Tag Archives: foreign policy

U.S. Midterm Elections, Obama and Iran

28 Oct

By George Friedman

We are a week away from the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. The outcome is already locked in. Whether the Republicans take the House or the Senate is close to immaterial. It is almost certain that the dynamics of American domestic politics will change. The Democrats will lose their ability to impose cloture in the Senate and thereby shut off debate. Whether they lose the House or not, the Democrats will lose the ability to pass legislation at the will of the House Democratic leadership. The large majority held by the Democrats will be gone, and party discipline will not be strong enough (it never is) to prevent some defections.

Should the Republicans win an overwhelming victory in both houses next week, they will still not have the votes to override presidential vetoes. Therefore they will not be able to legislate unilaterally, and if any legislation is to be passed it will have to be the result of negotiations between the president and the Republican Congressional leadership. Thus, whether the Democrats do better than expected or the Republicans win a massive victory, the practical result will be the same.

When we consider the difficulties President Barack Obama had passing his health care legislation, even with powerful majorities in both houses, it is clear that he will not be able to push through any significant legislation without Republican agreement. The result will either be gridlock or a very different legislative agenda than we have seen in the first two years.

These are not unique circumstances. Reversals in the first midterm election after a presidential election happened to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It does not mean that Obama is guaranteed to lose a re-election bid, although it does mean that, in order to win that election, he will have to operate in a very different way. It also means that the 2012 presidential campaign will begin next Wednesday on Nov. 3. Given his low approval ratings, Obama appears vulnerable and the Republican nomination has become extremely valuable. For his part, Obama does not have much time to lose in reshaping his presidency. With the Iowa caucuses about 15 months away and the Republicans holding momentum, the president will have to begin his campaign.

Obama now has two options in terms of domestic strategy. The first is to continue to press his agenda, knowing that it will be voted down. If the domestic situation improves, he takes credit for it. If it doesn’t, he runs against Republican partisanship. The second option is to abandon his agenda, cooperate with the Republicans and re-establish his image as a centrist. Both have political advantages and disadvantages and present an important strategic decision for Obama to make.

The Foreign Policy Option

Obama also has a third option, which is to shift his focus from domestic policy to foreign policy. The founders created a system in which the president is inherently weak in domestic policy and able to take action only when his position in Congress is extremely strong. This was how the founders sought to avoid the tyranny of narrow majorities. At the same time, they made the president quite powerful in foreign policy regardless of Congress, and the evolution of the presidency over the centuries has further strengthened this power. Historically, when the president has been weak domestically, one option he has had is to appear powerful by focusing on foreign policy.

For presidents like Clinton, this was not a particularly viable option in 1994-1996. The international system was quiet, and it was difficult to act meaningfully and decisively. It was easier for Reagan in 1982-1984. The Soviet Union was strong and threatening, and an aggressive anti-Soviet stance was popular and flowed from his 1980 campaign. Deploying the ground-launched cruise missile and the Pershing II medium-range ballistic missile in Western Europe alienated his opponents, strengthened his position with his political base and allowed him to take the center (and ultimately pressured the Soviets into agreeing to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty). By 1984, with the recession over, Reagan’s anti-Soviet stance helped him defeat Walter Mondale.

Obama does not have Clinton’s problem. The international environment allows him to take a much more assertive stance than he has over the past two years. The war in Afghanistan is reaching a delicate negotiating state as reports of ongoing talks circulate. The Iraq war is far from stable, with 50,000 U.S. troops still there, and the Iranian issue is wide open. Israeli-Palestinian talks are also faltering, and there are a host of other foreign issues, ranging from China’s increasing assertiveness to Russia’s resurgent power to the ongoing decline in military power of America’s European allies. There are a range of issues that need to be addressed at the presidential level, many of which would resonate with at least some voters and allow Obama to be presidential in spite of weak political support.

There are two problems with Obama becoming a foreign policy president. The first is that the country is focused on the economy and on domestic issues. If he focuses on foreign policy and the U.S. economy does not improve by 2012, it will cost him the election. His hope will be foreign policy successes, or at least the perception of being strong on national security, coupled with economic recovery or a plausible reason to blame the Republicans. This is a tricky maneuver, but his presidency no longer offers simple solutions.

The second problem is that his presidency and campaign have been based on the general principle of accommodation rather than confrontation in foreign affairs, with the sole exception of Afghanistan, where he chose to be substantially more aggressive than his predecessor had been. The place where he was assertive is unlikely to yield a major foreign policy success, unless that success is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. A negotiated settlement will be portrayed by the Republicans as capitulation rather than triumph. If he continues on the current course in Afghanistan, he will seem to be plodding down an old path and not pioneering a new one.

Interestingly, if Obama’s goal is to appear strong on national security while regaining the center, Afghanistan offers the least attractive venue. His choices are negotiation, which would reinforce his image as an accommodationist in foreign policy, or continued war, which is not particularly new territory. He could deploy even more forces into Afghanistan, but then would risk looking like Lyndon Johnson in 1967, hurling troops at the enemy without a clear plan. He could, of course, create a massive crisis with Pakistan, but it would be extremely unlikely that such an effort would end well, given the situation in Afghanistan. Foreign policy presidents need to be successful.

There is little to be done in Iraq at the moment except delay the withdrawal of forces, which adds little to his political position. Moreover, the core problem in Iraq at the moment is Iran and its support of disruptive forces. Obama could attempt to force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, but that would require Hamas to change its position, which is unlikely, or that Israel make massive concessions, which it doesn’t think it has to do. The problem with Israel and the Palestinians is that peace talks, such as those under Clinton at Camp David, have a nasty tendency to end in chaos.

The European, Russian and Chinese situations are of great importance, but they are not conducive to dramatic acts. The United States is not going to blockade China over the yuan or hold a stunning set of meetings with the Europeans to get them to increase their defense budgets and commit to more support for U.S. wars. And the situation regarding North Korea does not have the pressing urgency to justify U.S. action. There are many actions that would satisfy Obama’s accomodationist inclinations, but those would not serve well in portraying him as decisive in foreign policy.

The Iranian Option

This leaves the obvious choice: Iran. Iran is the one issue on which the president could galvanize public opinion. The Republicans have portrayed Obama as weak on combating militant Islamism. Many of the Democrats see Iran as a repressive violator of human rights, particularly after the crackdown on the Green Movement. The Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, is afraid of Iran and wants the United States to do something more than provide $60 billion-worth of weapons over the next 10 years. The Israelis, obviously, are hostile. The Europeans are hostile to Iran but want to avoid escalation, unless it ends quickly and successfully and without a disruption of oil supplies. The Russians — like the Iranians — are a thorn in the American side, as are the Chinese, but neither would have much choice should the United States deal with Iran quickly and effectively. Moreover, the situation in Iraq would improve if Iran were to be neutralized, and the psychology in Afghanistan could also shift.

If Obama were to use foreign policy to enhance his political standing through decisive action, and achieve some positive results in relations with foreign governments, the one place he could do it would be Iran. The issue is what he might have to do and what the risks would be. Nothing could, after all, hurt him more than an aggressive stance against Iran that failed to achieve its goals or turned into a military disaster for the United States.

So far, Obama’s policy toward Iran has been to incrementally increase sanctions by building a weak coalition and allow the sanctions to create shifts in Iran’s domestic political situation. The idea is to weaken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and strengthen his enemies, who are assumed to be more moderate and less inclined to pursue nuclear weapons. Obama has avoided overt military action against Iran, so a confrontation with Iran would require a deliberate shift in the U.S. stance, which would require a justification.

The most obvious justification would be to claim that Iran is about to construct a nuclear device. Whether or not this is true would be immaterial. First, no one would be in a position to challenge the claim, and, second, Obama’s credibility in making the assertion would be much greater than George W. Bush’s, given that Obama does not have the 2003 weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle to deal with and has the advantage of not having made such a claim before. Coming from Obama, the claim would confirm the views of the Republicans, while the Democrats would be hard-pressed to challenge him. In the face of this assertion, Obama would be forced to take action. He could appear reluctant to his base, decisive to the rest. The Republicans could not easily attack him. Nor would the claim be a lie. Defining what it means to almost possess nuclear weapons is nearly a metaphysical discussion. It requires merely a shift in definitions and assumptions. This is a cynical scenario, but it can be aligned with reasonable concerns.

As STRATFOR has argued in the past, destroying Iran’s nuclear capability does not involve a one-day raid, nor is Iran without the ability to retaliate. Its nuclear facilities are in a number of places and Iran has had years to harden those facilities. Destroying the facilities might take an extended air campaign and might even require the use of special operations units to verify battle damage and complete the mission. In addition, military action against Iran’s naval forces would be needed to protect the oil routes through the Persian Gulf from small boat swarms and mines, anti-ship missile launchers would have to be attacked and Iranian air force and air defenses taken out. This would not solve the problem of the rest of Iran’s conventional forces, which would represent a threat to the region, so these forces would have to be attacked and reduced as well.

An attack on Iran would not be an invasion, nor would it be a short war. Like Yugoslavia in 1999, it would be an extended air war lasting an unknown number of months. There would be American POWs from aircraft that were shot down or suffered mechanical failure over Iranian territory. There would be many civilian casualties, which the international media would focus on. It would not be an antiseptic campaign, but it would likely (though it is important to reiterate not certainly) destroy Iran’s nuclear capability and profoundly weaken its conventional forces. It would be a war based on American strengths in aerial warfare and technology, not on American weaknesses in counterinsurgency. It would strengthen the Iranian regime (as aerial bombing usually does) by rallying the Iranian public to its side against the aggression. If the campaign were successful, the Iranian regime would be stronger politically, at least for a while, but eviscerated militarily. A successful campaign would ease the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, calm the Saudis and demonstrate to the Europeans American capability and will. It would also cause the Russians and Chinese to become very thoughtful.

A campaign against Iran would have its risks. Iran could launch a terrorist campaign and attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, sending the global economy into a deep recession on soaring oil prices. It could also create a civil war in Iraq. U.S. intelligence could have missed the fact that the Iranians already have a deliverable nuclear weapon. All of these are possible risks, and, according to STRATFOR’s thinking, the risks outweigh the rewards. After all, the best laid military plan can end in a fiasco.

We have argued that a negotiation with Iran in the order of President Richard Nixon’s reversal on China would be a lower-risk solution to the nuclear problem than the military option. But for Obama, this is politically difficult to do. Had Bush done this, he would have had the ideological credentials to deal with Iran, as Nixon had the ideological credentials to deal with China. But Obama does not. Negotiating an agreement with Iran in the wake of an electoral rout would open the floodgates to condemnation of Obama as an appeaser. In losing power, he loses the option for negotiation unless he is content to be a one-term president.

I am arguing the following. First, Obama will be paralyzed on domestic policies by this election. He can craft a re-election campaign blaming the Republicans for gridlock. This has its advantages and disadvantages; the Republicans, charging that he refused to adjust to the electorate’s wishes, can blame him for the gridlock. It can go either way. The other option for Obama is to look for triumph in foreign policy where he has a weak hand. The only obvious way to achieve success that would have a positive effect on the U.S. strategic position is to attack Iran. Such an attack would have substantial advantages and very real dangers. It could change the dynamics of the Middle East and it could be a military failure.

I am not claiming that Obama will decide to do this based on politics, although no U.S. president has ever engaged in foreign involvement without political considerations, nor should he. I am saying that, at this moment in history, given the domestic gridlock that appears to be in the offing, a shift to a foreign policy emphasis makes sense, Obama needs to be seen as an effective commander in chief and Iran is the logical target.

This is not a prediction. Obama does not share his thoughts with me. It is merely speculation on the options Obama will have after the midterm elections, not what he will choose to do.

U.S. Midterm Elections, Obama and Iran is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Iran’s Green Revolution

14 Jun

I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to the Iranian elections, but the aftermath of what could very well have been a rigged result has been epic.

The hostage crisis that arose from the 1979 revolution poisoned relations between the US and Iran ever since.

But as I read about what appears to be a full-blown revolution taking place right now in the streets of Iran, with regular people standing up for their rights, for their vote, in the face of a brutal regime, I can’t help but remember one very important fact.

As evil and horrible as the Iranian regime has been since coming to power in 1979, most Iranian people just want to live in freedom, with respect, and be left alone to live, love, work, play, and pray without being told exactly when, how, and where. They are not our enemy.

The protesters are being attacked and shot at not only by Iranian secret police, but also by imported Hezbollah Arabs.

If you want to keep track of what’s happening, you’ll do well to avoid the generally horrific coverage on what passes for cable “news”, and stick to the web, BBC World News, and even Twitter.

When the people no longer fear the secret police, and when they confront the regime in the streets, the regime’s days are numbered.

Obama in Cairo

5 Jun

The United States is again going to roll up its sleeves and try to mediate a difficult, bloody crisis that serves as the perpetual epicenter of strife and extremism in the Middle East, occasionally spilling out into the rest of the world.

Obama has put the brakes on our sometimes clumsy foreign policy by smart bomb, and is setting out a traditionally conservative blueprint for using our soft power to get the petulant, fighting kids to take a time out and cut it out.

And as a mediator, we can only maintain our credibility and bona fides if we tell each side something they want to hear, and something they don’t. We have to remind these parties that we have a special relationship with one of them, but that isn’t a license for Israel to behave badly. By the same token, the Arab states surrounding Israel need to clamp down on the extremists, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and renounce violence.

To the neoconservatives and Israeli right-wing and Islamic militants who are all having conniption fits, consider this:

President Obama assumed positions virtually identical to those of Israel’s political center –- namely, that the Palestinians must renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, while Israel must cease settlement building and permit a Palestinian state to arise. Now, Benjamin Netanyahu’s problem is that it’s difficult to distinguish between President Obama and Tzipi Livni. And in Israel’s recent elections, Livni and her Kadima party won more votes than anyone else.

After all, if you mediate a settlement and each side doesn’t walk away angry that it didn’t get something it wanted, then one side got screwed. The fact that extremists are upset only underscores that Obama struck the right tone. The extremists make a lot of noise and embrace war, but little else.

Nothing else has worked. Telling each side the brutal truth is a good place to start.

The “Obama hates America” Meme

26 Apr

The newest meme about Obama from the floundering and rudderless Republicans is that Obama hates America. (The right gets bonus points when its spokescorpses use genuine National Socialist rhetoric). It’s proven, they argue, because he had the nerve to acknowledge a fact that the critics haven’t addressed substantively – that the US government’s foreign policy can oftentimes be arrogant and obnoxious, even to our closest allies. Why does Obama hate America?

When you’re at a diplomatic summit, and you’re the President of the US, you don’t throw a hissy fit when Daniel Ortega does. You don’t tell Hugo Chavez to get bent because he’s a neo-Leninist asshole. How is it in America’s national or foreign policy interests to behave like a petulant teen in response to people who behave like petulant teens?

I agree with this assessment of Obama’s recent behavior with foreign governments, friendly and not:

Obama’s willingness to acknowledge America’s past tendency to dismiss the views of allies and to disrespect legitimate foreign interests reflects a degree of self-confidence that has been oddly lacking in the strongest advocates of U.S. hegemony. This is especially notable for a Democratic president—who often feel must prove their hawkishness.

Instead of the almost-obsessive need to celebrate American achievements, Obama’s handling of foreign relations has shown a steady, humble confidence in the United States. This is a refreshing departure from foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, as well as from some of Obama’s own more aggressive campaign rhetoric. In contrast to that familiar Democratic “defensive crouch” on matters of national security, Obama has acted as a leader who feels no need to overcompensate for any perceived weakness and no need to apologize for giving priority to rebuilding damaged international relations with both allies and rivals. Indeed, it seems that the problem Obama’s critics have with him is not that he has been admitting American mistakes, but that he has failed to cringe and apologize to them for pursuing the course of action he thinks best for the United States.

While the right now advocates for hissy fits and torture, I’ll offer a quote:

If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

What anti-American pussy said those words? Continue reading

Deep Hussein Thoughts

6 Apr

When President Obama’s remarks about Islam are broadcast live throughout the middle east, it becomes somewhat difficult for extremists and islamofascists to argue that America is at war with Islam.

That middle name of him can be an asset as well as a liability, eh?


9 Mar

Obama may be poised to ease Bush-era restrictions on academic and family travel to Cuba, as well as certain limits on remittances.

Many American businesses are actively lobbying for lifting restrictions on trade with Cuba, as they watch Latin American and European companies obtaining joint venture contracts to do business on the island.

So, the question becomes – which lobby is stronger? Agriculture and business, or ethnic Cubans living mostly in Florida?

American companies were allowed to do business, and Americans were allowed to visit, European communist countries, and they all toppled in the late 80s. Just food for thought.

Hopefully Torture’s Epilogue

15 Jan

Torture is not just illegal. It’s not just immoral. It’s not just wrong. It’s not just something that ostensibly civilized democracies don’t engage in.

It produces unreliable information (the detainee just says whatever it takes to make it stop), and takes away the government’s right to prosecute. That means the detainee must either be released or held indefinitely without criminal charge.

The use of torture by the United States government in connection with the war(s) on terror is a national disgrace. The government bent over backwards to find some legal justification(s) for the use of torture, and they got it. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it effective. It also doesn’t make it legal.

Bush is unapologetic. Cheney couldn’t care less.

9/11 killed our people and destroyed our property. It was a tragedy of epic proportions, and one that we had to respond to strongly. But it didn’t destroy America. If anything, it made us stronger as a country and an ideal.

The use of torture actually harmed America; its laws and its ideals. A stupid thing to do by a group of stupid ideologues.

Some will argue, “but al Qaeda tortures people”. Yes, al Qaeda does torture people. That’s because they are barbaric terrorists. America ought not torture people. We are not barbaric terrorists. I will never understand why the atrocities of our enemies act as a moral justification for our own atrocities. We are better than that. We are a nation of laws – we are not stateless guerrilla theoterrorists.

George H.W. and George W.

2 Dec

I found this article in the Observer to be quite interesting from a foreign-policy perspective. If George the younger has accomplished anything, he’s managed to give people a newfound respect and appreciation for his father.

Perhaps the most ironic legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency is the service it has done to the reputation of his father, who seemed destined to be remembered as an unaccomplished one-termer when he lost his reelection bid (with just 37 percent of the vote) in 1992. By serially violating the basic principles that informed his father’s foreign policy and incurring such ghastly consequences, the younger Mr. Bush has stirred a widespread reassessment: The leadership that Americans took for granted under his father now seems like uncommon wisdom from a better, bygone era.

And now, with only weeks remaining in the second Bush administration, that sentiment is being validated by the incoming Democratic president, a man who opposed the Iraq war back when Mr. Scowcroft did; who has repeatedly lamented that “we have taken our eye off the ball” in Afghanistan because of it; and who has unapologetically championed the kind of aggressive diplomacy endorsed by the Iraq Study Group.

Daddy Bush’s posse repeatedly said in 2003 that invading Iraq was a mistake. Bush Junior was intent on reclaiming the Bush family’s good name by fixing what he thought his dad had done wrong – letting Saddam Hussein stay in power. The outcome is beyond ironic – it’s downright surreal.

Little Diomede Island

1 Oct


True. It can be seen from Little Diomede, which I mentioned here. (I’m a total geek when it comes to strange international frontiers. Baarle, anyone?)

CNN decided to go to Little Diomede:


Also, please note – Sarah Palin hasn’t been to Little Diomede, but ex-Python Michael Palin? He’s been there.