President Obama assumed office presuming the focus of his administration's energies would be spent on addressing the plethora of domestic issues associated with the financial crisis he inherited. However, Obama was quickly forced to address political crises around the globe, with coups in Madagascar and Honduras, the outbreak of civil war in the Ivory Coast, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues, the ongoing conflagration between the Israelis and Palestinians, and now the wave of popular uprisings raging in the Middle East.
The manner in which the Obama administration has addressed each of these issues is instructive in deciphering how American foreign policy is able, or unable, to successfully address the many challenges confronting it in a world experiencing political metamorphosis at an astounding pace. The first foreign crises the Obama administration had to address -- in Honduras and Madagascar -- provided the backdrop for how it would address future crises as well as established conflicts, and served to give the President a fast lesson in realpolitik. This article will address what Obama has learned.
A Policy of Disengagement
In June 2009 Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the country's military in a bloodless coup. The incident threatened to become one of the most serious diplomatic crises in the region in 20 years as Honduras was expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS), major donors suspended aid, and violence erupted throughout the country. The incident was the first successful military coup in Central America since the end of the Cold War, and although the military swiftly transferred power to opposition politicians, the coup presented the Obama Administration with its first major crisis. The President promptly issued a strongly worded statement condemning the actions of the Honduran military. However, Obama also found himself addressing allegations that the U.S. had a hand in the coup. It was well known that Zelaya, who had courted the staunchly anti-American leaders Hugo Chavez (of Venezuela) and Evo Morales (of Bolivia), had become an increasing concern to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Obama's dilemma was to stem the 'pink tide' of Latin American socialism, which was gaining strength, while at the same time supporting genuinely democratic elections in Honduras.
Obama was keen to be perceived as being on the 'right side' of the issue and preferred to let the OAS take the lead in dealing with the crisis, a decision which neutralized critics who claimed the U.S. was continuing to attempt to influence events in the region. Rather than embodying an internationalist foreign policy, the Obama administration reasoned that a concerted, unified approach from the region would result in a swift return to constitutional rule in Honduras. As the crisis dragged on and the de facto government resisted international pressure to step down, Obama refused to use the full range of political and economic tools at his disposal to enforce compliance. Brazil's President Lula, who had granted refuge to Zelaya, wanted Obama to do more, prompting Obama to retort "the irony is that the people that were complaining about the U.S. interfering in Latin America are now complaining that we are not interfering enough".
Subsequently described as 'on-off' diplomacy, Obama's hesitancy to provide a stern response resulted in a misreading of intentions from the opposing sides in Honduras, but it became clear that Obama had little appetite to become heavily engaged in a potentially long-running dispute. Cynics argue that the U.S. backed off because it had gotten what it wanted -- the removal of Zelaya -- which was subsequently confirmed in published Wikileak cables. Obama's tepid response aroused the ire of other nations in the region which had expected more from Washington in support of a democratically elected government.
Obama gambled that the outcome of the Honduran election in November 2009 would be accepted by the majority of Hondurans, and that rest of the region would eventually come to accept the result of the coup, but a consequence of the softly-softly approach has been continued limbo for Honduras. Although it can now function economically much as it did prior to the coup, following the restoration of US aid and recognition, the Lobo government has no diplomatic relations with many of the major powers in the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. Honduras remains expelled from the OAS and the Honduran Congress voted to withdraw from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) due to tensions with Venezuela's Chavez. Obama has lost some of the initial optimism felt towards his election by a variety of states in the region; critics have observed that, as was previously the case, what the administration says and does may be two different things.
The Downside of Prioritization
If the administration's response to the Honduran crises was largely framed by realpolitik, the same cannot be said of the Madagascan crisis. Today, almost two years after the crisis began, the country has yet to hold the promised presidential elections needed to resolve the political impasse. In March 2009 elected President Marco Ravalomanana was forced to cede power to security forces in what the U.S. State Department condemned as 'tantamount to a coup'. The military promptly handed power to Andry Rajoelina, Ravalomanana's most prominent critic and former mayor of Antananarivo, until he was fired by Ravalomanana for declaring he was taking over the government.
Following Rajoelina's extra-legal assumption of power, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations and refused to recognize Rajoelina's High Transitional Authority. It also swiftly suspended the non-humanitarian assistance it had provided to Madagascar for a variety of aims, such as supporting democratic governance, economic growth and environmental protection. Obama also suspended Madagascar from the African Growth and Opportunity Act following Rajoelina's coup, a move that has hit the island's economy hard, as an estimated 80% of the population work in the agricultural sector. Tourism, another important source of revenue, has also dropped by as much as 50% since 2009. But the Obama Administration requested US$80 million in foreign assistance to Madagascar for 2011, broadly in line with previous years.
Obama was once again willing to cede a solution for making things right to a regional body, this time the African Union (AU). The Obama Administration has not focused much attention on the dispute, which is still ongoing and likely to worsen in the short-term following the recent announcement by exiled President Ravalomanana that he planned to return from exile in South Africa to seek justice in Madagascar. If the Madagascan authorities persist with the unilateral organization of elections in 2011, the international community will likely refuse to recognise the new regime, and the crisis could last for several more years. That would be a disaster for the country as well as posing Obama with another unwanted headache. Although Madagascar cannot afford to be isolated internationally, current regional efforts to arrive at a solution are effectively moribund and it hard to argue against the idea that greater U.S. involvement would likely have resulted in a successful resolution, or at the very least, helped to ensure the realization of free and fair elections.
A Traumatized Administration Leaves Africa to the Africans
So why was Obama unwilling to use the full force of U.S. diplomacy to respond to Honduras and Madagascar? Following the painful realizations of the limits of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. appetite for engagement has clearly diminished. The Obama administration has inherited a foreign policy machine weary from attempted nation building, the trauma of which can be seen not just psychologically in America's foreign policy machine, but also economically and politically, as partisanship has risen to poisonously high levels.
Obama's foreign policy has become a manifestation of limited resources and the need to prioritize engagements and fiscal disbursements, prompting the U.S. to hesitate to act unilaterally and fueling an unwillingness to assume responsibility in countries that ultimately are not important enough to warrant it. Nation-building is no longer part of American policy. America has become less willing to involve itself in disputes and mediation efforts outside countries that represent its core interests - namely Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan. This can be partly ascribed to its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq - sentiments echoed by a large section of the American electorate, who feel that it is time the U.S. did more nation-building at home. While it is true that domestic concerns have received the lion's share of Obama's attention, his tenure has seen the emergence of some important foreign challenges, precious few of which the administration has been able to provide a conclusive and satisfactory resolution.
Further evidence of U.S. hesitancy to engage in crisis resolution is evident in the ongoing political impasse in the Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa exporter. When incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost his country's presidential election to Alassane Ouattara in November 2010, he refused to step down and cosseted UN personnel along with Ouattara and his supporters into a small area in downtown Abidjan. He has told the 9,000-plus UN force to leave the country, killed hundreds of pro-Ouattara supporters and defied calls by the African Union (AU), European Union, France, the U.S. and UN to step down.
After again initially making all the right noises, including reportedly dangling an offer of a White House visit for Gbagbo in return for relinquishing power, the Obama Administration has disengaged from the ongoing crisis and has yet to recognize the government of President Ouattara, claiming the self-declared Gbagbo government had not conceded the election, was continuing to exercise authority over state institutions, and undertake actions for which the United States may want to hold Gbagbo and state officials under his executive authority legally accountable. Obama has preferred to let the AU and an even less effective regional body, the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), take the lead role in mediation efforts.
This decision is consistent with Obama's stated aim of improving the strength of African institutions, but after months of stalemate and seven failed mediation attempts by the AU and ECOWAS, Obama has discredited the United States by remaining distant from the crisis. The imposition of sanctions on the Gbagbo regime has not appeared to diminish Gbagbo's resolve, as he has nationalized banks amid increasing economic and financial chaos in the country. The Ivory Coast has withdrawn from the West African CFA monetary union as it faces a global ban on its cocoa exports and defaulted on its debt payments. The economic and financial pressure on Gbagbo is backed by the U.S., but after achieving limited results, patience in running out. Both the AU and ECOWAS have ruled out threats about the use of force to remove Gbagbo, but signs are appearing this may be changing. Troop movements have been reported, and the ECOMOG regional military force has carried out some preliminary reconnaissance work around the town of Bouake -- a potential launch base for an attack.
What other options does the Obama administration have to force Gbagbo to step down? One measure being muted is a more pronounced threat of U.S. intervention - a measure being supported by Ivorian lobby groups in Washington. The U.S. could deploy naval and air force units to the region in an attempt to intimidate President Gbagbo into stepping down peacefully. Obama will be loath to do so however, as American appetite and resources for military engagement has diminished steadily since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama is clearly keen to give the economic and financial sanctions time to bite.
A one-month mediation process has just been launched by the AU, involving heads of state of various African nations in what is deemed to be a final attempt for pre-intervention resolution. Obama may wish to consider more meaningful engagement in this process, given the undesirability of the remaining options should the mission fail. Renewed civil war in the region would be disastrous for West Africa, whose civil wars have a habit of involving half a dozen countries, and for the United States, which can ill-afford military engagement in the region, and does not appear to have either the resources necessary to broker a peaceful end to a conflict, or a means of kick-starting another rebuilding process.
The Egyptian Brush
Contrary to the view of some analysts who claim Obama is a powerless bystander, he should be given some credit for the manner in which he has handled the Egyptian crisis - which represented a real dilemma for the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. By resisting considerable pressure from important U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to support Mubarak at all costs and supporting the removal of Mubarak, he sent a strong message to other Middle Eastern autocrats that the U.S. will not unconditionally support them in the face of overwhelming opposition to their rule. The U.S. was also instrumental in encouraging the Egyptian military to limit the use of force against the protesters.
Although it can easily be argued that Obama's response was fumbled by not taking a stronger stance against Mubarak, his cautiousness was warranted, as the Egyptian example was judged to be a possible linchpin for future challenges to regimes throughout the region. Whether by accident or design, the U.S. managed to successfully balance an extremely delicate set of national interests with its underlying core values. However, the risks for Obama have only just begun, as a series of challenges to entrenched regimes throughout the region are in process. Obama cannot afford to exhibit an aloof approach to the regimes in the Middle East, but he must tread carefully and not fall into the trap of painting the entire region with the same Egyptian brush.
Obama's slow-and-steady approach to foreign political crises has resulted in the continuation of political limbo for Honduras, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast and now, potentially Egypt. Honduras remains expelled from the OAS and is not recognized by many of the major powers in the region. Madagascar remains outside of the AU and Southern African Development Community and has yet to experience the promised presidential elections that were to restore constitutional rule. The Ivory Coast's political crisis is no closer to a resolution and the crisis continues to threaten the fragile stability that has reigned since the end of the civil war in 2002. In Egypt there is no clear timetable for elections, and it seems unlikely that a there will be a swift return to civilian rule. With no end in sight for any of these crises, Mr. Obama will need to muster all his diplomatic prowess to steer them in a direction that fulfils the aspirations of the countries' people while fulfilling his mandate to support American interests and values.
Daniel Wagner is managing director of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, and also Senior Advisor to the PRS Group. Daniel Jackman is a research analyst with CRS.
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