Obama’s Foreign Policy Smacks of the 'Carter Syndrome'

Obama’s Foreign Policy Smacks of the 'Carter Syndrome'

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

With a vastly ambitious deal governing trans-Pacific trade and a “no” to the oil industry’s pet pipeline project, President Obama is now thoroughly in that mode all White House occupants favor late in their time. Our 44th president is building the legacy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has just been made public and now heads to Congress for legislative approval—thumbs-up, thumbs-down, no tinkering. Last Friday, Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline and will arrive at the Paris summit on climate change in a few weeks, primed to assume a leadership role.

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The TPP was seven years in the making; TransCanada submitted its pipeline project for executive-branch approval as many years ago. The first represents one of Obama’s signature achievements, the second speaks to his philosophy. By this administration’s lights, they mark out a foreign policy that will go down as Obama’s and no one else’s, a legacy distinctly his own.   

Three questions arise at this early moment. What does Obama want to leave behind? Is it worth leaving behind? And whatever it is, will it endure?

Obama’s foreign policy is soiled by mistakes, failures of execution, and half-baked efforts governing U.S. conduct abroad.

All in, I’m net-negative on this president’s likely legacy. Some forward-facing insights and high-minded intentions on the foreign policy side are too soiled by mistakes, failures of execution, and half-baked efforts to renovate the principles governing U.S. conduct abroad.

It’s has been clear since Obama took office in 2009 that he is a critic of a foreign policy process in which the Pentagon has accumulated too much influence over many decades. Having spent years as a correspondent at the other end of the Pacific, I consider this especially so in the case of U.S. policies toward Asia. Obama seemed to understand that a mold had to be broken, and in this, he has been correct.

If you look closely, his corollary is just as evident: To reduce the role of the military in U.S. policy doesn’t lead automatically to isolation. There are alternative ways to engage others and to assert American leadership. Rethinking the American position abroad in response to 21st century realities isn’t an either/or question.

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And here we are.

One, Obama has settled on a highly activist trade policy as an essential component of his legacy. The thought here is that aggressive commercial negotiation can take us beyond a century-old assumption that U.S. economic interests abroad require a corresponding military reach.  

Business, in other words, is a power unto itself in the 21st century. The TTP, don’t forget, has a counterpart across the other ocean, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. If it’s concluded, American rules will govern most of the global economy.

Obama plainly wants to go down as America’s first green president. He shares the sense of crisis much of humanity attaches to global warming.

Two, climate change gives the U.S. an opportunity to claim global leadership in a flatteringly altruistic fashion on a question that most of the planet is quickly coming realize requires urgent action. Good deeds replace military hardware in this case.

Obama plainly wants to go down as America’s first green president. He shares the sense of crisis much of humanity attaches to global warming, and he likes the profile of a forward thinker. It will be interesting to see how Obama does at the climate conference, which opens in Paris at the end of this month.  

I find things to admire in Obama’s worldview, assuming I have it roughly right. But will a foreign policy legacy along these lines hold up? Will it mark a post-Cold War rethink of the magnitude Obama appears to be shooting for? No and no, in my view.

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The assertive trade policy is especially problematic. An agreement written in secret by the corporations that will benefit from it even as most members of Congress weren’t allowed to see it? This is shabby—and too damaging to our already troubled political process to be worth it.

Abroad, the TTP and the TTIP appear to have been negotiated too forcefully and too much to U.S. advantage, provoking considerable anti-American animosity, especially in Europe. It’s not the desired effect, surely.

Larger still, as the outcome of Obama’s vaunted “pivot to Asia” the TTP’s a grave miscalculation. Any policy intended to gather Asians under the American umbrella while explicitly excluding China is upside down and can’t possibly deliver. It’s as if Europe wanted to recruit North America to some cause or other but kept the U.S. out of it.  

You would have thought Obama’s Treasury learned this lesson with that disastrous effort to undermine Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year. Instead, the TTP bears the Pentagon’s genetic code—a ridiculously anachronistic idea of “Red China” as a Cold War enemy. In the decades to come we want China inside the tent, not outside.

Critics suggested we may be in for “the Carter syndrome,” a collection of wayward, indecisive foreign policies amateurishly executed.

As to the climate question, there’s more awaiting Obama in Paris than may meet his eye. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in its latest report from 2014, climate change threatens not just failed ecosystems but civil strife, political collapse, destabilizing mass migrations, wars fought for water, oil and other resources, and much more.

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This requires a fundamental rethink of security policies among all major powers. As Michael Klare, a respected analyst on defense and security questions, put it in a provocative piece, “This is why the Paris climate summit should be viewed as a kind of preemptive peace conference, one that is taking place before the wars truly begin.”

To put Klare’s point another way, it’s time to connect the dots between our conduct of foreign policy and such questions as climate change and resource scarcity. But Obama gives no indication he grasps this reality.

With an outline of Obama’s desired legacy emerging into view, it’s clearer now why his foreign policies have appeared so often to suffer a kind of schizophrenia. In effect, he set lofty goals for his administration but neglected the tough, bruising work necessary to send the army back to the Pentagon and restore the influence of the better diplomats at State.

It won’t do.

Soon after Obama took office a few critics suggested we may be in for “the Carter syndrome,” as they called it—meaning a collection of wayward, indecisive foreign policies amateurishly executed. I took exception at the time but see the point now.

Sound thinking and ambitious goals are of no use to a leader unless he or she also decommissions what no longer works—whatever the institutional resistance. Absent that effort, the legacy is that of a dreamer.