Sept. 20, 2010

Harvard expert: Obama's foreign policy is 'doomed to fail'

Although he and his wife are big supporters of President Barack Obama and donated substantial amounts of money to the Obama campaign, a Harvard professor of international relations claimed that "President Obama's foreign policy is doomed to fail," in a talk at Cornell Sept. 16.

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, spoke to a standing-room only crowd in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall, as part of the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker series presented by the Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Walt has served as a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses and the National Defense University.

Walt acknowledged the problems that Obama faced when he took office: The world economy was in the worst shape since World War II; the U.S. budget deficit was over a trillion dollars for the first time; America was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the peace process was stagnating in the Middle East; and America's image abroad was at historically low levels.

To succeed, Walt said Obama needed to extricate us from some of our burdens, "try to improve relations with potential adversaries and try to get others to bear more of the burden."

Obama took some initial steps in that direction by banning waterboarding, speaking in favor of nuclear arms control and being open to the Muslim world.

"There was a big difference from the previous administration in tone and style," Walt said, "but less of a difference in substance." But, he added, "Obama will be judged by what he achieves, not what he says."

Focusing on the war in Afghanistan, Walt said, "The literature on counterinsurgency is quite clear, that success requires an effective local partner" and that "the Karzai regime is corrupt and ineffective. ... A major breakthrough here is unlikely; it is more likely that the U.S. will lose the war in Afghanistan."

Nevertheless, it doesn't really matter whether or not we "win," he said.

"The bottom line here is that al Qaeda is not going to be much weaker if we succeed in Afghanistan, and they are not going to be much stronger if we fail," Walt said. But even if we do win in Afghanistan, it will not happen quickly, and the war will continue to be a political liability for Obama, he said.

As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Obama initially said he would "push hard for a two-state solution" and then later called for a settlement freeze in Israel. AIPAC, a U.S. pro-Israel lobby, persuaded 329 congressman and 76 senators to send letters to Obama warning him against those actions, Walt said. Needless to say, there was no freeze on building. This accommodation of powerful political interest groups, according to Walt, is "business as usual."

While admitting there are no easy fixes to our tough foreign policy issues, Walt recommended that on such major issues as the war in Afghanistan we do less rather than more. One of our biggest problems, he said, is that it's ingrained in our system that we need to intervene: "It is hard for Americans to believe that there are some things we just can't do."

Graduate student Grady Brimley is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.