Richard Cohen is one of the Washington Post columnists who is published in small town, conservative newspapers. His December 30, 2016 column which appeared in the Lafayette Journal and Courier entitled “Syria, a Stain on Obama’s Presidency,” lays out a critique from the foreign policy establishment of the president’s foreign policy. Cohen starkly argues that Obama’s Syria policy is second only in its disastrous consequences to “the day of infamy” when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Why? Because...“Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Moscow to settle matters in the Middle East. The United States wasn’t even asked to the meeting.”
Cohen complains about the fact that the United States never engaged in the Syrian civil war. As to Aleppo, “the preeminent power of the region did virtually nothing.” Cohen indicated that Obama could have installed a “no-fly zone,” “established safe zones for refugees,” and demanded that Russia and Iran get out of Syria. But, alas, “Obama did not care enough.”
And, in the end, for Cohen, the cool, sometimes tempered President Obama was too dispassionate about foreign policy. Part of the Clinton presidential defeat resulted from the fact that she had to defend an Obama administration “that was cold to the touch.” The President “waved a droopy flag. He did not want to make America great again. It was great enough for him already.” As to Syria, “he threw in the towel.”
And Cohen repeated the mantra often articulated by Post editorial writers and columnists: “Since the end of World War II, American leadership has been essential to maintain world peace. Whether we liked it or not, we were the world’s policeman. There was no other cop on the beat. Now that leadership is gone. So, increasingly, will be peace.”
Cohen is wrong in virtually everything he wrote in this column. First, for the brutalized people of Syria any ceasefire and resolution of their civil war should be applauded. If the agreement between Turkey, Russia, and Syria holds it would be an extraordinary change from the relentless violence Syrians have suffered, from multiple parties.
In addition, the United States has been involved in the civil war since it grew out of Arab Spring protests in Syria in 2011. Most of the weapons various rebel groups have used since violence escalated have been provided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other partners. The U.S. hope was that the Assad regime would fall in a fashion similar to the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya.
Further, as Robert Kennedy Jr. points out (“Why the Arabs Don’t Want Us in Syria,” Politico Magazine, February 22, 2016), the United States has been interfering in Syrian affairs since the 1940s. Instability in the whole region-the Persian Gulf and the Middle East-has resulted from United States imperial policies since the end of World War II. What Cohen calls “American leadership” has included the 1945 oil for arms deal with Saudi Arabia; the creation of the state of Israel; growing involvement in the internal affairs of Syria, Iran, and Lebanon; opposition to the Arab socialism of Egypt and Syria; the Eisenhower Doctrine declaring the U.S. right and responsibility to protect the region from communism; to wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain in the contemporary period. Contrary to Cohen, the United States has done more than any other country to destabilize the region and destroy peace.
In terms of the general character of United States foreign policy, President Obama’s biggest failure has been his wavering from the pragmatic path he proposed in 2008 campaign speeches. Candidate Obama articulated the view that diplomacy should be the first tool any administration uses in foreign affairs. Diplomacy involves bilateral and multilateral negotiations, using various institutional venues such as the United Nations, regional organizations, and international economic institutions. And the use of diplomacy is particularly important in relations with countries that are enemies or potential enemies. The United States needs to have channels of communications with those nations who may not share its values or interests.
In addition, the Obama election was greeted with elation all across the globe because he presented the view that the United States needs to respect other countries, cannot be the world’s policeman, and must not act unilaterally has had been done in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in numerous other countries since the last World War. Perhaps Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievements have involved diplomacy with Iran, Cuba, and even sometime cooperation with Russia. Early in his first term he attended a meeting of the G20 countries and seemed to endorse a greater international decision-making role for the countries of the Global South.
But President Obama was subjected to the pressures, the advice, and the sabotage of his pragmatic approach to the U.S. role in the world by a confluence of “humanitarian interventionists,” those who justify intervention on the grounds of promoting human rights, democratization, and markets. Richard Cohen and The Washington Post are exemplars of this perspective.
And also Obama could not withstand the equally powerful pressures of the neoconservatives who take the view that as the most powerful country militarily the United States should intervene everywhere to remake the world in its image. For the neocons, world affairs are ultimately about power. The neoconservatives populate Washington D.C. in think tanks and other institutions. Some were foreign policy advisers in the Bush administration and some hold positions of influence within the Obama administration.
Whether inspired by humanitarian interventionists or neoconservatives, the dark side of Obama’s foreign policy has been illustrated by expanding a military presence in Afghanistan, returning to Iraq, working with NATO to overthrow the regime in Libya, collaborating with Saudi Arabia to crush rebels in Bahrain and Yemen, dramatically increasing drone warfare on a multitude of “enemy” targets, participating in the destabilization of the government of Ukraine, launching a new cold war against Russia, pivoting U.S. military resources to Asia against China, and funding rebels in Syria.
In sum, the track record of President Obama has been tragically flawed not because he “threw in the towel” but because he did not adequately pursue the pragmatic foreign policy agenda he promised his supporters in 2008. Mike Lofgren, (The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, Penguin Books, 2015), writes about a “deep state,” a set of non-transparent institutions, think tanks, and long-time political influentials who determine most of United States foreign policy without any semblance of visibility to the public. As Andrew Bacevich once wrote, the role of the public is to be compliant and supportive of whatever foreign policy decisions are made by these less than transparent influentials.
Occasionally, the President and key spokespersons and publicists are called upon to explain ongoing foreign policies to the public and/or to criticize deviations from the direction of policy a President might initiate. The Washington Post and its pundits explain what the U.S. role in the world should be, “the world policeman,” and call into question any efforts, such as Obama’s pragmatism, when they deviate from what the wise men and women and the deep state institutions demand.
Finally, what Richard Cohen, and other humanitarian interventionists and their neoconservative colleagues, does not realize is that the United States is no longer the hegemonic power in the world. United States foreign policy is going to have to adjust to a multipolar world and a world mobilized for radical economic, as well as political change. The supporters of Obama’s foreign policy vision were inspired by an approach to international relations that while still based on big power muscle was at least tailored for a more complicated world. The alternative might be World War III.
It is unclear what the direction of U.S. foreign policy will be in a Trump administration but most signs point to greater militarism and interventionism. A first response from the peace movement might be to rearticulate the vision of a foreign policy pragmatism that was promised but not delivered by President Obama when he first ran for the presidency.