To say that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy plate is full right now is a vast understatement, and it couldn’t come at a worse time for a leader who needs to revive his own economy before trying to resuscitate others (e.g., Tunisia, Egypt, South Sudan, Ivory Coast – eventually Libya?). Faced with the reality that America’s huge debt overhang condemns it to sub-par growth for many years, Washington enters a lengthy period of “intervention fatigue” that – like everything else, according to the Democrats – can still be blamed on George W. Bush.
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It is estimated that 30 percent of the current US federal deficit was set in motion by the Bush administration and another 30 percent by Obama trying to correct those mistakes. But the biggest problem remains the 40 percent triggered by entitlements growth – the simple aging of America. With China now applying the brakes, Japan suddenly and sensationally damaged by mega-disaster, Europe still processing sovereign bankruptcies, and Arab unrest pushing up the price of oil, there appears no obvious “cavalry” riding to the global economy’s rescue. It would seem that America’s “circle the wagons” mentality has gone global, as every beleaguered leadership now looks out for itself.
That means President Obama’s foreign policy will more closely approximate the truly “old school” Washington consensus – as is, the original George W.’s seminal advice on avoiding “foreign entanglements,” despite the furious lobbying of nervous friends and allies across the Mideast. Instead of the Bush Doctrine’s focus on spreading freedom, Obama tacks more in the direction of less well-known Carter Doctrine, which quietly positioned the US as ultimate guarantor of the Persian Gulf’s “open door” on energy exports. So if you’re an Arab monarchy with major oil reserves, expect no serious political pressure from this White House.
Jimmy Carter’s under-appreciated realism notwithstanding, President Obama still have tough calls to make. For example, he must decide when to go the Nixon Doctrine’s route of arming and standing by regional pillars (Saudis, yes; Mubarak, no) and when to summon his inner Reagan and adopt that president’s doctrine of arming the insurgency versus taking on the central government directly – an ideologically cynical approach that seems far more likely than any NATO-led no-fly-zone over Libya. Neither approach is without its dangers, for remember how America stood by the Shah, only to lose it all in Iran, and how Reagan’s brilliant support of Afghanistan muhajideen ultimately helped trigger the blowback that was 9/11. Don’t even get us started on the Iran-Contra scandal.
Though it may make many Americans uncomfortable to hear this, Obama’s steely realism on the 2.0/Facebook Revolutions puts Washington closer to today’s “Beijing Consensus” than the other way around. China’s non-interference mantra gets harder to ignore when it’s suddenly either the number-one or number-two trading partner of more than half of the G-20’s membership. China’s 30,000 nationals in Libya, for example, are pretty much all gone now, along with any Beijing willingness to support a UN-sanctioned military intervention. The last several hundred Chinese nationals may have been ferried out on military transports – the first such long-distance non-combatant evacuation operation the PLA has ever conducted, but the yuan stops there, so to speak.
This is the sort of great-power laissez faire attitude that got us two Sudans a while back, and it may soon birth a couple of Libyas, reminding everyone just how many fake states the Europeans left behind across the vast breadth and depth of Africa.
We may well have entered a new phase in globalization’s advance, or one where the superpower “doctor” is no longer in his “office.”