Obama’s second inaugural and America’s foreign policy challenges

If Obama’s second inaugural address goes the same path as the first, expect nothing new from our foreign policy.

In his second inaugural speech, Obama said Americans are 'heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war' [AP]

When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, his most important foreign policy campaign promise was to end not just the Iraq war, but also the “mindset” that had gotten the United States into that strategic travesty. His first inaugural emphasised the idea that America would exercise real leadership by resurrecting diplomacy and “engagement” as essential elements of American strategy. Leaders and publics in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and many other places around the world were eager for him to deliver.

This week, in his second inaugural, President Obama recalled this vision, reminding Americans that they are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war; who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends… We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” 

But now his words fall flat in much of the world. For his administration never understood that, to be effective, “engagement” had to mean more than simply reiterating longstanding US demands while not just continuing to reject other parties’ interests and concerns, but acting even more assertively against them.

US Presidential Inauguration – News Coverage

In the Middle East, Obama promised to engage Iran, make resolving the Palestinian issue a top priority, and redefine America’s posture toward the Muslim world.

Obama’s approach to engaging Tehran entailed reiterating the same demands on the nuclear issue as his predecessor while intensifying the coercive aspects of American policy (eg, sanctions, covert operations, and cyber-attack) when Iran did not surrender. If, in his second term, Obama launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, this will be a disaster for America’s position in the Middle East. But this is where Obama’s current strategy inexorably leads.

Obama’s decisions to allow Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to hype the Iran “threat” and to appease the Netanyahu government with the most robust US military assistance to Israel ever not only derailed nuclear diplomacy with Tehran; they also made it impossible for Obama to exert any leverage over Netanyahu regarding Israeli settlements or to support Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. As a result, Obama is not just presiding over a stalled peace process; he is overseeing the demise of the two-state solution.    

These policies destroyed whatever hope Middle Easterners might have invested in Obama. After Obama’s first inaugural, it seemed like he could have gone anywhere in the Muslim world. He chose Cairo as the venue for a major address ostensibly aimed at starting a new relationship with the Muslim world, based on dialogue rather than dictation. Today, with Middle Eastern publics asserting more of a role in shaping their own political futures than ever before, it would be hard to find a Middle Eastern capital that would freely host Obama for such an address.

Obama’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia turned out, from Moscow’s perspective, to be not just insincere, but duplicitous. Examples of American perfidy include NATO’s ongoing plans to deploy anti-missile radars in Europe, Obama’s appointment of someone with no diplomatic experience and essentially neoconservative views on Russia as his ambassador in Moscow, his distortion of a UN Security Council resolution authorising humanitarian intervention in Libya into a regime change campaign, his support for the overthrow of Syria’s government, and his endorsement of human rights legislation specifically targeting Russia. Since returning as Russia’s president last year, Vladimir Putin has declined all invitations to come to the White House.

In Beijing, Chinese leaders are increasingly persuaded that what Obama administration officials first described as a US “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia and now call a “rebalancing” is really meant to contain China and “keep it down”, even as its economic development moves ahead. China’s political and policy elites are growing concerned that the fundamental strategic bargain underlying Sino-American rapprochement in the 1970s – that Washington accepted a peacefully rising People’s Republic and that neither country would seek military hegemony in Asia – is being eviscerated, by the United States.       

The world is increasingly giving up on the proposition that the United States can act in any manner other than that of an imperial power – even as more and more important players in global affairs are coming to see it as an imperial power in decline. Obama’s second inaugural displayed no appreciation for this reality. And that does not augur well for any meaningful recovery of America’s international standing during Obama’s second term.   

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and teach international relations, he at Penn State, she at American University.