Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Obama: The Conflict Resolution President?

In minimizing U.S. resort to violence, President Obama has brought conflict resolution to the Oval Office.

Foreign Policy in Focus

In the eighth year of Barack Obama’s presidency the struggle over assessing the correctness of his foreign policy is understandably under way. Unfortunately, too often the struggle is waged in extreme, ill-founded terms. Many Republican leaders and pundits accuse Obama of being naïve, weak, indecisive, and even at times of pursuing non-American interests and goals. Obama himself, in his unflappable manner, ignores the wildest charges and tries to explain the rationale for the foreign policy choices that he makes. His team defends and explains the grounds for choosing the least bad option in difficult circumstances. They agree on the importance of not doing “stupid stuff.”

It is, however, worthwhile to seek an understanding of the foreign policy doctrine or style that Obama generally has used. Some observers, like Andrew Bacevich, think he remains essentially within the Washington foreign policy consensus in dealing with the Middle East. Yet Obama characterizes himself differently, as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg. In “The Obama Doctrine,”published in The Atlantic, Obama has expressed some distance from that consensus, which he views as overly militarized. And yet he wants to characterize himself as a realist. That is probably a politically useful guise.

In fact, Obama has been quite eclectic and pragmatic in his policy making. More significantly, he has often drawn from the evolving conflict-resolution approaches. More specifically, his conduct often has been congruent with a constructive conflict approach that synthesizes the research and experience of work in the conflict resolution and peace studies fields.

Obama has tried to minimize U.S. resort to violence, while narrowing the targets and drawing upon multilateral support. In addition, he has used diplomacy to restructure conflicts and has taken into account how adversaries view a conflict so as to maximize the effectiveness of non-coercive inducements. His administration has recognized that diplomacy takes many formal and informal channels at multiple levels. Each effective engagement helps build a basis for future engagements in future conflicts. These understandings are central to a constructive conflict approach, derived from empirically grounded knowledge about ways to reduce destructive conflicts. Indeed, Obama has had notable foreign policy successes by acting in accord with a constructive conflict approach. Furthermore, some seeming failures might well have been averted, not by more militancy, but by more prompt and consistent use of constructive conflict strategies.

Importantly, in accord with the constructive conflict approach, Obama recognizes that conflicts are rarely zero-sum, whereby what one side wins is at the expense of the opposing sides. Rather, in constructively transforming conflicts it is useful to recognize that both sides can make some gains, even if not equal ones. Furthermore, Obama understands the usefulness of considering the interests and concerns of opponents and their supporters in a conflict. Even antagonism about one or more matters does not rule out finding some shared interests with particular elements in an opposing party on some other issues.

These and other considerations are applicable to Obama’s fresh break from the harsh U.S. policy toward Cuba. Certainly, with the end of the Cold War, Cuba posed no direct threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. policy of a trade embargo did not isolate Cuba from good relations with other countries and allowed Cuban officials to blame economic sanctions for their own failures. The new engagement policy enhances American soft power, expanding the appeal of its values and practices. This can be expected to increase U.S. influence in the world and to be more effective in changing Cuba.

China’s growing economic and military power increases its competition with the United States, and its territorial claims in the South China Sea raise tensions. But these developments need not result in military conflict. Obama’s trade and investment policies enhance economic inter-dependence with China, constituting a barrier to hostilities. The U.S. administration recognizes the great complexity of interlocked conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region, which exacerbates tensions; but it also recognizes the opportunities that complexity provides for diplomatic tension reduction. Furthermore, the many confidence-building security measures and joint military exercises and exchanges can help prevent misunderstandings and accidents. Even cooperative and shared actions with mutual benefits have been achieved, as in the case of reaching agreements on countering global warming.

The nuclear agreement with Iran is another important achievement. Despite Iranian assistance in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush characterized Iran as one of the three countries constituting the Axis of Evil. In addition to threats and condemnations, some economic sanctions were imposed to force Iran to abandon its nuclear development efforts. This clearly was unsuccessful. President Obama’s administration undertook a different strategy. It recognized Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, engaged with Iranian officials with civility and respect, and explored possible arrangements that might preclude Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons. With the prospect of an agreement, the Obama administration was able to expand UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for failing to cooperate on earlier resolutions and its continued nuclear activities. The negotiations were consistent with the constructive conflict approach. They focused on a single element in the conflict. As in most successful negotiations, a blend of carrots and sticks proved effective.

The current destructive conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine are outgrowths of local grievances. But those conflicts were exacerbated by overly ambitious and militant U.S. interventions for several years. Moreover, a wide range of actors did not pursue more constructive alternatives .

In short, Obama is not naïve or timorous, nor has he been unmindful of protecting American interests and values. A greater public appreciation of his thoughtfulness and of the evidence of the benefits of a constructive conflict approach would increase the chances for more creative and effective American foreign policy choices in the future.

Louis Kriesberg is professor emeritus of sociology and Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies at Syracuse University. He is the founding director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts and past president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. He is the author of Realizing Peace: A constructive Conflict Approach and other books.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is one of the Senate’s more vocal hawks, and one of the prime vacillators among Republicans between objecting to and supporting Donald Trump.


Ron Dermer is the Israeli ambassador to the United States and has deep connections to the Republican Party and the neoconservative movement.


The Washington-based American Enterprise Institute is a rightist think tank with a broad mandate covering a range of foreign and domestic policy issues that is known for its strong connections to neoconservatism and overseas debacles like the Iraq War.


Max Boot, neoconservative military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Trump and Russia: “At every turn Trump is undercutting the ‘get tough on Russia’ message because he just can’t help himself, he just loves Putin too much.”


Since taking office Donald Trump has revealed an erratic and extremely hawkish approach to U.S. foreign affairs, which has been marked by controversial actions like dropping out of the Iran nuclear agreement that have raised tensions across much of the world and threatened relations with key allies.


Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and an evangelical pastor, is a far-right pundit known for his hawkish policies and opposition to an Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians.


Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is known for her lock-step support for Israel and considered by some to be a future presidential candidate.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Trumpian new regional order in the Middle East is predicated on strongman rule, disregard for human rights, Sunni primacy over Iran and other Shia centers of power, continued military support for pro-American warring parties regardless of the unlawfulness of such wars, and Israeli hegemony.


A comparison of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the current version with North Korea puts the former in a good light and makes the latter look disappointing. Those with an interest in curbing the dangers of proliferating nuclear weapons should hope that the North Korea picture will improve with time. But whether it does or not, the process has put into perspective how badly mistaken was the Trump administration’s trashing of the Iran nuclear agreement.


Numerous high profile Trump administration officials maintain close ties with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists. In today’s America, disparaging Islam is acceptable in ways that disparaging other religions is not. Given the continuing well-funded campaigns by the Islamophobes and continuing support from their enablers in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed any time soon.


The Trump administration’s nuclear proliferation policy is now in meltdown, one which no threat of “steely resolve”—in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words—will easily contain. It is hemorrhaging in part because the administration has yet to forge a strategy that consistently and credibly signals a feasible bottom line that includes living with—rather than destroying—regimes it despises or fears. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle must call for a new model that has some reasonable hope of restraining America’s foes and bringing security to its Middle East allies.


Congressional midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay, black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the support of the electorate. Until that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward infinity.


To bolster the president’s arguments for cutting back immigration, the administration recently released a fear-mongering report about future terrorist threats. Among the potential threats: a Sudanese national who, in 2016, “pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS”; an Uzbek who “posted a threat on an Uzbek-language website to kill President Obama in an act of martyrdom on behalf of ISIS”; a Syrian who, in a plea agreement, “admitted that he knew a member of ISIS and that while in Syria he participated in a battle against the Syrian regime, including shooting at others, in coordination with Al Nusrah,” an al-Qaeda offshoot.


The recent appointment of purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exposes the cynical approach Republicans have taken in promoting religious freedom.


RightWeb
share