When it Comes to Foreign Policy, is the United States the Real “JV” Team?


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Dan, President Obama infamously referred to ISIS (whom he calls by one of its other oft-used acronyms, ISIL), the “JV team,” and has come to regret his words. But a recent comment by Bob Schieffer, longtime show of CBS’ Face the Nation, now the top-rated Sunday morning political show, has me wondering whether it is the United States that is the JV team – not militarily, but politically.
Minutes after a segment of the show in which Schieffer interviewed former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the gentlemanly host who, now in his late seventies, often exercises the septuagenarian privilege of exhibiting moments of cantankerousness, said in reference to Vladimir Putin’s aggressive maneuvers on the world stage: “One thing we haven’t talked about this morning is Russia. And I’m going to say it up front, I don’t give advice obviously, I report on what others do. But I would send Henry Kissinger tonight to Moscow to talk to Putin and see what he can find out and decide where we should go from there.”
Schieffer’s comment speaks volumes about the sad state of affairs in which America finds itself regarding its ability – or lack thereof – to field a top-notch foreign policy team. With all due respect to Kissinger – whose geopolitical intellect is universally admired – and taking off the table for the moment the fact that legions of Greeks and Cypriots would like his head on a platter for his role in the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and its aftermath, I never thought all that much of Kissinger to begin with. I always found the whole Nixon-Kissinger opening the door with China and particularly detente with the Soviet Union a bit overrated. I’m a Ronald Reagan-Jim Baker-George Schultz man, myself, giving the bulk of the credit to Reagan’s vision, with Baker and Schultz admirably doing the gruntwork.
Even a Henry Kissinger in his prime wasn’t exactly John Quincy Adams, but now that he’s 91 years old, that the host of America’s premier political show thinks he is our best hope for dealing with the leader of, next to the United States, the most powerful country in the world, says quite a lot about our woeful lack of talent.
Schieffer, mind you, is far from being a Republican shill. He is evenhanded enough to have warranted plenty of criticism for his countless criticisms of both liberals and conservatives over the years, and so his recommendation to send Kissinger to Russia to clear up our mess is a slap in the face to current Secretary of State John Kerry and his immediate predecessor, Hillary Clinton, not to mention Hillary’s former president husband, Bill.
Parties and ideology aside, Dan, whom can we send overseas to represent us nowadays, with enough gravitas to gain the results we deserve? I have defended George W. Bush many times in my columns over the years, but to a great extent, Putin played him for a fool. “I looked into his eyes and…got a sense of his soul,” Bush said when the two leaders first met. Even his fellow Republican, John McCain, provided his own mocking twist to that: “When I look into Putin’s eyes, I see three letters, K, G, and B.”
As for Barack Obama, well, he’s added a whole new meaning to the word naivete. It reminds me of when Nixon, who fancied himself the grandmaster on the world chess board, once said from the Oval Office, with derisive laughter: “can you imagine Jerry Ford sitting in this chair?”
The scary thing is, I’m wondering whether we have anyone these days even as good as Ford.
Dino, you are probably familiar with the Greek adage that a fish rots from the head down. Obama’s foreign policy is clearly adrift. The President means well and vaguely has good political goals, but he is inept, inarticulate, and indecisive. His Republican opponents may be worse, offering reckless, gun-toting actions with little thought of their long-term consequences other than helping themselves in the next election.
Obama often immediately responds to a crisis in manner that makes me cringe. I wonder if all his advisors are merely political operatives or just undereducated in foreign affairs.
When Russia and Ukraine negotiated a cease fire, Obama immediately stated he didn’t think the Russians would keep their part of the bargain. That judgment may or may not be valid, but a mature president would have said that we trust all parties will keep their word and a cease fire is a first step to a reasonable solution.
Obama famously drew a red line regarding Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons, but apparently used invisible or evaporating ink. As I have noted often, I don’t believe it is wise to interfere militarily in a civil war, but any red line threats that are deemed necessary are best made through diplomatic channels. When made publically, loss of credibility is inevitable when there is a perceived provocation and no response.
At the time when the Syrian government and rebels agreed to have peace talks, Obama stated there could be no acceptable agreement without a change in Syria’s head of state. Not exactly an inducement for anyone to come to the table, much less a force that is winning its civil war.
Obama has advocated strong sanctions against Russia without realizing sanctions can be double-edged. Russia’s counter-boycott of the EU has been quite harmful. In EU countries as diverse as Norway and Greece, some 70-80% of maritime or agriculture products would normally be sold to Russia. This year those products will be sold elsewhere at a loss or break-even price. In the interim, Russia is increasing its trade with China.
In the Middle East, the lack of viable policies is staggering. For years, conventional media has reported how extremist Islamists were gaining ground, often arming themselves with discarded or captured American weapons. How could the CIA not be aware of this phenomenon? Does it want a crisis or is it just inept? We must also ask if the National Security Agency is even minimally effective, how could it not have detected the ISIS recruitment of Americans?
After originally admitting he had no anti-ISIS strategy, Obama fell back to charactering ISIS a terrorist organization as if terrorism were its ideology, not simply one of its tactics. ISIS is indeed a horrendous political movement, but the West is foolish to ignore the religious, economic, and ethnic passions at play. We have never stressed to the Moslem world that jihadists of the ISIS type are profoundly reactionary. They advocate a return to a religiously-based feudal order that totally rejects equality for women and prohibits intellectual, religious, and scientific inquiry not approved by a mullah.
I don’t think the challenge is finding skilled diplomats. We lack coherent and rational policies that address the new political realities of our times. In that regard the overwhelmed Obama and the bellicose Republicans are part of the problem. Without a fundamental rethinking of what role we wish America to play in the world, we can expect a steady diet of crisis events, many culminating in military actions that ultimately prove ineffective. No potential presidential candidate for 2016 has spoken or written of changing our foreign policy priorities. If not now, when?


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