Obama's Foreign Policy Performance
Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
We've talked about two of this administration's successes. What about the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iran?
We just had the visit here of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, while he suggested certain signs of potential flexibility, he also was just as clear that people cannot expect Israel to extend the settlement freeze as the price for getting the Palestinians to enter into direct talks. So the real challenge for the administration in the short run is to persuade the Palestinians to drop their preconditions about entering direct negotiations. [Palestinians want a permanent settlement freeze.] If the administration can succeed at that, then obviously the challenge will be to make some actual yardage in the negotiations themselves. And it's far from obvious that you have the basic conditions of ripeness, that you have leaderships around the Middle East that are both ready and able to make compromises. So that continues to be an area of real frustration. I'll also add that it's an area of real danger. When one sees the missile buildups with Hamas [in Gaza], and even more with Hezbollah [in Lebanon], one senses that as bad as the Middle East is now, as we've often seen in the past, it has the potential to get even worse.
One surprise recently has been the deterioration of Turkey's relations with the United States and Israel.
There has been a deterioration. The Turks are apparently repositioning themselves, trying to also carve out a larger role for themselves in the Arab and in the Islamic world. It makes for good domestic politics in Turkey. Exactly how far the Turkish leadership wants it to go, or exactly how far it might unfold, is anybody's guess. My hunch is we're not about to see a fundamental rupture in Turkey's relationship with the United States or NATO, but we are seeing a rebalancing of Turkey's ties, with less of an emphasis on getting into Europe, less of an emphasis on its ties to the West, and more emphasis on its ties with the Arab and Islamic world. Some people have perhaps lightly or off-handedly described this as the "re-Ottomanization" of Turkish foreign policy.
In November's congressional elections, the biggest issue that's probably going to be talked about is Afghanistan.
In terms of foreign policy, Afghanistan is the biggest issue. There I continue to have basic disagreements with what the administration is doing. I don't believe the administration has made the case that Afghanistan warrants the scale of investment the United States is making, nor do I believe that the evidence suggests that the strategy we've embarked on is likely to succeed. Soon after the midterm election, President Obama is going to begin the third major review of his Afghan policy in anticipation of the July 2011 deadline to begin the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. What I am hoping to see is a dramatic change in U.S. policy away from such an emphasis on channeling so much though the government in Kabul. I would also like to see greater diplomatic efforts to explore whether the Taliban, if and when it regains positions in Afghanistan, might be prepared not to bring back al-Qaeda in any form. And I am looking for ways that the United States can dramatically scale down the economic and human and military costs on its involvement in Afghanistan.
Are you worried that the Taliban might retake control of Afghanistan?
I believe it's inevitable that the Taliban will take control of parts of the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan. Roughly half of Afghanistan is Pashtun. I would think in those areas the Taliban will make inroads. What should matter most to the United States is not whether the Taliban makes inroads locally. Again, what does that entail? If it does not entail the Taliban facilitating the operations of al-Qaeda, facilitating instability in Pakistan, or extending their control to non-Pashtun parts of Afghanistan, it's not clear to me why necessarily that should justify the sort of investment we are now making in Afghanistan.
It doesn't trouble you too much that if the Taliban is in control, a lot of things like woman's rights could be set back?
It troubles me, don't get me wrong. The question is: How does the United States try to deal with that? Is that worth the presence of one hundred thousand American troops? Is it worth, as we saw in June, the loss of more than one hundred lives if one adds up the NATO and American casualties? I would say not. And the United States has to look for other tools to deal with how the Taliban treat their own people, how one would use aid, and other mechanisms. But I simply don't think we can justify the use of the American military and ask young men and women to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of human rights standards in Afghanistan.