An op-ed from a good friend and colleague. As the quote below suggests, our reaction to the Benghazi attacks has had some unfortunate consequences.
After the Benghazi attacks, I grieved not only for my fallen colleagues, but also for the loss of the chance to deepen a relationship that had, in Qaddafi’s final years, consisted mainly of counterterrorism efforts, limited commercial relations, and historical issues, such as the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Stevens, who championed a more comprehensive approach, would have been devastated to witness the fortress that the US embassy became after his death.
An interview with Michael Battle, the US Ambassador to the African Union:
First, there are the necessary vague policy statements:
it is in our strategic, tactical, and vested interest to have a kind of capacity to strengthen the capacity of the African Union, to make the African Union strong where it is not so strong, to cooperate with the African Union in areas where it is strong,
Then there is the reaction to China’s donation of a modern building complex to the AU:
AMBASSADOR BATTLE: I was asked this same question when I was doing a taping with Ethiopian TV, and the person who was doing the interview said, “How are you going to feel walking into this massive building built by the Chinese?” I said, “I’m going to feel absolutely splendid and wonderful walking into the building,” for two reasons: the U.S. would never build the building. The African continent cannot afford to build the building. So China is doing some of the infrastructure development that we cannot and will not do and that the African continent cannot afford to do.
But yet, there was a great need for the African Union to have a facility that could actually house its summit, because up until this year the African Union has had to rent UNECA to have its own buildings, which was costing the African Union money, taking money out of the African Union budget, putting it into the UNECA budget. So I have zero problems – zero difficulty with much of the activity that China is doing. What I would like to see and what Assistant Secretary Carson is actively trying to see is how we can find synergies that we could work with the Chinese. I mean, the Chinese Government is not a competitor for the U.S. on the African continent, because we have strategically different orientations. They are not the bad guy; they are the people doing stuff that we are not going to do. And so I embrace it. Yeah.
Here is the key phrase in that statement, pasted again:
So China is doing some of the infrastructure development that we cannot and will not do
Which really says a lot about the differences between what the US and China are doing in Africa
I am far from being an expert on American politics and elections. But I do tend to pay attention when they intersect my interests in international relations and I’ve gleaned a few tidbits from my Americanist colleagues: foreign policy preferences can impact voter attitudes (Aldrich et al. 2006); there may be “two presidencies” (domestic and foreign policy), and Presidents have greater control over foreign policy (Wildavsky 1966); and that the President’s party rarely does well in mid-term elections (see Shenkman; in 1991, James Campbell wrote about how the Presidential “surge” is pretty regularly followed by a decline)
So I find it interesting, when procrastinating looking today at the Wall Street Journal’s “POTUS Tracker”, which analyzes how Obama spends his time, that foreign policy and defense seem to be less of a relative priority over the last period as compared with the similar period a year ago (see the images below). The number of such events that engaged Obama’s attention a year ago was apparently 309 and this year for the same period, 265. This, of course, is a crude measure. But it makes me wonder whether Obama is missing an opportunity. While the economy is important, it may be that he should be doing more about foreign policy.
When it comes to his foreign policy record thus far, the reviews are not the greatest. Stephen Walt wrote recently that Obama is “0 for 4” on foreign policy. Richard Haass seems to have a more nuanced perspective but still finds major problems in Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and the Middle East.
My current view is that Obama is doing an OK job with some of this, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Citing success in Iraq–as he has done in recent days–is a good move, but it will take a lot of spinning. He could be bolder on the closing of Guantanamo. (Somehow, I think that Congress would find a way to fund the new domestic facility if he made a realistic threat to close Guantanamo “no matter what”.) Afghanistan may not be an easy sell these days, but Obama should be thinking about other foreign policy opportunities. In particular, I think he needs to find a way to make the US appear as the key leader behind a major successful international initiative. It almost doesn’t matter what it is (environment, human rights, security, trade). But there are several things that would matter here:
- This has to be a multilateral initiative
- Other states need to seem excited about cooperating with the United States
- There needs to be some reasonable chance of success with the initative
I think that if Obama could find this, then he would be fulfilling part of the great hope many Americans had when voting for him. He was supposed to be a game-changer, especially when it came to international affairs. We were to have a President who the international community liked and could get behind. People would like America again. I think such a positive experience with Obama could also change the way he is seen in the upcoming election, though it may already be too late for that.
Or, perhaps I’m wrong. Clinton did well when he focused on the economy. And the world seems to resemble the complicated world that Neustadt (1991) seemed to think that American Presidents would face:
“In a multipolar world, crisscrossed by transnational relations, with economic and environmental issues paramount, and issues of security reshaped on regional lines, our Presidents will less and less have reason to seek solace in foreign relations from the piled-up frustrations of home affairs. Their foreign frustrations will be piled high too.”
From the Wall Street Journal: