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Is President Obama Turning America into a Paper Tiger?

President Obama combines a very ambitious diplomacy with declining U.S. military and economic firepower. The result: Other countries gain influence outside negotiations while Obama works patiently to reach agreements in negotiations.

In his first days in office, Obama launched multiple diplomatic initiatives: to reset our relationship with Russia, engage China, jump-start Middle East negotiations, extend an open hand to Iran, and create AfPak (a unified policy for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan). He dispatched a bevy of special envoys to trouble spots around the world. At the same time, he announced a cut in defense outlays by $500 billion over the next ten years — to be followed by another $500 billion if sequestration occurs in January 2013 — and superintended the weakest recovery of the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. He negotiates more and more objectives with fewer and fewer resources.

The purpose of negotiations is either to achieve shared interests or to bargain over conflicting interests. Obama emphasizes the first approach. In Obama’s view, the biggest obstacle to agreement on a wide range of problems is U.S. policy. All countries, he believes, share interests in matters such as nonproliferation, climate change, and economic recovery; and if they are brought together in the right manner — meaning multilaterally and deferentially — they will reach agreement. Under his predecessor, George W. Bush, the United States acted unilaterally and disrespectfully. Change that behavior, and other countries will come around. Declining U.S. military and economic resources are not particularly relevant and may even help to ease the image of American arrogance.

But what if negotiations are not over shared interests but over conflicting ones? What if countries like to live in a world in which their own power expands and their values prevail? Moscow seeks a sphere of privileged interests in the former Soviet zone and feels uncomfortable with democracy in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia itself. Beijing opposes U.S. dominance of Asian sea lanes and fears democracy in Taiwan and political reforms in North Korea. In cases like these, agreement depends on bargaining, and bargaining depends on military and economic resources.

Military and economic capabilities provide three types of leverage: leverage to set the agenda for negotiations, leverage to conclude trade-offs once negotiations are under way, and, most important, leverage to deny negotiating partners their objectives while negotiations are taking place. Ronald Reagan used all three types in his successful bid to end Communism in the Soviet Union. He revved up the U.S. economy and initiated an arms race to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength. He deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe to have something to trade off against Soviet SS-20 missiles. And he supported freedom fighters in Afghanistan, Central America, and southern Africa to deny Soviet forces the opportunity to expand Moscow’s influence outside negotiations.

Obama operates with none of these sources of leverage. He has cut defense expenditures and oversees a stalled economy; he gives away rather than cultivates bargaining chips to trade off within negotiations; and he merely watches as negotiating partners advance their objectives outside negotiations.

Here are some examples:

To reset our relationship with Russia, Obama gave away his leverage before negotiations started. Because Russia objected, he canceled missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, which could have intercepted intermediate-range missiles, in favor of installations in Romania, Turkey, and at sea, which could intercept short-range missiles only. Then Obama concluded New START, which cut U.S. strategic warheads but left Russian totals unchanged. A few hundred warheads — no big deal, right? Besides, New START revived verification inspections, which is a common interest. Yes, but Russia got everything it wanted and changed none of its policies. And those policies continue to work steadily against Western interests, muzzling democratic forces in Russia, backing a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, stationing Russian troops in Georgia and keeping Georgia out of NATO, and providing unyielding support for Israel’s foes Iran and Syria. Most recently, Russia demanded once again that the United States scale back missile-defense plans before talks begin on tactical nuclear warheads. Moscow has learned how to negotiate with Obama.

Obama engaged with China to persuade it to cooperate on climate change, nonproliferation, and economic recovery. China feigned cooperation on all three fronts but concluded no significant agreements on any of them. Meanwhile, despite Obama’s focus on common problems, China pursued its own agenda. It abandoned a policy of “peaceful rise” in Asia to assert more aggressive territorial claims to disputed islands and resources in the East and South China Seas. It sheltered an increasingly aggressive North Korean regime that sank a South Korean military vessel, attacked civilian installations on South Korean islands, and conducted further nuclear and missile tests — the last right after the United States had concluded an agreement with North Korea presumably precluding further missile tests. And China cracked down on domestic dissidents even as the Obama administration muffled its criticism of the state of human rights in China. What’s not to like about negotiations from China’s point of view? It pretends cooperation within negotiations and makes progress toward its objectives outside negotiations.

Perhaps most telling are Obama’s negotiations with Iran. He deliberately refrained from intervening in the green revolution in Tehran in June 2009 because he wanted to negotiate with the government to end Iran’s nuclear program. It is now three years later, and so far those negotiations have yielded no results, despite the tightening of multilateral sanctions by the U.S. and its principal allies. But why should Iran give up anything in negotiations if it can achieve its objectives outside negotiations? Not only does it continue its nuclear program, it extends its influence throughout the Middle East, meddling in Iraq, backing Assad in Syria, fomenting unrest in the Gulf oil-producing states, and aiding terrorists in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank.

While negotiations proceed, Obama does nothing to push back. He withdraws U.S. troops entirely from Iraq, even though a residual U.S. force in that country might have done more to draw the line on Iran’s nuclear-based foreign-policy ambitions than sanctions and negotiations can. He intervenes in Libya, where Iran has minimal influence, but dithers over Syria, which is Iran’s key ally both in supporting terrorism in the region and in the effort to eventually bring Iraq back into the rejectionist front against Israel. Despite Obama’s goodwill, Russia and China steadfastly refuse to support crippling Iranian sanctions, not least because they have a stake in Syrian and Iranian influence in the Middle East — Russia in naval bases in Syria, China in access to Iranian oil.

Obama’s diplomacy suffers from similar weaknesses in Southwest Asia. He is on course to withdraw all regular American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Our allies are jumping ship even sooner. Whose influence will fill the vacuum? Obama ordered the troop surge in 2009 to disrupt the Taliban because it attacked America. Now he supports negotiations to bring the Taliban back into the government. Simultaneously, America’s special-forces raids and drone attacks kill Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda terrorists but weaken Pakistan. AfPak emerges not as a zone of wider regional stability but as an arena of intensified conflict in which the Taliban, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India all compete to replace the United States.

The unchecked ambition and material weakness of Obama’s diplomacy have opened up still wider breaches in U.S. defense policies. Obama announced belatedly, in January 2012, strategic defense guidance that no longer supports two wars simultaneously in the Middle East and Asia. He then ordered a “pivot” of American military forces to Asia — which will eventually deploy 60 percent of American ships to the Pacific — at the very moment his administration was ratcheting up sanctions and positioning additional naval forces against Iran in the Persian Gulf. The implausibility of cutting and increasing forces at the same time escapes no one. Obama has to protest that “reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.” And he restates his determination to defend Israel by adding, “I don’t bluff,” as if someone doing the counting might wonder how he will defend Israel and pivot to Asia at the same time.

Obama’s foreign policy hinges on the thin hope that countries share interests and do not compete for military and economic power. If he is right, America’s declining military and economic capabilities do not matter much. If he is wrong, America begins to appear as a paper tiger. Then–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates denied the charge in 2010: “I don’t think anybody believes the United States is a paper tiger.” When you have to deny something, it is a sure sign it’s beginning to stick.

Obama’s foreign policy is recklessly ambitious and dangerously disarmed. Either his diplomacy will succeed without power because countries share interests, or the next president will have to substantially increase America’s military and economic power in order to assert and defend America’s interests with negotiating rivals.

— Henry R. Nau is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and National Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2011-12. He is author, most recently, of “The Jigsaw Puzzle and Chess Board,” (Commentary, May 2012) and the forthcoming Conservative Internationalism: Integrating Force and Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman and Reagan.

 

Henry R. Nau

August 13, 2012

Related link – http://tinyurl.com/9gy2lg8

 

 

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