Monday, June 29, 2009

Obama and the Foreign Policy Establishment

The new edition of the New York Review of Books features an excellent essay from David Bromwich, reviewing a new book by Leslie Gelb (Power Rules) and contrasting Gelb's prescriptions for US policy in the Middle East (and beyond) with Mr. Obama's recent speech in Cairo.

Gelb is a former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, which is the foremost bastion of "Establishment" thinking in US foreign policy circles. Its various associates include a number of retired or out-of-office policy-makers as well as journalists whose approaches mostly run a gamut between moderate-centrist-pragmatist and far-right neocons (among the latter, Elliot Abrams - a Likudnik who held the Middle East portfolio on the National Security Council under Bush, and who before that was one of the Reagan officials indicted and forced from office in the wake of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal; and Max Boot, whose policy prescriptions tend toward the smash-and-grab school of foreign relations).

Bromwich notes Gelb's preference for a soft-partitioning of Iraq - i.e., separate Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd regions with their own governments, but all recognizing a limited central government in Iraq. Joe Biden also came out in support of this a few years ago. But a number of experts (notably, Reidar Visser, whose work is actually rooted in research and expert knowledge of the country) have rejected this approach, in the conviction that enough Iraqis have enough of a sense of an Iraqi nationalism to make a unified Iraq work somehow. Personally, I prefer that view - to some extent because the partition-Iraq approach reflects an overly simplistic (or overly simplified) view of a much more complex ethnic-geographical reality in Iraq. However, it also seems clear to me that any "Iraq" will need to accommodate some significant degree of autonomy for the region of Kurdistan. The Kurdish Regional Government - and the two parties that dominate it - are established "facts on the ground" (largely thanks to the US's nurturing); and the Kurds in general simply have too much paranoia and history vis-a-vis Arabs to overcome to be able to entrust their fates to an Arab-dominated regime in Baghdad.

But what really jumps out of Bromwich's piece is Gelb's (and, by extension, the Establishment's) sense of the USA as (as Madeleine Albright put it) the "indispensable nation" that must resort to military force because it is, after all, the USA - the implication being that the US's vision is innately more benign and better endowed with wisdom. Obama is surrounded with people who are very much of the Establishment (Biden, Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke), and some of his decisions seem deeply rooted in Establishment thinking (witness the recent reports that the White House is crafting an executive order that would allow the US to detain some people indefinitely). But, as Bromwich notes, Obama's Cairo speech mostly lacked the condescension and presumption of predominance that color Gelb's attitudes.

Basically, Gelb's thinking seems to me woefully outdated, woefully out of touch with new realities. But there are a lot of Gelbs in Obama's coterie, and unless he can see through and fend off that kind of thinking, the wonderful promise that marked his ascension to the presidency may run aground on it.

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