Obama’s foreign policy: am I my brother’s keeper?

Paradoxically, US foreign policy has always been focused on neighbourly expansion of territory without the pursuance of global hegemony.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the well-known question touched upon by President Obama in Vermont on a campaign trail on 30 March this year and will be the underlying feature in almost every question thrown at him on the evening of 22 October at Lynn University, Florida, where he will share a platform with Mitt Romney to debate US foreign policy. 

Within the context of general political economy, domestic and foreign policies are two scions of the same nation. That is, despite not sharing the same citizen-proximity effect usually displayed by issues such as social security and healthcare, foreign policy like all national policies rests on significant domestic socio-economic elements for the structure of its shape. For the United States, foreign policy, as compounded by the dark day of 9/11, has persistently reflected the domestic ambitions, voracious appetite and fears of that nation. 

Universal rights

Questions of US ambition are manifested in its long period of domestic economic dominance and global military supremacy. Foreign policy is largely synonymous with questions pertaining to the use of military might to expand US sphere of influence, platform for trade and consumption and keep at enough distance the launch pad of a foreign attacker. Although, both Pearl Harbour and 9/11 pierced the perceived impregnability aided by delineation of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, the latter event coloured the distinction between security policy and respect for social justice.

Aware of this debacle, President Obama on the second day of his administration, signed three executive orders for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, review of the use of military trials for terror suspects and ban of torture technique (such as water-boarding) for interrogation. This was applauded by all who valued universal laws designed to protect the rights of an individual against detention without trial. 

The President succeeded in outlawing the use of torture but the complexity of partisan interests, the balance and check procedure in-built into the US system and an apparent lack of political will ensured that he could not deliver on the promise to close Guantanamo Bay within a year of his administration. Congress denied him funding for the transporting of the detainees into the US, their trials on US soil and for the $80m needed to build a prison in Illinois to house the detainees. 

The President in 2011 reversed his executive order and, subsequently, signed the National Defence Authorisation Act 2012, which allows for the indefinite detention of any persons, irrespective of nationality, suspected of acts of terrorism against the US. Nevertheless, allowances within the system still provides for the President to make good on his initial promise either through releasing the detainees via the courts or through a national security waiver – which more or less requires his administration to vouch that the relevant detainees would not again be found engaging in terrorism.

The failure of the administration to formulate a clear detention policy is not reflected in its counterterrorism policy, where the President has authorised extensive use of predatory drones in snuffing out terrorists regardless of their existence in a sovereign state.  While this practice of extra judicial killings creates a debatable issue of breach of international law; it similarly accords with parts of that same law and the UN Charter which allows for the right of self-preservation – a notion wide enough not to preclude the duty of preventive intervention particularly in a situation with a demonic previous history exhibited in the acts of 9/11.

Security and Trade

President Obama essentially denounced the war in Iraq because it concerned the use of military force against a sovereign state that posed no existential threat to its neighbours or the US - similar issues to those that dovetailed the debates on legality of military intervention in Libya and now Syria. Although, the President was tilted into the Libyan crisis by the Cameron-Sarkozy alliance, his reluctance to join in is perpetually etched in the term that describes the US ‘‘as leading from the back’’ in ousting Gaddafi. While this particular approach has attracted criticism and can still be detected in the President’s approach to Iran’s nuclear weapon issue, North Korea and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it nevertheless strongly identifies with the foundational US foreign policy approach. 

From the beginning, the constant theme running through his country’s foundational steps was paradoxically focused on neighbourly expansion of territory but not of pursuance of global hegemony. This line of thinking yielded the famous Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality (which prevented the US from entering the French Revolutionary War against Great Britain), produced the Monroe doctrine (that widened the issue of security to include the security of United States’ neighbours) and allowed for Buchanan to reconfirm that a policy of non-intervention in the domestic concerns of others was subject only to the exception of self-preservation. Buchanan’s approach germinated the Olney Corollary (which took the process of expansion for trade and security into Latin America) and allowed a platform for Roosevelt’s Corollary to impose obligations on neighbours not to allow a condition of deterioration that would encourage intervention. 

While the US under Woodrow Wilson sought destruction of dictators and upholding of the rights of peoples of foreign nations the approach was, however, paradoxical in that not only was Wilson suppressing rebellion at home, he was at the same time according to the international community the need to respect the sovereignty of all states irrespective of size – the very basis of the fundamental tenets of both the defunct League of Nations and the United Nations.

The President appears different from his recent predecessors, since the administration of George H. W Bush and the end of the ideology duel enveloped in the Cold War, in not only reconciling and recognising these underlying approaches but also the reputational effects of intervention and its consequences of limiting the effectiveness of diplomacy as a tool for restricting the self-interest instincts of nations in the international sphere and hindering multilateralism. This approach is more vivid in his look ‘East First’ trade policy – which has somewhat seen the US indirectly monitor and strive to match China’s military and economic presence in the region through alliances in south-east Asia and via linkages in economic interests particularly in cooperation within APEC, ASEAN and forming stronger relations with India, South Korea and Australia (where the US now has a military base in Darwin).

The approach of the President rather than revealing any isolationist or appeasement tendencies measure the extent of a direct threat to the US, its immediacy and the level of mutual interests of significant regional partners in the issue.  Where these factors are high, as in Syria, Iran and Libya, the Obama administration’s tendency is to head for multilateralism and respect for UN procedures. 

Conclusion

For the Obama administration, the notion of being the keeper of one’s brother is a shared obligation that requires the "protectee" to, at least, have neighbours with interests that aligns with its own and those of the protector and for the protector to consider those interests vital enough as an addition to the safeguarding of its security and promotion of trade.

Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue