Sunday, March 20, 2011

The haphazard American response to the various upheavals in the Middle East, and in particular the current civil war unfolding in Libya, has provoked a great deal of speculation about the underlying strategy and reasoning guiding the Obama administration's foreign policy. This is a bit odd, since the underpinnings of its foreign policy have been crystal clear since at least the unfolding of the Honduran crisis in June of 2009, within the first six months of Obama's presidency.

During that crisis, the administration acted promptly and vigorously
  • In defense of a rabidly anti-American Honduran president, against the more pro-American branches of the Honduran government;

  • In support of generally anti-American multilateral organizations, such as the OAS; and

  • In favor of an unpopular would-be authoritarian, battling against democracy, rule of law and popular opinion in his own country.

Since then, the administration's major initiatives have included

  • A marked cooling in relations with democratic allies such as Israel, Britain and Colombia;

  • Eager (and largely failed) attempts at "engagement" with virulently anti-American, anti-democratic regimes in Russia, China, Syria and Iran; and

  • Enthusiastic embrace of anti-American multilateral institutions such as the UN and OIC.

The pattern is unmistakable--the only remaining question is whether the anti-American or anti-democratic impulse is more dominant. (Given the general hostility of multilateral organizations to American power, the multilateralist impulse is simply an aspect of the anti-American one.) And the popular uprisings in the Middle East have provided ample clarification: the most pro-American dictator in the region, Hosni Mubarak, was quickly abandoned in favor of a possibly more democratic but definitely more anti-American mob of protesters.

Since the start of the Cold War, the dominant foreign policy issue dividing politicians around the world has been the desirability of American power and influence. And in Western Europe and America, the broad coalitions of the "left" have lined up against it, while the opposing coalitions of the "right" lined up in favor of it. During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, the leftist position was that America was supporting brutal right-wing dictators in the name of battling Communism, while conservatives made fine distinctions between "authoritarian" (i.e., pro-US) and "totalitarian" (i.e., pro-Soviet) dictatorships. Today, of course, their positions on democracy are essentially reversed, with "neoconservatives" taking an idealistic line in favor of democracy promotion, while left-wing "realists" defend pragmatic multilateral engagement with powerful tyrants.

This swap of positions demonstrates that in neither case is democracy the true motivating issue. Rather, it is the issue of American power that drives the debate on both sides, as the political contortions over Libya--the liberal obsession with avoiding the appearance of American leadership, the conservative fixation over saving America's reputation--once again demonstrate.

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