Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Conservative v. Liberal Foreign Policy--Or Why Iran and Russia Seem to be Taking Obama for a Ride


I caught a snippet of an interview of former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton on the Dennis Prager show today, and their conversation crystallized a thought that had been flitting on the boundaries of my consciousness, regarding the difference between liberal and conservative foreign policy.

President Barack Obama, as exemplified by his speech before the United Nations, is a classic foreign policy liberal in the mode of President Woodrow Wilson. President Obama is an extraordinarily intelligent person. He is also extraordinarily articulate and charismatic. He believes that his abilities at rational argument and persuasion should be enough to sway international leaders to support his policy objectives. He is wrong, and he is wrong because he is buying into a liberal foreign policy illusion--that nations will act rationally in the best interest of the entire international community.

Conservative foreign policy theorists for the most part believe differently. They believe that nations act in their own self-interest, as perceived by their political leadership. This has always been the prime motivator of foreign policy and always will be. As goes the aphorism attributed to Henry John Temple Viscount Lord Palmerston (photo above right), who served as Great Britain's Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests. And, it should go without saying, one nation's leaders may not perceive the interests of their own country to coincide with that of the international community.

And so Iran, in reaction to President Obama's campaign promise of unconditional engagement and dialogue, uses the opportunity of the extra time it affords to delay international action while it aggressively pursues its nuclear weapons program. The Obama Administration may have considered such a reaction to be irrational, and not in Iran's long-term interests. To Iran's ruling mullahs, it was in their short-term interest, and that is what mattered.

Russia had complained long and hard during the George W. Bush Administration about U.S. plans to place a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. President Obama reversed U.S. policy, and has abandoned the missile defense system, without any known quid pro quo from Russia (one may hope that there is an unknown one) and without prior consultation with Poland and the Czech Republic. The Poles and the Czechs feel betrayed by the U.S., which appears to be willing to sacrifice their security interests in order to placate Moscow. No doubt Georgia and other Balkan and former Soviet satellite nations share that concern.

Now, it is possible that the U.S. in fact secretly negotiated an agreement with Russia, for Russia to strongly back meaningful sanctions against Iran in return for the termination of the U.S. Eastern European missile defense program. If Russia comes through over the next three months, I may withdraw my criticism. That remains to be seen.

In the meantime, however, imagine how a vulnerable nation such as Israel views recent U.S. fecklessness in foreign policy. As John Bolton has observed, world leaders are beginning to suspect that the Obama Administration will treat its friends worse than its enemies. Maybe that is why Israeli Prime Minister recently visited Moscow--he may be looking for a more reliable ally.

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