage of diplomats and, as State Department
whistleblower Peter van Buren has written, “The whole of the Foreign Service is
smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier.” Meanwhile, despite a
persistent recession, the Pentagon budget continued to rise during the Obama
years — a roughly 3% increase in 2010 to about $700 billion. (And Mitt Romney promises to hike it even more drastically.)
Democratic politicians, Obama has been acutely aware that hard power is a way
of establishing political invulnerability in the face of Republican attacks.
But the use of hard power to gain political points at home is a risky affair.
It is the nature of this “dumb power” to make the United States
into a bigger target, alienate allies, and jeopardize authentic efforts at
Kinder, Gentler Empire
rhetorical flexibility, “smart power” has several inherent flaws. First, it
focuses on the means of exercising power without questioning the ends toward
which power is deployed. The State Department and the Pentagon will tussle over
which agency can more effectively win the hearts and minds of Afghans. But
neither agency is willing to rethink the U.S. presence in the country or
acknowledge how few hearts and minds have been won.
As with Afghanistan, so
with the rest of the world. For all his talk of power “with” rather than “over,”
Joseph Nye has largely been concerned with different methods by which the United States
can maintain dominion. “Smart power” is not about the inherent value of
diplomacy, the virtues of collective decision-making, or the imperatives of
peace, justice, or environmental sustainability. Rather it is a way of
calculating how best to get others to do what America wants them to do, with
the threat of a drone strike or a Special Forces incursion always present in
at least, has been clear about this point. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates argued for “strengthening our capacity to use soft power
and for better integrating it with hard power.” The Pentagon has long realized
that a toolbox with only a single hammer in it handicaps the handyman, but it
still persists in seeing a world full of nails.
At a more
practical level, “smart power” encounters problems because in this
“integration,” the Pentagon always turns out to be the primary partner. As a
result, the work of diplomats, dispensers of humanitarian aid, and all the
other “do-gooders” who attempt to distinguish their work from soldiers is
compromised. After decades of trying to persuade their overseas partners that
they are not simply civilian adjuncts to the Pentagon, the staff of the State
Department has now jumped into bed with the military. They might as well put
big bull’s eyes on their backs, and there’s nothing smart about that.
also provides a lifeline for a military that might face significant cuts if Congress’s sequestration plan goes through. NATO has
already shown the way. Its embrace of “smart defense” is a direct response to military cutbacks
by European governments. The Pentagon is deeply worried that budget-cutters
will follow the European example, so it is doing what corporations everywhere
attempt during a crisis. It is trying to rebrand its services.
search of a mission, the Pentagon now has its fingers in just about every pie
in the bakery. The Marines are doing drug interdiction in Guatemala. Special Operations forces are constructing
cyclone shelters in Bangladesh.
The U.S. Navy provided post-disaster relief in Japan
after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, while the
U.S. Army did the same in Haiti. In 2011, the Africa Command budgeted $150 million for development and health care.
in other words, has turned itself into an all-purpose agency, even attempting “reconstruction” along with State and various
crony corporations in Iraq
It is preparing for the impact of climate change, pouring R & D dollars
into alternative energy, and running operations in cyberspace. The Pentagon has
been smart about its power by spreading it everywhere.
Obama has shown no hesitation to use force. But his use of military power has
not proven any “smarter” than that of his predecessor. Iran and North Korea pushed ahead with their
nuclear programs when diplomatic alternatives were not forthcoming. Nuclear
is closer to outright anarchy than four years ago. Afghanistan
is a mess, and an arms race is heating up in East Asia, fueled in part by the
efforts of the United States
and its allies to box in China with more air and sea power.
In one way,
however, Obama has been Mr. Softy. He has shown no backbone whatsoever in
confronting the bullies already in America’s corner. He has done
little to push back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his
occupation policies. He hasn’t confronted Saudi
Arabia, the most autocratic of U.S. allies. In fact, he has
leveraged the power of both countries — toward Iran,
Syria, Bahrain. A key
component of “smart power” is outsourcing the messy stuff to others.
mistake: Mitt Romney is worse. A Romney-Ryan administration would be a step
backward to the policies of the early Bush years. President Romney would
increase military spending, restart a cold war with Russia,
possibly undertake a hot war against Iran, deep-six as many multilateral
agreements as he could, and generally resurrect the Ugly American policies of
the recent past.
Romney wouldn’t fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy. After all,
President Obama has largely preserved the post-9/11 fundamentals laid down by
George W. Bush, which in turn drew heavily on a unilateralist and militarist
recipe that top chefs from Bill Clinton on back merely tweaked.
mentioned, sotto voce, that Mr. Softy might resurface if the incumbent
is reelected. Off mic, as he mentioned in an aside to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
at a meeting in Seoul
last spring, he has promised to show more “flexibility” in his second term.
This might translate into more arms agreements with Russia,
more diplomatic overtures like the effort with Burma, and more spending of political capital
to address global warming, non-proliferation, global poverty, and health
But don’t count
on it. The smart money is not with Obama’s smart power. Mr. Softy has largely
been an electoral ploy. If he’s re-elected, Obama will undoubtedly continue to
act as Mr. Stick. Brace yourself for four more years of dumb power — or, if he
loses, even dumber power.
Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is an Open Society Fellow
for 2012-13 focusing on Eastern Europe. He is
the author of Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam (City
Lights Books). His writings can be found on his website johnfeffer.com.
To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which John Feffer
discusses power — hard, soft, smart, and dumb — click here or download it to your iPod here.