Is Obama a grand strategist?
US President Barack Obama’s administration has been a source of bewilderment and frustration to many in the Middle East and to many analysts and observers of US Middle East policy.
Obama’s policies also have been the target of criticism and even derision: US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., the man Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential election, recently said, “The administration’s feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries and diminished our standing in the world.”
“Feckless.” “Leading from behind.” “Clueless.” “Weak.” These are among the most common descriptors of Obama’s leadership as US commander-in-chief.
But there’s another view. In a recent paper, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, claims that Obama is, in fact, a rare “grandmaster” of foreign policy, a president whose global vision is so sophisticated that those who live in the 24-hour news cycle have failed to see what he is doing and what he has accomplished.
According to McCoy, Obama entered office determined to reverse America’s decline and his first priority was to “repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles”, principally those of his predecessor in the Middle East, which cost the United States upwards of $3 trillion, led to the dismemberment of Iraq and arguably to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS).
And while the United States was spending trillions on war in the Middle East — and running up a massive budget deficit in the process — China was spending even more on infrastructure and foreign investments in Africa and Central Asia. And this gets to the crux of McCoy’s argument: Obama’s foreign policy is centred on “a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise”.
In many ways, Obama is not just the United States’ first African- American president. He also is its first Asian-American president. He was born in Hawaii, spent his childhood years in Indonesia and went to college in California. So it should have been no surprise when, during his first term, his administration announced a “pivot to Asia”.
Words matter: “Pivot” means to rotate in a different direction. This should have been taken as a warning to America’s friends (and enemies) in the Middle East that Washington was no longer going to intervene in a region of the world that has so often been a source of US policy failures — and expensive failures, at that.
According to McCoy, Obama’s eagerness for a nuclear agreement with Iran was not based on weakness but rather on his desire to “avoid the sort of military action yearned for by Republicans that would have mired Washington in yet another Middle Eastern war”. In addition to its own inherent dangers, such a war would have distracted from Obama’s broader goal of halting China’s threat to US supremacy.
And how is Obama achieving that goal? McCoy says it is through trade deals, particularly the two massive deals currently under negotiation: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans- Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
While critics have lambasted Obama for not intervening in Syria, or for negotiating with the ayatollahs in Tehran, the president has been assembling two trade deals that — assuming they both are signed before the end of his term in office, which seems likely — will succeed in putting the United States at the centre of a mammoth economic area that accounts for two-thirds of world gross domestic product and three-quarters of world trade. It also leaves China on the outside looking in.
If this were a game of chess, Obama would look across the table at Beijing, smile smugly, and say, “Check.”
McCoy does acknowledge a ruthless side to this game: “When grandmasters play the great game of geopolitics, there is, almost axiomatically, an indifference to any resulting collateral damage at home or abroad.”
The suffering Syrian population is, in this interpretation, “collateral damage” from Obama’s refusal to involve United States in another Middle East quagmire. The greater risk that Israel and other US allies may face because of the agreement with Iran can also be seen as “collateral damage”.
Domestically, many environmentalists are furious that Obama has allowed fracking and oil exploration in the US Arctic. But to the grandmaster — who also is a true environmentalist — this is collateral damage worth paying to achieve energy independence.
McCoy concludes: “Obama has revealed himself as one of the few US leaders since America’s rise to world power in 1898 who can play this particular great game of imperial domination with the requisite balance of vision and ruthlessness. Obama has… potentially [laid] the groundwork for the continued planetary dominion of the United States deep into the 21st century.”
This administration’s policies in the Middle East are still open to criticism on many fronts and Obama can be called many things. But if McCoy is right, “clueless” and “weak” are not among them.