UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY
By Roland Watson
May 16, 2014
President Obama has come under fire recently for his leadership of U.S. foreign policy. Republicans, as with everything that he does, are upset with his approach.
This article helps explain the background of his policy. It concludes with some remarks about the Southeast Asian nation, Burma.
To begin, it is important to recognize that even though Obama lived abroad for a number of years as a child, as an adult he didn't have any international experience. He has no first hand experience of how the world really works, and how the various regions and countries differ, including in how their leaders negotiate. Most importantly, he doesn't understand the mindset of the people who rule over at least half the planet's population: dictators. He doesn't understand individuals who would kill their own people, or even as we saw recently in North Korea their own relatives, without a second thought. Obama may have heard the phrase that "power corrupts," but he's never really grasped the fact that the greatest corrupting influence of all is in the brain. With enough power and enough years, this can propel people to become absolute monsters.
Leaders of democracies repeatedly make foreign policy mistakes through a failure to accept this simple reality. Since they've never been face-to-face with such an individual, and personally suffered the consequences, they don't accept that some people are not only bad: they're evil. They can never be reformed. You can't negotiate with them. Real compromise is impossible.
I should add, though, being strong when confronting such regimes doesn't mean that you have to go to war with them. There are lots of other policy options.
Because of his lack of experience, Obama was always going to be a lightweight on the international stage. Indeed, given his intelligence and education, it's quite likely that he recognized his limitations in this area. High achievers don't only understand their strengths, they are aware of their weaknesses as well.
Nonetheless, as the President of the U.S. he has to be a leader for the world. This in turn meant that he had to rely on advisors. The problem here is that his domestic experience did not put him in a position to build relationships with highly able advisors. When he became President, he of course got access to lots of advisors. However, this led to the question: How could he know who was good, and who he could trust? After all, there's a smart sounding "expert" for every position on every issue. Not only that, many "advisors" don't give objective advice. For example, if they don't already work for corporations, they are hoping to get well-paying jobs when they leave the public or non-profit sectors. Hence, their advice has a pro-business slant, which the advisee may not even recognize.
So, with this as a starting point, it is not surprising that he would approach international affairs with great caution. I might add, Democrats in general exercise more restraint than Republicans.
Secondly, when he assumed the presidency the U.S. was involved in two extremely costly wars, both in lives and dollars. While Afghanistan was justified by 9/11, Iraq was based on lies. Both became quagmires, in part because it is extremely difficult to fight wars in this part of the world, for many reasons, and because the policy advisors for President Bush made one mistake after another. If you are a foreign policy advisor, or analyst, it is essential never to underestimate the difficulty of cultural understanding. Unless you spend many years in a country, there will always be large gaps in your knowledge of it. Most U.S. policy experts, while they may travel widely for meetings, and stay in fancy hotels, mainly live in Washington, D.C. They too have not really been out in the world. So, with these wars ongoing, and with the huge budget constraints that they created, this reinforced Obama's innate caution even more.
His principal foreign policy objective was to get the U.S. out of the wars without their seeming to be defeats or with him as a coward. Killing bin Laden helped a lot on both counts.
Thirdly, the U.S and the rest of the world were recovering from a financial crisis unmatched since the Great Depression. His foremost priority was to right the American economy, which task was made much more difficult by the Congressional Republican unwillingness, founded in racism, to work with him in any way. The Republicans have actually done everything they can to sabotage his presidency. Having to fight one battle after another with them further detracted from his ability to focus on the world.
Next, when he did conduct foreign affairs, he concentrated on the issues that also affect important U.S. allies. Hence the big push in Libya, which is in Europe's backyard. Now we are seeing the intent interest in the Ukraine, which frankly isn't that big of an international issue. Many others are much more severe, such as Syria and the Central African Republic. But Ukraine once again is right next to Europe. As a side consequence of rebuilding relationships with Europe, which had been destroyed by Bush, this further enhanced his caution since the basic European foreign policy is not to be strong about anything. It's also noteworthy that U.S. military might subsidizes Europe, allowing the countries there to have small and inexpensive armies.
He did make a big show about the Asian pivot, but frankly he's been too overwhelmed to conduct it successfully. Here as well he's mainly focused on regional allies, Japan and South Korea, but been quiet on China, even though they fear Beijing. This is due to American business interests in China, and because the country holds so much U.S. debt. It's difficult to confront your greatest creditor.
Finally, U.S. foreign policy has always been about political realism. Many Americans hoped that his actions as President would reflect his idealistic 2008 campaign rhetoric, and that government policy both domestic and international would for once be grounded in authentic democratic principles. We were naive here, though, because he turned out to be just one more slick politician.
Foreign policy realism means you pursue U.S. interests exclusively, no matter the cost to other countries or peoples or even the world. U.S. interests in turn are business interests. One would hope that U.S. interests would be those of the American people, who certainly even with their differences want the country to stand for what is right and to live up to the sacrifices that have been made by so many American soldiers. Unfortunately, those interests are intangible, and hard to measure. So instead, U.S. interests have mutated. Now they are corporate interests. This raises the question, what do corporations want?
Formerly, American corporations wanted to employ American workers to produce products to sell both in the U.S. and to the world. For this they needed access to natural resources. Hence, Washington has backed one resource rich dictatorship after another for a century or more. That's historical realism.
But now many domestic corporations have realized that they don't have to be "American." They can be "International," and not only exploit international natural resources but human resources as well (and hide income from U.S. taxes). This is what has driven the huge push in the last three decades to outsource production to some of the worst dictatorships on earth, starting with China, as a means to exploit their laborers in serf-like conditions. It's also behind the open arms that many American businesses give to illegal immigrants, rather than push for legislation in D.C. to allow the immigrants legal worker status, since this would mean that they would have to pay them higher wages. Overall, it's a horrible picture, and it makes me appalled at my own country.
The only other modern foreign interest (other than terrorism and WMD proliferation) is if some poor U.S. traveler gets sick or robbed or kidnapped, in which case the local embassy will probably try to help.
For Burma, a big U.S. interest following World War II was countering the rise of communism, and the dictator of the country, Ne Win, fit the bill as an ally no matter how poorly he treated the people. It didn't help that many of the rebels against him organized under the Communist Party banner. To repeat, a basic U.S. foreign policy is to back its allies. Alliances in turn are viewed as very long term relationships. The modern U.S. relationship with Burma really started with its first autocrat, so that is, fundamentally, the nature of the alliance: The U.S. together with whatever authoritarian regime is currently in power. Truly shifting American backing to the pro-democracy side, meaning Suu Kyi, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities, in effect would betray this alliance, which is why the support that has been given has been tepid and mostly for show. Washington, even under Obama, still backs the dictators, witness the rush to reestablish a military to military relationship.
As a sign of just how bad it really is, Obama himself essentially "gave" Senior General Than Shwe the license to commit genocide against the Rohingya people. The violence of the last two years wouldn't have happened without the U.S. "policy shift." Also, the U.S. has no concern for the negative implications of the economic development that the shift enabled, including where the dictatorship is allowing a few opportunities for Burmans, but none for the ethnic nationalities (other than for corrupt, traitorous leaders). This is a subtle use of divide and conquer, and evidence of the regime's own underlying racism. The generals recognize that if Burma is going to develop, and by default more people are going to get a share of the totalitarian pie, then all of this should go to the Burmans. However, for the U.S. this bias is insignificant. Suu Kyi and the NLD also don't seem to have any complaints with the approach.
Secondly, the U.S directly backs corporate interests in Burma. Formerly this was for resource extraction, mainly involving the Total/Chevron natural gas pipeline, but now with the policy change it is being extended to labor exploitation as well. U.S. companies not only want to get in on Burma's resource rush, they want to set up sweatshops there to produce goods dirt cheap. After all, China is no longer such a bargain, and there is also now a large backlash in America against Chinese-produced goods. (I'm proud that Dictator Watch has been calling for a boycott of Made in China goods for over a decade.)
Finally, Burma is a perfect example of the opening point that Obama does not understand, including how to position the U.S. relative to, the truly evil, in this case the military junta that remains 100% in charge of the country: SLORC/SPDC/NDSC. It also appears that by reversing its sanctions, the Administration is trying to bribe the regime to end its secret nuclear program, including its relationship with North Korea.
In conclusion, this is the sad tale for Burma. The people who are now overjoyed that the few remaining sanctions were renewed this week for another year, are missing the bigger picture.
To the people of the country, no matter what sweet-sounding words you hear, the United States Government is not your friend. It is only pretending to be your friend. It's really your enemy. It will not in any material way help you achieve real freedom and democracy. Instead, it is actively supporting your oppressors. This was the case before Barack Obama, and it will be the case long after he is gone, until that glorious day when another Lincoln arises, and puts principles over profit.