Obama’s Conduct of Foreign Policy

Obama’s Conduct of Foreign Policy

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

President Obama has approximately 21 months before he leaves office and his foreign policy achievements to date leave something to be desired.  With the exception of the capture of Osama bin Laden he has little to show. He completed the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq only to re-engage; he reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan only to now keep U.S. forces committed there into 2016; he drew a red line in the sand against Syria only to have the line and the consequences dissolve; he has not achieved a significantly stable situation with Russia following their invasion of Ukraine; he has flip-flopped in his relationship with various new Egyptian regimes; and he is now engaging Iran in Yemen and supporting Iran’s mission against ISIS in Iraq.

This unimpressive track record explains in part why Obama is so fixated on both Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the Iranian nuclear discussions. The President clearly believes he is better at talking than acting, especially if making decisions involves taking chances and leading. This is very much the reason why the President is so obsessed with the P5 +1 talks with Iran over its nuclear program—leaving aside his desire to win the domestic political battle that he faces at home over sanctions and any agreement. He wants achievements, both on their merits and for his record.  

(In fairness it should be noted that while the President clearly sets the agenda, Secretary Kerry truly is determined to demonstrate his skills at negotiating. This explains why he was so committed upon taking office to personally and directly move ahead on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It also explains why he personally feels the frustration at its failure to date to make any progress. One needs to remember that Kerry did not win the Presidency; was overshadowed in Massachusetts politics by Teddy Kennedy; and never was an especially major player in the Senate. He too needs success before he retires to help Teresa keep track of her wealth.

As a matter of negotiation skill, one of the key lessons diplomats learn is that sometimes you need to walk away from a deal as much as want to sign one. Playing high stakes poker is not an easy game and when the stakes are especially high—you need to know how to bluff and or walk away from the table. This is especially true in the Middle East where they play poker just like they buy merchandise in the Arab suk. If you do not understand their mentality, you ought not to go shopping with them. Perhaps this is also why the deliberations in Switzerland are so disconcerting. The discussions are not only addressing the substance but also adequately understanding the psychology; to avoid being sucked into accepting a solution which maybe be worse than no solution. 

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