Obama’s foreign policy — good enough for government work?

The conventional wisdom is that President Obama has the advantage in this year’s presidential campaign when it comes to foreign policy. I agree. His signature accomplishments — the killing of bin Laden, the end of our military involvement in Iraq, and the promise to wind down our involvement in Afghanistan — are likely to be deemed good enough for government work. But then, so was Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, until 9/11.

If we hold Obama to a higher standard, it quickly becomes apparent that he and his “smart power” practitioners have the wrong line on nearly every aspect of foreign policy. This isn’t surprising. Obama is ambivalent about American interests as they traditionally have been understood, and this ambivalence is reflected in the manner and degree to which he pursues them.

The areas in which Obama has taken the wrong line in foreign policy will be familiar to most of our readers – Russia, Iran, Israel, and the Arab world as a whole head the list. I would like to focus, though, on South Asia, a crucial area that, apart from Afghanistan, has drawn less attention. Today, I write about Pakistan.

Obama is second to none when it comes to pronouncing Pakistan, but his policy towards that country has been misguided from the start. As Shashank Joshi shows in the April 2001 issue of Current History, Obama came into office holding great hope that Pakistan would be a full-fledged partner in the war in Afghanistan. Naturally, Pakistan played on this hope, and was rewarded with the Kerry-Lugar-Berman “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act” of 2009, which conferred $7.5 billion in aid over five years.

Obama was willing to believe in Pakistan’s viability as a full-fledged partner despite statements from Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, that Pakistan regularly supplies weapons used to attack Afghan and coalition forces. Indeed, the U.S. had a telephone intercept in which Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of staff, described the head of the Haggani network in Afghanistan as a “strategic asset.” The Haggani network is the Taliban’s partner in the war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s strategic alliance with Pakistan proved to be a joke. In 2011, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a Senate hearing that Pakistan had committed an act of war against the U.S. in connection with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kabul. And Pakistan not only harbored bin Laden, but reacted with outrage when we killed the terrorist leader and mastermind.

In 2009, Bruce Riedel, a CIA analyst, was a strong proponent of working with Pakistan. By 2011, according to Joshi, Reidel had concluded that our policy of Pakistan should be one of “containment, with no delusion that we are allies.”

Why did Obama view Pakistan as a solid ally? Perhaps the answer lies in combination of bad advice and wishful thinking. In addition, though, the president seems to be a sucker for sketchy regimes with an anti-Western bent and a grievance (of whatever merit) against a more pro-Western nation.

With this in mind, we should remember that the U.S. does have an important natural ally in South Asia, namely India. Obama’s shabby treatment of Pakistan’s great adversary is the subject of an upcoming post about Obama’s wrongheaded foreign policy.

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