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Obama's Aimless and Confused Foreign Policy: A French View

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This article appeared in the French newspaper Libération on November 12, 2009. I strongly disagree with most of it, but I think it expresses an important point of view. The translation is mine, corrected by the writer, Olivier Debouzy. Mr. Debouzy is a graduate of France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, a former government official, and a lawyer. He is an informal advisor to the center-right government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but it should be noted that Liberation is a center-left daily. Far from being a classical America-bashing French "intellectual", M. Debouzy is a knowledgeable friend of the United States.

(This translation is published with the permission of
Libération and Olivier Debouzy.)

Obama's aimless and confused foreign policy

In the last nine months, the Obama administration has suffered many problems that have hindered its mounting a coherent foreign and defense policy. There is no indication that this will change in the near future.

The first problem is that contrary to Presidents Nixon or George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama has near him no strategist equivalent to Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft: that is to say no person capable of long-term thinking and reflecting on the role that the United States wants to play in ten or twenty years and the overall strategy for getting there. General Jones, his National Security Advisor, is a crisis manager who copes with emergencies when they appear, but from whom the President asks no conceptual input. Nor does he belong to the inner circle of counselors to the President, composed essentially of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, which is interested only in domestic policy. The National Security Council (NSC), with the biggest number of staff members since the creation of that institution, can do nothing other than assist in this task, thus creating multiple frictions with the State Department, the Pentagon and the many "czars" named to handle specific problems (the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, etc.).

In the second place, the Obama administration is characterized by the multiplicity of often strong personalities, charged with responsibilities that overlap one another: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton feels imposed upon by the "czars" with whom relations are difficult--Richard Holbrooke (who wanted her job) and George Mitchell among others. Obama gives the impression of believing that he alone will synthesize the personalities who serve him and the advice they give him. He becomes de facto responsible for all and any diplomatic and military actions on all issues. Since his time is limited and absorbed in large part by domestic issues (economic and social), he does not make decisions on questions of foreign policy or defense, except in very general terms, and nobody takes his place.

Finally, Obama has, like all American politicians, and in spite of his origins, very limited international experience. He thus tends to bring to interchanges with foreigners--this is particularly true in the case of Iran--a rationality like that of all Americans. The result is that foreign governments are opaque to him. This last characteristic, blended with that of wanting to deal directly with the subjects of foreign policy and defense, leaves American policy in these domains in a state of chronic indecision and ineffectuality.

Moreover, European-American relations at the government level at least as seen from Washington, are characterized by indifference and incomprehension, not to say a sort of irritation. First, indifference. By all evidence, Europe is not the priority of the new administration. The idea of a G2 with China (at least in American thinking) eclipses European allies, judged as archaic and timorous. The Obama administration thinks that Europeans should simply defer to the directions of Washington, together (in NATO) or individually. As a result, the reticence of the majority of Europeans to contribute to the military effort in Afghanistan is perceived as the confirmation that they are not good for anything.

Next, incomprehension. The Obama administration understands the roots of European economic and social equilibrium no more than its predecessors; nor does it try to understand the reticence of certain Europeans to consider the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons; it refuses to understand the problems encountered by the Europeans (notably the French) with regard to the G2 and Russia, which are the objects of all its attentions in trying to rebuild a framework of foreign policy and begin reducing a defense budget which the Democratic electorate relentlessly criticizes for its size, at the expense of social programs.

Finally, irritation. European firmness on the issue of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and Iran illuminates American incoherence and procrastination, which in turn irritates even more the representatives of the Obama administration who have the impression that in any military action it is the United States that would assume the essential task of defending the Gulf states, even though the U.S. would currently be incapable of doing that, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American position is even weaker because it is quite unlikely that the Senate will ratify the Nuclear Complete Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 2011 or sooner, which highlights the paradox that the United States, in the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, would preach non-proliferation even though being itself incapable of implementing what it recommends for others.

In the personal dimension, Obama, cerebral and undemonstrative, sometimes appears to think that European rulers are trying to instrumentalise him for reasons of domestic policy or international recognition. He is sharply conscious of American superiority, and thus his own role vis-à-vis his international colleagues, and he expresses it by a sort of distance quite unusual in American politicians, which complicates personal relations with him, as more than one European chief of state or government can attest.

The preceding analyses lead to a relative pessimism for the short-term evolution of the European-American relationship and the possible results of Obama's foreign and security policies. Further, the American political cycle exerts pressures Europeans seldom take into account, and foreign policy will not win the midterm election of 2010. The European allies of the United States may come to regret George W. Bush ...