No doubt some of President Obama's initial foreign policy moves are an undeniable advance over his predecessor's way of dealing with the world. What's very welcome is the lifting of the "Global Gag Rule," a U.S. law that forbade family planning groups receiving U.S. funding from even mentioning abortion. And after eight years of head-in-the-oil-well denial, the United States is all set to join forces with the rest of the planet in combating global warming.
But some of Obama's actions aren't as good as they seem. Let's take his raft of orders around Guantánamo and torture, for instance. Obama has put in enough hedges so that, in the words of Politico's Josh Gerstein, "Experts predict that American policy towards detainees could remain for months or even years pretty close to what it was as President Bush left office."
So, for instance, Gerstein quotes White House Counsel Greg Craig as saying that Obama doesn't want to necessarily do away with military tribunals and that "improved military commissions" are still an option down the road. And in his directive ordering the cessation of torture, Obama has devised an escape clause in the form of an interagency military commission that will decide in six months on whether to offer "additional or different guidance" to different non-military agencies. (For a detailed dissection, go to Gerstein's piece.)
Or let's take the two special envoys that Obama has appointed: George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke.
Mitchell is so unable to think outside the box that it's doubtful he'll get much accomplished on Israel/Palestine. Like other members of the establishment, he'll be unable and unwilling to antagonize Israel and change longstanding U.S. policy of blatant one-sidedness.
Mitchell has "carefully avoided what he knows for certain is the core problem: the illegal, totally illegal, the criminal U.S-backed actions, which are systematically taking over the West Bank, just as they did under Clinton, and are undermining the possibility for a viable state," Noam Chomsky pointed out on "Democracy Now."
Professor Stephen Zunes, an expert on the Middle East if ever there was one, has a more charitable view of Mitchell but is still not too hopeful.
"The problem in being ‘balanced' in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it fails to recognize the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers," he writes. "While balance in the sense of recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is indeed critical, it should be remembered that Palestinian land is being occupied, confiscated, and colonized, not Israeli land; that Israeli military and economic power is dramatically greater than that of the Palestinians; that Palestinian civilians have been killed in far greater numbers than Israeli civilians; and that it's the Palestinians and not the Israelis who have been denied their fundamental right of statehood."
Holbrooke's appointment as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan is also disappointing. Here, I'm not talking so much about his background (Zunes writes about that) but his agenda. Obama had initially indicated that any envoy to the region would be expected to tackle the issue of Kashmir-i.e., to pressure India to hasten negotiations with Pakistan on the region. Intense lobbying by the Indian government and its paid minions ensured that Holbrooke's ambit was severely curtailed.
"The omission of India from his title, and from Clinton's official remarks introducing the new diplomatic push in the region was no accident-not to mention a sharp departure from Obama's own previously stated approach of engaging India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a regional dialogue," Laura Rozen reports for Foreign Policy magazine's online component. "Multiple sources told The Cable that India vigorously-and successfully-lobbied the Obama transition team to make sure that neither India nor Kashmir was included in Holbrooke's official brief."
Just to give you a short summary of India and Pakistan's position regarding outside mediation: Pakistan, as the weaker negotiator, welcomes it; India, as the stronger one, hates it. My opinion is that it would be a good idea to have outside powers prodding the two countries to arrive at a solution, even with the potential pitfalls of external interference. Hence, it's a pity that Obama caved in to Indian pressure.
Staying within Holbrooke's domain, Obama's overly militarized approach to the Afghan conflict is very disappointing. Defense Secretary Bob Gates told Congress, "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose." (Memo to Gates: Afghanistan is a bona fide member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, not Central Asia.) Obama and Gates need to contact Afghan civil society leaders, as Professor Lisa Schirch of Eastern Mennonite University recently did. They told her that "a troop surge alone will result in more civilian casualties, more village raids, further alienation of the local population and growing local resistance to foreign troops," and that "the Taliban could use a troop surge as an opportunity to recruit local people to their cause." Instead, these Afghanis offered Schirch a more holistic approach, based on the 3ds-development, diplomacy, as well as defense.
Obama needs to depart even more from the approach of the previous occupant of the White House.