In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He’s a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.” Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.
Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security — all in search of a new version of American supremacy.
Obama first had to deal with the disasters of the post-9/11 years. Looking through history’s rearview mirror, Bush-Cheney Republicans imagined the Middle East was the on-ramp to greater world power and burned up at least two trillion dollars and much of U.S. prestige in a misbegotten attempt to make that illusion a reality. Since the first day of his presidency, Obama has been trying to pull back from or ameliorate the resulting Bush-made miasmas in Afghanistan and Iraq (though with only modest success), while resisting constant Republican pressures to reengage fully in the permanent, pointless Middle Eastern war that they consider their own. Instead of Bush’s endless occupations with 170,000 troops in Iraq and 101,000 in Afghanistan, Obama’s military has adopted a more mobile Middle Eastern footprint of advisers, air strikes, drones, and special operations squads. On other matters, however, Obama has acted far more boldly.
Covert Cold War Disasters
Obama’s diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three “rogue” states — Burma, Iran, and Cuba — whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.
In 1951, as that “war” gripped the globe, Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the CIA to arm some 12,000 Nationalist Chinese soldiers who had been driven out of their country by communist forces and had taken refuge in northern Burma. The result: three disastrous attempts to invade their former homeland. After being slapped back across the border by mere provincial militia, the Nationalist troops, again with covert CIA support, occupied Burma’s northeast, prompting Rangoon to lodge a formal complaint at the U.N. and the U.S. ambassador to Burma to resign in protest.
Not only was this operation one of the great disasters in a tangled history of such CIA interventions, forcing a major shake-up inside the Agency, but it also produced a lasting breach in bilateral relations with Burma, contributing to that country’s sense of isolation from the international community. Even at the Cold War’s close 40 years later, Burma’s military junta persisted in its international isolation while retaining a close dependency relationship with China, thereby giving Beijing a special claim to its rich resources and strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
During his initial term in office, Obama made a concerted effort to heal this strategic breach in Washington’s encirclement of the Eurasian land mass. He sent Hillary Clinton on the first formal mission to Burma by a secretary of state in more than 50 years; appointed the first ambassador in 22 years; and, in November 2012, became the first president to visit the country that, in an address to students at Rangoon University, he called the “crossroads of East and South Asia” that borders on “the most populated nations on the planet.”
Washington’s Cold War blunders were genuinely bipartisan. Following Truman and drawing on his own experience as Allied commander for Europe during World War II, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proceeded to wage the Cold War from the White House with the National Security Council as his staff and the CIA as his secret army. Among the 170 CIA covert operations in 48 countries that Eisenhower authorized, two must rank as major debacles, inflicting especially lasting damage on America’s global standing.
In 1953, after Iran’s populist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq challenged Britain’s imperial monopoly over his country’s oil industry, Eisenhower authorized a covert regime change operation to be engineered by the CIA and British intelligence. Though the Agency came perilously close to failure, it did finally succeed in installing the young, untested Shah in power and then helped him consolidate his autocratic rule by training a secret police, the notorious Savak, in torture and surveillance. While Washingtonians toasted the delicious brilliance of this secret-agent-style derring-do, Iranians seethed until 1979 when demonstrators ousted the Shah and students stormed the U.S. embassy, producing a 35-year breach in relations that weakened Washington’s position in the Middle East.
In September 2013, spurning neoconservative calls for a military solution to the “Iranian problem,” Obama dramatically announced the first direct contact with that country’s leader since 1979. In this way, he launched two years of sustained diplomacy that culminated in an historic agreement halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. From a geopolitical perspective, this prospective entente, or at least truce, avoided the sort of military action yearned for by Republicans that would have mired Washington in yet another Middle Eastern war. It would also have voided any chance for what, in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton first termed “a pivot to new global realities.” She spoke as well of “our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” a policy which, in a 2014 Beijing press conference, Obama would tout as “our pivot to Asia.”
During his last months in office in 1960, President Eisenhower also infamously authorized a CIA invasion of Cuba, confident that 1,000 ragtag Cuban exiles backed by U.S. airpower could somehow overthrow Fidel Castro’s entrenched revolutionary regime. Inheriting this operation and sensing disaster, President John F. Kennedy forced the CIA to scale back its plans without stopping the Agency from proceeding. So it dumped those exiles on a remote beach 50 impassable miles of trackless, tangled swamp from their planned mountain refuge and sat back as Castro’s air force bombed them into surrender.
For the next 40 years, the resulting rupture in diplomatic relations and the U.S. embargo of Cuba weakened Washington’s position in the Cold War, the Caribbean, and even southern Africa. After decades of diplomatic isolation and economic embargo failed to change the communist regime, President Obama initiated a thaw in relations, culminating in the July 2015 reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, closed for nearly 55 years. Read more