Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Assessing foreign policy

Aiming at zero-risk foreign policy is a very risky choice, as the record of former US president Barack Obama shows, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

The universal praise for former US president Barack Obama’s foreign policy was and remains a mystery. True, the previous Bush presidency was marred by major mistakes, especially during its first term. And yes, Obama’s legacy was less calamitous. But I am unable to understand how it can be considered to be positive.

I have devoted some thought to the way of assessing foreign policy. The easiest way, some would say, is to compare stated objectives to actual results. But this is too simple: maybe the stated objectives were not the real ones. And maybe unprecedented developments, which could not be foreseen, explain the discrepancy. You may feel that the outcome is a failure, but in fact the crisis management was perfect and succeeded in cutting any losses.

This leads us to another problem: what should be done if the stated or real aims are utterly unrealistic? Should we castigate those who defined them, or forget about them and start to assess whether the best course was chosen in a significant number of decisions. This too is easier said than done. Too many considerations intervene: short-term aims, long-term perspectives, and the definition of possible scenarios and alternatives.

Of course the assessment of realistic aims is a complicated task. I will spare the reader another lecture on the conflict between values and interests. Is a particular foreign policy’s main mission to defend interests or is it to uphold values? I will also spare the reader more debate about the costs of success.

The usual argument in favour of Obama is that he restored US moral superiority, prestige and soft power and that he was a decent statesman representing the best of American values. I am unconvinced. I will not quibble about the morality of his extensive use of drones, or about Syrian and Iraqi opinions of his policies. I will simply say that Obama was a cold-blooded realist who had an extraordinary ability to lecture the planet on ethics. His judgement was sometimes sound, but sometimes very poor, and too often he allowed internal political calculations to interfere with US foreign policy. He definitely did not make the world a safer place.

If I had to defend him, I would say that he inherited a disastrous situation and a severe economic crisis. His priority was to repair the economy and to manage the decline in US hegemony in order to minimise the losses. During his presidency, the financial situation ruled out major endeavours, and this was not his fault. But that does not excuse everything. When you know that you intend to do nothing, you do not make promises and lecture from the back seat. 

A mixture of Obama’s own psychological make-up and the state of the economy led him to refuse to undertake anything unless he could control all the key variables and parameters. I admire his caution, but in the real world you can never control an entire process. Aiming at a zero-risk policy is a very risky choice.

However, it is too early to assess Obama’s legacy. A lot will depend on the future of China and Russia. We do not know if they have seized the opportunity of America’s retreat to improve their stature, influence and power, or whether they have overreached and will have to backpedal. We do not know if the world system is still manageable.

Another mystery for me is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Before the 2011 Arab Spring, his rule was a success story. Now he looks like a serial bungler. I was never an admirer of Erdogan, but it may be useful to take a closer look. In Egypt, we tend to consider him to be a Muslim Brother who “plotted the Arab Spring” and finally showed his true face as fanatical, brutal and narrow-minded. One US colleague told me before the Arab Spring that Erdogan was definitely a “bad guy” but one who knew when and where to stop in order to avoid being caught. It is tempting to say that he no longer has this sense of limits, and this is probably true. However, things in reality are more complicated. 

First of all, we Egyptians tend (rightly) to complain about the insecurity on our borders and to say that we are surrounded by enemies or by states that have collapsed. But Turkey, a NATO member hosting NATO troops, has to deal with Russia and Iran which are much more difficult to handle than our neighbours. This is a very nerve-racking business, so Turkey did not need another disastrous problem on its frontiers in the shape of an unstable Syria, especially as the Arab Spring there might inspire the Kurds. 

Secondly, during the first decade of this century Turkey’s success relied on the country’s ability to develop political and economic ties with existing regimes while being a “model” for their oppositions. It surfed on the anti-Israel mood, seemed to show that the Islamists knew how to manage the economy, and apparently demonstrated that Political Islam and democracy were not unforgiving foes. 

This approach, and Erdogan’s “zero-problem” paradigm, required a stable environment and the need to avoid taking sides. As a result, I tend to believe those like commentator Samir Salha who say that Ankara was at first deeply ambivalent about the Arab Spring. It did not know who was going to win, or what kind of regimes would emerge, and it did not want a Kurdish insurgency inspired by possible success stories. It had developed important economic links with the Gaddafi regime in Libya and the Al-Assad regime in Syria, and it had a lot to lose.

Moreover, Ankara knew that its own brand of Islamism was very different from the ones of the Arabs. It knew that its model was not transferrable. In a 2012 paper, Salha said that some in Ankara were afraid that the Arab Spring was actually an American plot aiming at opposing the Arab Islamists and the ruling Turkish AKP Party. There is no monopoly on conspiracy theories.

Erdogan frequently changed his mind about Libya, and at first he condemned the Western intervention there and then he reversed course. On Syria, he opted for an approach urging President Bashar Al-Assad to compromise and to open up the regime. But the Syrian president would not oblige, and after some hesitation Erdogan finally opted for an approach that aimed at toppling the Syrian regime. Like many at the time, he thought that the regime had only a few weeks left to live. This was a major mistake, as Turkey, unlike Washington, had a lot to lose, and it soon felt the heat. Erdogan underestimated the regime’s will-power and its importance to Moscow and Tehran.

It is fascinating to see how a single major blunder can lead to a reversal of course and compromise other achievements.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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