Assessing Obama's Foreign Policy: Admiration Not Translating Into Support

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


In a HuffPost exclusive interview, national security strategist and intelligence expert George Friedman contrasts Ronald Reagan's foreign policy with Barack Obama's approach, and assesses the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan. Dr. Friedman is the CEO of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company.

MICHAEL HUGHES: In a recent STRATFOR geopolitical intelligence report you compare Reagan and Obama, highlighting differences in the way each handled their respective predecessor's foreign policy strategy: Reagan repudiated Carter's, while Obama continued Bush's. About Obama's strategy you write: "He has retained a high degree of continuity with his predecessor's policies while seeking to resurrect American power first through popularity in order to get allies to cooperate. This is a complicated proposition at best." What makes this approach so complicated?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: When Obama talks about traditional allies, he normally means the Europeans. The United States has any number of allies in this war, from Britain to Egypt. But for Obama, it is the continental Europeans, and particularly the French and Germans, whose participation he wants. Both rejected the Iraq war and neither is nearly as involved in Afghanistan as they could be, given their resources.

Reagan had as his goal the collapse of Soviet power. The French, for example, thought he was quite mad and dangerous. Reagan regarded allies as a means toward an end and not an end in itself, and proceeded nonetheless. Obama originally seemed to regard allies as an end in itself, alongside his goal of defeating al Qaeda. This complicated his policy, since he was working to build coalitions with allies unable and unwilling to share the burden. Obama is far more popular in Europe than Bush was, but European governments are giving him little more practical support than they gave Bush.

I think that Obama is learning the difference between popularity and the willingness of countries to sacrifice when they don't see their interests involved. He is moving past the stage where he confuses public affection with effective allies. I think he is also learning that leaders like Angela Merkel are far too tough and smart to shift their country's national interest to align with America's simply because Obama is well liked. In the end, he has the same practical relationship with Europe as Bush did -- although he is much more admired. For some, admiration matters. For me, policies do. Admiration does not translate into support.

MICHAEL HUGHES: White House officials have declared in the past that the consequences of failure in Pakistan would severely outweigh failure in Afghanistan, mainly due to the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power. If Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons would the U.S. still be in Afghanistan?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: I don't see Pakistan's nuclear weapons as a critical issue. Since 2002 the United States achieved, in my belief, a level of transparency on Pakistan's weapons that allows us a great deal of confidence in their use. President Obama argued, during his campaign, that Afghanistan was the real battleground, not Iraq. His reasoning had to do with al Qaeda, and, whether flawed or not, this is the motivation behind his strategy. Any campaign in Afghanistan intersects Pakistan, both because the two countries are deeply linked and because there are 180 million Pakistanis. So I believe that Obama would be in Afghanistan regardless of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, and this means that he is dealing with Pakistan as well.

MICHAEL HUGHES: What must the U.S. do to incentivize Pakistan to root out extremists taking refuge within their borders?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: I do not believe that the Pakistanis can be incentivized. The Pakistanis are currently seeing surges in violence. If they press as hard as the Americans want them to, there could well be civil war. From the Pakistani point of view, nothing the United States could offer them would be worth taking the level of risk the U.S. is asking for. Certainly they are prepared to take some actions against Jihadist forces that threaten their regime and to placate the United States. But what the United States wants Pakistan to do and what Pakistan can afford to do are simply too far apart.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Will the July 2011 drawdown date set by President Obama cause Pakistan to align more closely with the Afghan Taliban, knowing the U.S. military will be leaving at some point?

The setting of a deadline immediately told Pakistan that supporting the United States would be foolish. The United States would go home, and Pakistan is home, dealing with whatever is left behind. The fact is that regardless of what Obama said, the Pakistanis don't believe the United States is prepared for an open-ended war. But with Obama setting a deadline when he did, the Pakistanis drew the conclusion that he was simply making a gesture. The timeframe is completely inadequate for any meaningful success. The Pakistanis don't intend to be left holding the American bag.

MICHAEL HUGHES: In a recent taping of Agenda: With George Friedman you mention that the Afghanistan war "will end, at best, in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and, at worst, a U.S. retreat." Would a settlement consist of a power-sharing arrangement between the Karzai regime and the Taliban?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: The problem with a negotiated settlement is this: Why should the Taliban negotiate? The United States has not brought anywhere near sufficient force to defeat them and has declared that it is leaving. The Taliban won the civil war of the 1990s because it was a powerful indigenous force and it expects it will win again when the Americans leave. The Taliban might be prepared to negotiate some power-sharing agreement, but as in Vietnam, it would simply provide a decent interval. The Taliban's read of the situation is that time is on their side. Either way, they think they will win.

MICHAEL HUGHES: What are your thoughts on the "Biden Afghanistan Strategy": scale back U.S. forces and take out al-Qaeda and other extremists using Special Forces and drones?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: I think the Biden strategy is far more reasonable than the Obama strategy. The United States cannot occupy Afghanistan. It can only hold parts of the country while the Taliban maneuver to other places. In the meantime, the covert operations against al Qaeda continue. Continuing those operations without a large conventional force on the ground would achieve the same thing as continuing them with one.

MICHAEL HUGHES: If our goal is to defeat al Qaeda, which is now a virtual terrorist network spread across the world, does bogging down 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan make sense?

GEORGE FRIEDMAN: I think it doesn't make sense. However, what does make sense is to recognize that al Qaeda is a global, sparse organization that can only be fought with an intense, global covert operation. Americans are much more attracted to the idea of a conventional force fighting openly, if ineffectively, than the assassinations, renditions and interrogations that it would take to undermine al Qaeda. We want al Qaeda to come out and fight like us. It won't because it would lose. It is defining the war on its terms.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Do you believe continued U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan is truly going to make America safer?

Since 2002, I have not seen Afghanistan as critical to American interests. The operations leading up to Tora Bora disrupted al Qaeda, forcing them to move to remote areas and become quite isolated. Other entities calling themselves al Qaeda started operating elsewhere. The Bush administration's strategy of a minimalist operation in Afghanistan designed simply to keep Karzai in power was probably excessive as well, but it was far more reasonable in my opinion than the current strategy.



George Friedman - Chief Executive Officer
Dr. Friedman is the CEO of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company headquartered in Austin, Texas. Dr. Friedman is the author of The Next 100 Years:A Forecast for the 21st Century which was a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition with a new preface will be released on January 26th, 2010. He is also author of numerous articles and books on international affairs, warfare and intelligence such as America's Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. He has recently briefed the Australian Command and Staff College, Eglin Air Force Research Laboratory, U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and many other military and government organizations. Dr. Friedman often appears as an international affairs intelligence expert on CNN, Fox News, and NPR. He has been featured in Time, The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and is frequently quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, Fortune, and Newsweek.