Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

RAY SUAREZ: Welcome to the Online NewsHour’s Insider Forum. I’m Ray Suarez. Recent terror attacks in Mumbai mark the newest foreign policy issue the incoming administration will face. In addition, this week a bipartisan commission reported the United States can expect a terrorist attack before 2013.

So what are the top foreign policy challenges facing Mr. Obama and what issues should his administration look at first?
Here to answer your questions are three guests: Philip Zelikow is a professor of history at the University of Virginia; he’s a former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Trudy Rubin writes a foreign-affairs column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which runs in many other papers; and Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Her most recent book is, “Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.”

Welcome to you all, we got a lot of response from around the country – questions on our viewers’ and listeners’ minds about foreign policy and the incoming administration.

Dodd writes from Hubertus, Wisconsin: “How should the Obama administration approach terrorism? For example, should it move away from simplistic characterization of global terror and instead focus more on specific groups that are threats to the U.S. and its allies?” Phyllis Bennis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think this raises one of the most important challenges that will face the Obama administration as soon as it comes into office. I think that one of the questions will be, which of the several commitments that Obama made during the campaign will be implemented?

And I think one of the most important is President-elect Obama’s commitment to change not only the war – he said he would end the war in Iraq, of course – but to change the mindset that led to war. And I think that means first, ending the concept of the so-called global war on terror; making the question of fighting against terrorism an issue of war, an issue of the military, whether it’s conventional weapons or unconventional weapons. We’re hearing about a new Pentagon move to increase the profile of so-called irregular war capabilities.

But all of that means keeping that at the level of war, and we’ve seen that this fails. I think that what’s the first thing that should be done by the Obama administration is announce the end of the so-called global war on terror and say that we are launching a new campaign based on diplomacy and cooperation with the goal of reaching out all around the world to governments, to civil-society, to engage in a struggle to change and challenge all of the things that lead to terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, how do you respond to that? You worked for an administration that wrestled with the very questions that Phyllis Bennis just raised.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, I’m all in favor of addressing the causes of terrorism. I think turning that agenda into a concrete policy program is a challenge.

But I agree with her that the phrase global war on terror conveys too a militarized tone. The problem is not that there is not a war there, in fact, we are engaged in four different armed conflicts around the world in which fighting transnational terrorist groups is a key part. So it’s a factual statement that we’re involved in combat operations in Iraq, combat operations in Afghanistan that extend into Pakistan, combat operations in other ungoverned areas of the world and combat operations in support of other countries, as in the Philippines, that are fighting terrorist groups.

But when you use the phrase war on terror, it implies that this is basically a military operation, and the military aspect is not the most important part of it. The most important part of it is building up the capacity of local governments to provide the kind of public order that their own people want.

For example, part of the problem of the breakdown of public order we see in a near civil war that’s going on right now in Mexico. Now that civil conflict doesn’t fall under the transnational war on terror rubric because it doesn’t involve Islamist extremists. But in fact it’s part of the real challenge the Obama administration faces. The breakdown of public order in Pakistan, the breakdown of public order in Mexico: These are all problems that threaten to affect Americans very directly.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, go ahead.

TRUDY RUBIN: I agree that the term global war on terrorism is misleading because war makes people think of pitched, fixed battles like we fought in World War II that have a beginning and an end and then you declare victory. I think one of the hardest tasks for President-elect Obama is going to be able to communicate that this is a different kind of conflict, and it is a conflict. As Professor Zelikow said, it’s a conflict that you can’t just win by arms alone; there are all kinds of other components – diplomacy, economy – but it is a long-running struggle and it will involve some military action and it’s not going to end neatly.

So the language has to change. But President-elect Obama is going to be involved from the word go in struggles that are both military, diplomatic and economic.

And I think he will put a new emphasis – I think Pakistan is the perfect case, where we are firing Predator missiles at suspected terrorists inside Pakistan, but what we hope – I think, what he will hope to do – is to create some kind of regional process, especially in spite of the Mumbai attacks, diplomatic, new diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan, bringing Afghanistan into the mix, getting the neighbors to want to try to stabilize Afghanistan.

So this will be the challenge, to introduce more of the economic and diplomatic element while explaining to the American public why there is a long-running struggle going on that will, at times, require force.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Trudy Rubin, pursuant to what you just said, Beth writes, from Houston, Texas: “Besides Iraq and Afghanistan, what are the few top problems facing Obama?”

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that the most immediate problems – and he will be besieged by immediate problems – lie in that region. And the trick, as I said, will be to develop new approaches, but besides Pakistan and Afghanistan, of course the Iran issue will be front and center. Obama has said that he wants to try diplomacy without preconditions.

The hard thing there is that Iran’s government seems to be rebuffing in advance, or at least President Ahmadinejad, the idea of rapprochement, and it probably is not a wise idea to make any large, diplomatic overtures before Iranian elections, which will come in June, and before we see who the leadership is going to be there.

But he will have to approach how to deal with Iran’s growing nuclear fuel production capacity, and I think that will test one of his preferred new approaches, which is strong diplomacy.

It will be a test of whether he can create new alliances, both to try to achieve more success in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and in order to look at the wider nonproliferation issue, which is really becoming quite threatening as a new report made clear this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Phyllis Bennis, what would you put on President-elect Obama’s global to-do list?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think I would take a couple of things off his global list. One is escalation in Afghanistan. I think that’s a recipe for more failure; it’s not an accident that General Jim Jones himself, the newly appointed national security adviser, has said that NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.

That’s certainly true; the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan and every air strike, whether it’s done by a Predator or whether it’s done by a piloted plane, inevitably, the escalation in civilian casualties is rising and, as a result of that, antagonism to the U.S., antagonism to NATO is rising in Afghanistan.

And the result of that is greater support for the Taliban, who are not seen only as a repressive, theocratic gang, as many people see them, but they’re also seen as the one force in Afghanistan that’s prepared to stand up to the increasingly hated U.S. military presence. So I think that a complete rethinking of policy for Afghanistan is required.

I would also say that, on the question of Iran, I would put right back at the center – I would disagree with Trudy, here – I would put right back at the center of President-elect Obama’s initial goals, the exact point of unconditional negotiations.

It’s widely known that the presidency in Iran is not the – certainly not the only – but it’s not even the most important center of power, and the notion that we should delay very important potential negotiations for six months more to wait for the next elections, I think, is a terrible idea.
I think that negotiations should be launched immediately, and it should take up all the issues that are of concern in both capitals – all of the issues that the U.S. is concerned about, including the nuclear cycle, including the Iranian role in Iraq and elsewhere; but also, all of the Iranian concerns, which are primarily the question of a security guarantee from the United States that Washington will not engage in so-called regime change against Iran, something that is very much still on the agenda of many pundits, many politicians, and has explicitly not been taken off the table by the Obama campaign.

I think that taking that off the table, as soon as he is inaugurated – as soon as he is confirmed as president – would be a very important step forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Zelikow, let me get your response, first to Phyllis Bennis and then your own suggested entries on the global to-do list for the coming president.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I’m not sure I agree with the last two points that Ms. Bennis made, but rather than get into an argument about what our policy should be on Iran or on Afghanistan, I think that the person who wrote into you wanted us to look at all sides and also a bigger picture approach and there are two themes I’d like to emphasize if we really take a big-picture view of our foreign policy agenda and we ask ourselves, “What is it America is trying to do in the world?”

And the first point is that our national political economy, our health and our confidence and our political economy, is actually the foundation of our national security. This is something that Dwight Eisenhower stressed a lot during the 1950s — that everything we want to do in the world is actually built on a foundation of a healthy political economy in the United States, and that’s not just a problem of domestic economics, that’s not a problem with international policy.

The second big-picture point I’d like to add, is that, when we talk about problems of public order or the war on terror, what we’re seeing is a lot of different global forces that people are worried no one nation state can manage it; whether it’s the international capital market, or a breakdown in public order that leads to sweeping transnational crime, or problems with energy and the environment, or public health or proliferation of dangerous technologies.

People are worried that the global frameworks for managing those problems are breaking down and when they become fearful and anxious, they’re going to ask for self-help, and every nation for itself, and bring us into an era of toxic politics we don’t like.

So I think President-elect Obama needs to offer a broad vision, recommitting America to an open, civilized world, the kind of world in which we provide leadership, not dominance, to help build up stronger global frameworks that will deal with a range of these issues credibly enough that will avoid the kind of toxic, anarchic politics of every man for himself.

So the two big-picture ideas I wanted to leave you with is first, look after the political economy because it’s the foundation of national security, and second, recommitting America to an open, civilized world.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim writes from Seattle, Washington, “I want to know if Obama will pay attention to areas that may not be in the U.S.’ vital national interest, such as Africa. There’s no oil there, but people are dying.” And, well, maybe there’s not oil in some of the countries that Jim is writing about, but there is certainly plenty of oil in Africa, but I think we get his point. Professor Zelikow?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Our policies over the last seven or eight years have been primarily about military issues; in a period where we have doubled our foreign aid, we’ve given more attention – financially and in every way – to Africa in the last seven or eight years on development issues than at any time in the last 40 years. That’s not a point that just Americans make; that’s a point that you’ll hear from practically every leader in Africa, and from the leaders of much of the major organizations in the development community.

So President-elect Obama comes in committed to not only take the doubling of foreign aid that’s occurred in the Bush years, but redouble it again. Even if that happens, there is still going to be enormous needs for capital investment in Africa to try to lift those countries that are stuck and are unable to find sustainable paths of political and economic development.

But as we’re seeing right now in the Congo, a fundamental prerequisite to any kind of sustainable development in much of Africa is a climate of security for the people. And that security overwhelmingly should come from Africans themselves. But Africans themselves right now are having a great deal of difficulty in providing it.

And I think that’s one of the reasons people like Susan Rice are wondering what the international role should be. I’m not in favor of a lot of interventions in Africa because I think most Americans don’t want to fight for that. But I think as we devote a lot more attention to Africa, we’re going to have to recognize that security issues are a very big part of their problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, even people who are not particular fans of the Bush administration are, during these last weeks of the administration, giving the president a lot of credit for paying attention to Africa. But if you talk to African heads of state – and you can extend that out to Latin American heads of state, other places in the globe – they feel underappreciated, under-attended to, for all the attention they got. Does the United States have some – if not fence-mending – at least reengagement to do in these places outside South Asia and the Near East?

TRUDY RUBIN: Well, I think you could put it another way. I think there is a lot of opportunity for President Obama when he comes to office to make improvements in our relations with other regions. Latin America is obviously a case in point. And in fact, the areas of Latin America where there have been problems with this administration – notably Venezuela – well, a President Chavez is not exactly in great shape right now because of the drop in oil prices.

There are leaders like President Lula of Brazil whom we have worked with and can work with. I think there would be a lot of interest and receptivity in Latin America for more attention paid. Although President Obama, I believe, will have to rethink trade policies if he wants to take advantage of that great interest in better relations.

Obviously, in Europe, European leaders are ready, willing, and eager for closer relationships and, I think, understand that they’re going to have to help President Obama, for example, in Afghanistan. And I also disagree with Phyllis Bennis’ position on that. I won’t get back into that. I don’t think we’re talking about a huge troop intervention. But I think some more troops will be necessary from Europe as well as the United States.

And in Africa, I think African leaders, many of them are pleased with what President Bush did. But again, there will be big opportunity. Although, I think there are tremendous questions there that I don’t know whether a President Obama can resolve. For example, R2P, Responsibility to Protect, which is a concept that was adopted by the United Nations, which means that in cases of crimes against humanity, there should be intervention but nobody knows how to do it.

And as Professor Zelikow said, Americans are not eager to see troops pushed into African wars. We haven’t really been able at all in Darfur to help the African Union sufficiently. So if he can make some progress in defining that concept and deciding what the role of the international community can be in getting support for a new concept, that would be a great achievement. I’m not holding my breath. But I’m sure it’s something that Susan Rice will work on.

RAY SUAREZ: Given this week’s headlines, naturally we got a lot of questions about India and Pakistan. Kent writes from Greenfield, Missouri: “How will President Obama balance the need to support and encourage our relationship with the world’s largest democracy in India with the need to prop up the government of Pakistan to prevent a failed nuclear state that would be disastrous for the war on terrorism?” Professor Zelikow?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, I think the United States has established a really strong foundation of good relations with India. They’ve built up a lot of political capital in the bank. And now is going to be the time to spend some of that capital in urging Indians to adopt a temperate reaction to these attacks. Understanding that this is – there is no evidence so far that has emerged that these attacks were something wished for, planned by the Pakistani government, or that the Pakistani government was happily providing a sanctuary to the people who planned these attacks.

Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence that Pakistan will have to redouble its own efforts to deal with the violent Islamists in the midst. This is a country that mostly does not want an Islamic theocracy. Most Pakistanis want secular rule in which Islam has a strong place in their national life.

So you have a government at last in Pakistan that is really committed to that fight – at least rhetorically – and is doing some important things in parts of Pakistan to actually take on the extremists.

I don’t think it’s in India’s interest to weaken that government in its efforts. I think this is a government that is finally moving in the right place, much better – I have to say – than Musharraf was. And since they’re moving in the right direction and want some of the right things, I think this is an opportunity to support and strengthen that government, not undercut it or provide more fuel to lead to a regional war.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, two top American policy-makers were in Pakistan this week: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State.

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes, and I think there is good reason why they were there. The Pakistani government has been trying to do more. And in fact, I think that one could make the case that one of the reasons for this attack, if indeed it can be linked back to the Lashkar-e-Taiba group in Pakistan is that this group would like to undermine the small but very real advances that have been made in recent months by the new Pakistani government towards improving relations with India. And, in fact, the Pakistani foreign minister was in Delhi pursuing better relations at the very moment when the terrorists struck.

I think those terrorists also probably would like to see Pakistan move troops from the border with Afghanistan where they have recently been finally engaging with terrorist groups who are based on the border there, would like to see those troops moved back to the Indian border because the Lashkar-e-Taiba group is focused on India and on getting back all of Kashmir.

So this group is deliberately trying to undermine any movement towards peace between India and Pakistan and I think a high priority of the new presidency should be trying to keep that movement going and perhaps behind the scenes with a special emissary, working on the Kashmir issue.

At the same time, there’s no question that the Pakistani government, which is weak, is going to have to crack down harder on terrorist groups, especially groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which operate under new names in a civilian charitable guise openly in the Punjab. And this cannot be allowed to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: Phyllis Bennis, Mary writes from Bedford, Mass, “Pakistan seems critical to me with Afghanistan/Waziristan on one side and Kashmir/India on the other. How can a way be found to influence Pakistan on either or both problems given its concern with its own sovereignty and stability?”

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think I agree with much of what Trudy Rubin just said regarding the potential rationale or reason for the attack, if indeed it turns out that it is linked to a Pakistan-based organization.

I think, though, if we step back from the immediacy of that horrific attack in Mumbai, we can look at the broad question of the danger on the South Asian peninsula about nuclear weapons, with both India and Pakistan having nuclear weapons, that has been tacitly in the case of Pakistan and overtly in the case of India, embraced by the United States.

The U.S. essentially has abandoned any effort to encourage denuclearization of either of those countries and, in fact, the recent campaign for a U.S.-Indian nuclear accord that essentially gives India all of the privileges of being an acknowledged nuclear power without any of the accountability of full nuclear disclosure and inspection under the U.N. is, I think, a serious problem.

I would say that one of the problems that the U.S. should take seriously, and I would hope that the Obama administration has a very different view of nuclear weapons than that indicated by its own newly reappointed, should we say, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who, of course, has supported the idea of a new generation of nuclear weapons for the United States at a time when even people like Henry Kissinger and George Schulz are calling for nuclear abolition as a global goal.

It seems to me that in the interim, a very important move by the new Obama administration could be an effort to recreate the move for creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone throughout the region, throughout South Asia and, ideally, extending to the Middle East as well.

The other nuclear arsenal, of course, is not overtly acknowledged, but is widely understood to exist is the Israeli nuclear arsenal, which also represents a significant source of instability in the region.

If all three of those illegal nuclear arsenals – India’s, Pakistan’s and Israel’s – could be denuclearized and the nonproliferation treaty strengthened so that all of the enforcement was done equally, so that non-nuclear-weapons states were forced to not move towards actual creation of a nuclear weapon, while the official nuclear weapons states, including the United States, were also held accountable to their obligation, our obligation, for full nuclear disarmament, which is the goal of Article VI of the nonproliferation treaty, I think that we would be in a much stronger situation getting past the charges of double standards and hypocrisy that plague the efforts that U.S. officials find when they call for another country to abide by the NPT, whether it’s Iran or whether it’s anyone else. The charge immediately comes back, well, you too are in violation of the NPT.

So I think that ending that kind of double standard in enforcement of the nonproliferation treaty and calling for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in South Asia and the Middle East would go very far in dealing with this crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, we’re just about at the end of our time. Several people wrote in to ask about Israel and the Palestinians and the state of the settlements. Currently, there was disruptions and injuries and riots in the West Bank.

Does President Obama, once he comes in, in January, have a window of opportunity to do something decisive in that part of the world? Let’s have some just quick final thoughts? Trudy Rubin?

TRUDY RUBIN: I doubt that he will be able to get going on something very big immediately because I think he will have more urgent things, but he cannot let this go hang. And I think one wise thing to do would be to endorse the Arab peace plan promoted by Saudi Arabia, which called for full Arab recognition if Israel withdrew to ’67 borders. Another thing would be to support Turkey’s mediation of peace talks between Syria and Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: Phyllis Bennis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I would agree with both of those. I would add that there should also be a call very early in the administration to say that, in the future, Israel will be held accountable for its violations of both international and U.S. law, like the Arms Export Control Act, that prohibit the use of U.S. weapons in many situations that Israel is using them in. That could mean an end to the $3 billion a year in military aid that the U.S. currently sends to Israel every year.

RAY SUAREZ: And Philip Zelikow.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Just that both the Israelis and the Palestinians need to see that the new administration is going to be actively engaged in these issues, but no one should place upon them the burden of also carrying the job of an early breakthrough on those problems as they try to grapple with so many others.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s all the time we have for this edition. Thanks to our guests: Phyllis Bennis, Philip Zelikow and Trudy Rubin. And thanks to all of our online visitors who submit questions. Until next time, thanks for listening. I’m Ray Suarez.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.