Herbert London: What We Are “Sure” We Know About Foreign Policy

Dec 17, 2014

What we do know, or think we know, that just isn’t true? There are myths, riddles and indeterminate conditions, but for many these factors are ignored in favor of what one believes to be true.

Let me cite several examples.

It has long been contended by foreign policy analysts that the security architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean was based on a preponderance of American power, specifically naval power. What was once undeniable is now subject to clear challenges. The withdrawal of American naval forces from the region has led to a vacuum in which Russian naval presence has become more prevalent than was previously the case and radical Islamic influence has heightened. Moreover, it is not clear that the U.S. is aware of the possibility of losing the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea to Russia or radical Islam, or is preparing to forestall such a scenario.

President Barack Obama has noted that Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was his closest ally, someone on whom he can depend. However, it is clear Erdogan has not cooperated with U.S. military operations in the region, despite its stated opposition to ISIL. It has also violated the sanctions regimen by continuing its trade with Iran. And it pursues a foreign policy that increasingly sides with the most extreme elements in the region.

State Department spokesmen continue to assert that the Arab Spring represents the efflorescence of democratic sentiment. And in Tunisia that may be true; but it certainly isn’t anywhere else in the region. Libya, Syria, Iraq – to mention three examples – have been transformed from Spring thaw into Winter freeze.

It is an article of faith to contend that the U.S. is Israel’s closest ally. Indeed since the creation of the state, Israel has been the beneficiary of American largess. With President Obama at the helm, however, a page has been turned in the relationship. President Obama is considering sanctions against Israel because of the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem; at the same time, relaxing sanctions against Iran in the hope that this will introduce flexibility into the talks on nuclear weapons in Vienna. For many Israelis, deciding on friend or foe isn’t easy any longer.

It was a facile judgment to maintain “oil is king” in the Middle East neighborhood. Black gold in the ground paid the bills, gave Arab states leverage in the West and provided riches beyond the contemplation of Croesus. But with oil prices dropping into the neighborhood of $60 a barrel, or half of the price of two years ago, the oil is king scenario has lost its bite. Natural gas and fracking have altered the energy equation. With this shift, the need to deploy troops to protect Middle East oil interest is less pressing.

It was axiomatic that U.S. military influence was a stabilizing influence on global affairs, a position that almost anyone in a foreign policy desk in Washington once accepted. President Obama has a different view, arguably a revolutionary position. He contends that our oversees commitments do not enhance global stability. It is his belief that in order for the U.S. to restore its standing in world affairs, it should channel foreign policy interests to global partners, i.e. “lead from behind.”

Alas, the world turns and with it the assumptions of yesteryear – alas yesterday – no longer apply. Hence the consistency needed to make foreign policy isn’t evident. Those who think they know how the world works are often referring to a world that doesn’t exist.

There will always be those who appropriately apply the lessons of the past, and yes, we must learn from them. But those lessons must be tested against an ever shifting backdrop abroad and here at home. Demography, for example, may not be destiny, but it does influence politics and a foreign policy orientation, as does the changing cast of policy makers. What does this all mean? Just when you are sure you know, try reviewing your position again and again.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries atwww.londoncenter.org

 

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