He did say during the campaign for the Presidency that the US should talk and “meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe alike.” But it’s beginning to look as if talking to everyone may have consequences he and his advisers may not have foreseen—or don’t consider priorities for US interests.
“Not talking doesn’t make us [the United States] tough,” said Barack Obama in 2008, “it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership.”
The Obama foreign policy departs from that of his predecessor George W. Bush, during whose watch the US made it clear that it wasn’t willing to talk with its perceived enemies. It was going to annihilate them instead, and/or would see to it that hostile regimes were replaced with friendlier ones.
The Bush mantra was freedom and democracy and its realization wherever and whenever neither existed regardless of the peculiarities of historical experience, cultural differences, and therefore the forms democracy could take in contexts other than US preferences. Bush and company defined democracy and freedom according to US experience and interests, and primarily in terms of a country’s willingness to open its resources to multinational exploitation and to adopt institutions and practices similar to that of the US.
The show windows for this policy were Iraq and Afghanistan, where it’s not proceeding as planned. Iraq is still in ruins and chaos despite the existence of a US-sponsored regime in the place of the late Saddam Hussein’s. In Afghanistan, it’s now increasingly doubtful if the Taliban can be defeated militarily even by the combined forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the—again US- sponsored—Karzai regime.
It wasn’t so much the fundamentalist assumptions of Bush and his neo-conservative cohorts’ policy as its implementation and methods that were flawed. Forcing people into doing what the US thinks is good for them is the very opposite of democratic choice, and invites resistance (which can itself take democratic forms). In Iraq a government supposedly democratic has held elections, but is no democracy in its being a US creature, as amply demonstrated by its reluctant reversal of the Saddam Hussein government’s nationalization of its vast oil reserves.
The contradiction in the Bush policy consisted of the anti-democratic imposition of “democracy” on failed, failing, or terrorist-coddling states. It was also blind to the uniqueness of nations, and presumed that the US model of governance was best for all.
Enter the Obama administration. Its willingness to talk with all countries whether friend or foe implies recognition that democracy can’t be imposed by the US or any other outside power regardless of military might. The policy does sound more reasonable for a country burned by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it does have its pitfalls.
Its two most recent diplomatic coups, one of which the US State Department said was a “private initiative,” have been criticized for the messages that they sent to two of the most politically isolated regimes on the planet: that of North Korea and Burma (the name of which its current military rulers have changed to Myanmar). An Obama meeting with one of the most unpopular Southeast Asian politicians has also raised eyebrows in both the US and the Philippines.
A senior US Senator, James Webb of Virginia, who’s also said to be close to Obama, met with Senior General Than Shwe, head of the Burmese military junta, over the last weekend and managed to win the release of John Yettaw.
Yettaw is the US national the lawyer of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has labeled “a fool” for his puzzling swim across a lake to Suu Kyi’s home early last May. Arrested and sentenced to a prison term of 15 years at hard labor for supposedly conspiring to violate the terms of Suu Kyi’s house arrest, Yettaw flew with Webb back to the US early last week.
Thanks to Yettaw, Suu Kyi, who has been held by the regime for 14 years, has had her six-year house arrest extended for 18 months beyond May 27, apparently to prevent her from participating in the 2010 elections activists say will only further entrench the junta in power. Yettaw’s swimming to Suu Kyi’s house uninvited and staying there for two days provided the junta the perfect justification for her trial. As theThailand-based opposition magazine Irrawaddy has suggested, he might as well have been working for the junta.
US willingness to talk with anyone has in this case resulted in the release of one of its citizens, but has done nothing for democracy in Burma, and may even have damaged whatever prospects for it there might have been. Suu Kyi remains in house arrest and won’t be participating in the 2010 elections, and the junta has trumpeted the release of Yettaw as an example of its “humanitarianism” and “respect for the rule of law.”
Earlier this month, in a visit US sources said was “private,” former US President William (Bill) Clinton met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Clinton managed to win the release of two US citizens who had been tried and convicted by an NK court for entering that country illegally.
Although the visit could restart talks on the NK nuclear program, North Korea also gained points, not only a photo opportunity with the former US President—and husband of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Among Kim Jong-Il’s gains are that of his nuclear program’s being perceived by North Koreans as the key to the country’s being taken seriously by the rest of the world. Worse, Clinton’s visit does tend to send the message to other countries aspiring for nuclear arms that they’re on the right path, and makes the urgent need to abolish nuclear weapons in whatever country’s possession even more problematic.
And yet this wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. In declaring that the US should be willing to talk to anyone, Obama promised “tough diplomatic initiatives,” which seemed more reasonable than the Bush policy of the threat and actual use of force.
Meanwhile, as July was ending, Obama himself was sending a puzzling message to Filipinos when he met with, and was effusive rather than tough in the company of, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, despite warnings from US analysts that the US should not be perceived as in any way supporting whatever plot she and her free-spending cohort are cooking up in the turbulent months ahead of the 2010 elections.
If the US pendulum has swung from that of Bush’s emphasis on force, it seems as if it has swung too far in its emphasis on talking. Indeed, the pendulum’s swing could push the rest of world back to the same pit of peril, uncertainty and distress of the Bush period. The Obama policy is not any different from that of past US administrations: its first priorities are US interests; those of other countries, last.