Alter Egos, Mark Landler

I just read Mark Landler’s fantastic “Ater Egos”, the story of US foreign policy through the Obama-Clinton years. Its fast-moving, grounded in interviews and revealing stories (Kurt Campbell filling his Air Force One swagbag with momentos and then getting chased across Yangon airport by the Secret Service), and is smartly nuanced. Syria, Russia, Cuba, Burma, China, Libya also star, of course, none without huge historical depth, but that’s OK. For each we get the Obama and/or Clinton approach, and all told we get two interwoven, but different foreign policy doctrines.

The line Landler spins is this. What holds them together is a belief in careful use of US power, with allies, for progressive ends. However, within that clubhouse Clinton is the embodiment of DC foreign policy consensus, whereas Obama, grounded in the chaos that a broken Iraq created and an outsider’s boyhood, is skeptical and less confident about what the US can achieve with military force. When Obama says his foreign policy can be summed up in “Don’t do stupid shit”, he is critiquing the stupid shit that his predecessors, and possibly his successor, are drawn to. Maybe naively he believed in building personal relationships with Russia’s Medvedev and China’s Xi as a basis for getting stuff done. With Russia that worked to a point; with China, no dice.

As Landler illustrates, this debate is not dove v. hawk; nor does it fit with Obama’s perceived liberal kumbaya weaknesses or Clinton’s harder-nosed dislike of dictators. No, its a matter of how each perceives American power, and its limits. Obama considers those limits foremost - most importantly, the mess that is created when the essentially-liberal spirit of US interventionism gets smashed over the head by reality. Want to put a nation back together? Well, its going to take more than a battalion of marines and half-a-dozen US Department of Agriculture irrigation specialists. You are going to have to deal with internecine local politics, bewildering local cultures and relationships, and ultimately an impatient US electorate that is not going to pay that blood and treasure. Obama picked up on that public mood shift away from costly adventures; he is not an isolationist by any means, but he believes that there is only so much good-will to be spent overseas.

In Libya, the US decision to intervene militarily, with the Europeans, was sparked by fears over mass civilian deaths in Benghazi as Gaddafi’s troops rolled in. Clinton backed the decision; Obama was more reticent, and ultimately probably regretted acquiescing. He feared the mess that came after, knew the US didn’t have the ability to put Libya back together. And on Syria - Obama drew a lot of criticism, including quietly from Landler, for weakening the power of the presidency by not following through on his red line on the use of chemical weapons. But Obama knew there were no good options for US intervention, even symbolic, and had no appetite for fully involving the US militarily. You can’t be a policeman when there is only one of you, in a foreign land, without the enthusiastic support of your own people, and with nearest neighbours like Iran and Russia wanting you to suffer.

All this runs against the grain for Clinton - who like Madelaine Albright on the Balkans, believes that there is no point having an amazingly well-armed and well-trained US military if you are not going to use it. The Balkans’ worked, ultimately, as a test case for such intervention. But the same ingredients were likely not in place in Syria or Libya. Perhaps things would be different if the US surge in Iraq had been open-ended, not creating the space for jihadi groups to fill. But there was precious little public support for that in the US - and continued presence was maybe never going to breed stable domestic politics. If hawks had their way, particularly folk like John McCain, how many places would US troops be shooting now? If Clinton had her way on Syria, arming rebel groups and missile attacks following Bashad’s use of sarin gas, where would we be now?

Obama was interested, quietly, in revolutionising US foreign policy. Recognise limits and downplay the hubris. Go with drones and CIA before sending in the marines. Attempt to build relationships with adversaries. Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba alone would have big enough, but it was Iran which will seal his fate. The US and Iran have been in a cold war since the 1979 revolution. Iran has sponsored violent anti-American proxies in multiple locales, none more so than in Iraq. Either the nuclear deal will work as a catalyst to unpoison the relationship, foster a moderately more liberal Iran at home and a Tehranian leadership willing to deal more in the Middle East, or it will end with the US attempting to re-build a sanctions/military force coalition to stop a renewed nuclear program. Obama will ultimately be judged as a dangerously naive man out of his depth with the mullahs, or as a visionary friend of a new Iran. Clinton, for her part, did not lead on the Iranian negotiations, though her key advisor Jake Sullivan was intimately involved in initial conversations with emissaries in Oman. Kerry did the hard negotiating. She seems to have been innately more skeptical - though that has become clearer since she has left State. She’ll carry a bigger stick with Iran if she succeeds her former boss - and she’ll have to decide how hard to push on evidence of sliding.

And what of US-China relations under a President Clinton? It was Clinton’s State Department, her Asia-hand Kurt Campbell, which worked up the “pivot” - and she likes the word. Strengthen relations in Asia in case China gets nasty, all the while trying to engage and be constructive with China on issues where there is workable common ground. It was her folk who competed with Denis McDonagh, White House Chief of Staff, to publish a defence of the pivot (Hilary won, thus allowing her to claim the policy as her own). But there is no break with Obama here - his people felt burned by Beijing on their first visit there, and while both sides highlight climate as an example of co-operation, the competitive side to the relationship has grown more. Beijing continues to push anti-US propaganda at home and has little time for anyone’s competing claims in the South China Seas (SCS).

Looking into a Clinton presidency, China will be decisive, both on how hard it pushes in the SCS and how quickly Beijing recognises North Korea’s nuclear program is a major problem. One day before 2020, Beijing will wake up to the fact that a North Korean nuke able to hit the continental United States is a red line that Clinton will not allow to be crossed. What comes then will surely test both sides ability to manoeuvre. Whether the fragile relationship the two sides currently have will be strengthened or thoroughly broken by the experience will do much to define the presidency of Clinton and Xi.

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