A President’s Report Card

HIR Issue: 
Women in Power

You have remarked that you see little substantive difference between the Bush administration’s and the Obama administration’s foreign policies. How are Obama’s policies similar to, or different from, the Bush administration policies?

Well, to be precise, I think there are significant differences between the first and the second Bush terms. And I think Obama’s policies are fairly continuous with Bush’s second term. In the first Bush term, the administration simply went off the spectrum. US foreign policy has a very narrow spectrum, but the Bush administration departed from it. In fact, they were quite harshly criticized right within the mainstream for doing extreme harm to major US interests. During the first term, the image of the United States in the world sank to probably the lowest point in history. Everything they touched turned into disaster, from the point of view of the interests that they represent.

Invading Iraq turned out to be as expected. It was anticipated that it would increase terror, which—of course—it did, beyond what was expected. What sensible analysts understood was that it would probably strengthen Iran, which it did. Iran was the victor of the US invasion of Iraq. The invasion destroyed the country. That was true for case after case; just about everything they touched turned into calamity.

The second term, they more or less moved back toward the centrist mainstream. Some of the more extreme figures like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others were sent away. They couldn’t eliminate Cheney because he was the administration. They became somewhat more accommodating to negotiations. Rather than kicking people in the face and telling them, “you are irrelevant unless you do what we say,” they became a more normal administration. And the Obama administration continued on that path. I don’t see any fundamental changes from the second Bush administration.

Both US and international media outlets have applauded Obama for showing sensitivity and ability to understand other cultures, especially when he visited the Middle East. Do you think that Obama’s different rhetorical approach to engaging foreign policy could translate into substantive policy changes?

As you know, Obama won the award from the US advertising industry for the best marketing campaign of 2008. His team beat Apple computers. Advertising industry executives were euphoric and talked openly to the business press about how they have been selling candidates like toothpaste ever since Reagan and how this is the greatest achievement they have ever had. Yes, Obama is very effective at marketing.

I don’t happen to like it, but a lot of people seem to like his rhetoric. He gives the impression of being an understanding person, sometimes so much that it’s almost comical. He went to Israel—it must have been in June 2008—and Shimon Peres reported to the Israeli press that Obama was a wonderful guy. He said that Obama agreed with him on everything, so they were going to get along fine. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is about the opposite extreme from Peres in the narrow Israeli spectrum, came back and said that Obama was a marvelous guy who agreed with him [Netanyahu] on everything. That is Obama’s technique. He says: “I really like you; I understand you; I am sympathetic with you.”

So yes, it is true: it is a feeling. In Europe, there was almost euphoria, partly because Obama wasn’t Bush. The Bush administration was coming straight out and saying literally, “you do what we say, or you are irrelevant.” Obama says, “we are partners we are friends, we will listen to you,” and so on and so forth. There is no “irrelevant.”

Actually, there is a nice comment about this from 40 years ago, making the essential point. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy intellectuals were making plans that they knew perfectly well might lead to the destruction of England. They were apparently thinking of implementing plans which, in their own minds, might have led to a Russian retaliation, which would have destroyed England. It wouldn’t have reached the United States, but it would have destroyed Europe. They didn’t tell the British about it. The British prime minister had no idea what they were doing, except for what he could find out from British intelligence. At that point, one of the senior Kennedy advisors commented on what they called their “special relationship” with England. The special relationship meant that Britain is our “lieutenant;” the fashionable word is “partner.” Of course, they like to hear the fashionable word.

 The same was true when Obama went to the Middle East, which you mentioned. The impression in the Middle East was that they finally have somebody who understands them, someone who is going to pay attention to their concerns and interests. And he’s going to bring democracy and freedom. If you bothered to pay attention to what Obama said, you couldn’t have such illusions. For example, on his way to Egypt, he was asked what he would say about the “authoritarian” nature of the Egyptian regime. That was kind of an understatement: Egypt is a brutal, harsh dictatorship. Obama’s response was something about how he doesn’t like to use labels for “folks.” When a politician uses the word “folks,” you wait for the next horror that’s coming along. Obama said that he wouldn’t call Mubarak authoritarian. He’s a person who brings stability and does good, and he is our friend.

How do you think anyone in the Middle East who is thinking for a minute can take seriously what he says about human rights violations in Iran? If he thinks Mubarak is a nice guy who does good…

Then, the same is true with everything. If you read Obama’s speech in Cairo, the content is, basically: “Yes, we understand you, there shouldn’t be war, and we should work together.” Then the policy stays the same or even becomes harsher. And in fact, this does lead, of course, to disillusionment. When people construct illusions and they later see that the illusions had no basis, they see that the illusions were ill-founded and often become even more hostile.

Has Obama made any progress on the Israel-Palestine issue?

He’s actually made one major speech about it. Shortly after he came into office, he introduced George Mitchell as his negotiator. And it was very interesting to see the way in which he did it. Obama is an intelligent person—I assume he means what he says. He said that it was a good choice. George Mitchell had a good record, and the choice makes good sense.  He was also a Clinton appointment. Obama said that we are now in a position where things can really be done because there are constructive proposals on the table. He singled out the Arab League Plan and said that it was a good basis for proceeding.

But notice how he described the Arab League Plan. He said to the Arab states, in effect: “This is a good plan, and you should proceed with it. You should proceed to normalize relations with Israel.” But as he surely knew, that’s not what the Arab League Plan said. What the Arab League Plan said was that the Arab states—once again, as before—endorsed the international consensus on a two-state settlement. And in that context, they will go even further, further to normalize relations with Israel. But Obama totally ignored the content of the plan and kept to the corollary. He said: “Yeah, you [Arab states] proceed to normalize relations with Israel”—meaning, by omission, without a political settlement.