• The New Year’s Ghost of Presidential Legacies Past

    January 1, 2014

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen

    (In the spirit of our times, this end-of-year post looks forward, not backward. Happy New Year to all.)

    “Who the hell are you?”

    “Why Barack, I’m the Christmas Ghost of Presidential Legacies Past. I visit second-term presidents to help them map out their foreign policy legacy.”

    “Dude, Christmas was last week. It’s 2014, the New Year.”

    “Yeah, sorry, traffic was bad, and I lost most of a day trying to sign up for healthcare.”

    “I’m calling the Secret Service. Get out of my bedroom!”

    “No need Mr. President. No one can see me but you. I’m here to talk about the future, about America overseas, so you can achieve your place in history. I am here to help guide you.”

    “You do this for all presidents? What happened with Bush, then?”

    “That was unfortunate. It turned out Karl Rove had been a hyena in a previous life and could somehow still smell me, so I got chased out. And see how it ended up for Bush? His legacy is fear of overseas travel, wondering how far the Hague’s reach really is.”

    “OK Spirit, what do you want from me?”

    “Barack, you were elected the first time on the promise of hope and change. You got reelected mostly by not being Mitt Romney. You need to reclaim the original mantel. You need to be bold in foreign affairs and leave America positioned for this new world. You won the election by not being the candidate from the 1950s. Now, you need to establish a foreign policy for an America of 2014 instead of 2001.”

    “What do you mean, Spirit?”

    “Stop searching for demons. Let’s start with the Middle East. You inherited a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly, thanks to Rove and his canine sense of smell, but what did you do with it?”

    “I ended the war in Iraq.”

    “No, you agreed not to push back when the Iraqis threw the troops out in 2010. The war continues there, just without us, fought in little ugly flare-ups among Iranian proxies. But that’s spilled milk. What you need to do is reclaim your State Department from what is now a lost cause.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Much like the way Vietnam destroyed the army, Iraq and Afghanistan gravely wounded your State Department. Why does America still maintain its largest embassy in a place like Baghdad? That massive hollow structure sucks money and, more importantly, personnel, from your limited diplomatic establishment. Scale it back to the mid-size level the situation there really requires, and move those personnel resources to places America badly needs diplomacy. As a bonus, you’ll remove a scab. That big embassy is seen throughout the Middle East as a symbol of hubris, a monument to folly. Show them better — repurpose most of it into a new university or an international conference center and signal a new beginning.”

    “You mentioned Iranian influence in Iraq, so yeah, thanks, George Bush, for that little gift. I have the Israelis up my back looking for a war, and it seems every day another thing threatens to spark off a fight with the Iranians.”

    “Iran can be your finest achievement. Nixon went to China, remember.”

    “You know Spirit, you actually look a little like Henry Kissinger in this light.”

    “Yeah, I get that a lot. Coincidences, right? Barack, you can start the process of rebalancing the Middle East. Too many genies have slipped out of the bottle to put things back where they were and, like it or not, your predecessor casually, ignorantly allowed Iran to reclaim its place as a regional power. Let’s deal with it. Don’t paint yourself into a corner over the nukes. You know as well as I do that there are many countries who are threshold nuclear powers, able to make the jump anytime from lab rats to bomb holders. You also know that Israel has had the bomb for a long time and, despite that, despite the Arab hatred of Israel and despite the never-ending aggressive stance of Israel, their nukes have not created a Middle East arms race. Yet. Keep talking to the Iranians. Follow the China model (they had nukes, too) and set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Feel your way forward. Bring the Brits and the Canadians along with you. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with.”

    “But they’ll keep heading toward nuclear weapons.”

    “That may be true. America’s regular chest-thumping in the Middle East has created an unstoppable desire for Iran to arm itself. They watched very, very closely how the North Koreans insulated themselves with a nuke. The world let that happen and guess what? Even George W. stopped talking about North Korea and the stupid Axis of Evil. And guess what again? No war, and no nuclear arms race in Asia. Gaddafi went the opposite route, and look what happened to him, sodomized while your then-Secretary of State laughed about it on TV.”

    “But what about sanctions?”

    “Real change in Iran, like anywhere, is going to have to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They start to demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government with half a brain yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonalds happening. Are you going to go to war with China? Of course not. We’re trading partners, and we have shared interests in regional stability in Asia that benefit us both despite the occasional saber-rattling around elections. Sure, there will always be friction, but it has been and can be managed. We did it, with some rough spots, in the Mediterranean with the Soviets and we can do it in the Gulf, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.” I don’t think this will result in a triumphant state visit to Tehran, but get the game started. Defuse the situation, offer to bring Iran into the world system, and see if they don’t follow.”

    “I can’t let them go nuclear.”

    “Well, I don’t know if you can stop it without exploding the entire region, and focusing just on that binary black and white blocks off too many other, better options. Look, they and a whole bunch of other places can weaponize faster than you can stop them. What you need to do is work at their need to weaponize, pick away at the software if you will, the reasons they feel they need to have nukes, instead of just trying to muck up the hardware. Use all the tools in the toolbox, Barack.”

    “But they’re Islamos.”

    “Whatever you want to call it. Islam is a powerful force in the Middle East and it is not going away. Your attempts, and those of your predecessor, to try and create ‘good’ governments failed. Look at the hash in Syria, Libya and, of course, Iraq. You need to find a real-politick with Islamic governments. Look past the rhetoric and ideology and start talking. Otherwise you’ll end up just like the U.S. did all over Latin America, throwing in with thugs simply because they mouthed pro-American platitudes. Not a legacy move, Barry. It will feel odd at first, but the new world order has created a state for states that are not a puppets of the U.S., and not always an ally, but typically someone we can deal with, work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s diplomacy, and therein lies your chance at legacy. Demilitarize your foreign policy. Redeploy your diplomats from being political hostages in Baghdad and Kabul and put them to work all over the Middle East.”

    “Sure Spirit, nothing to it. Anything else you want me to do before breakfast?”

    “Hey, you asked for the job — twice — not me.”

    “Spirit, sorry to go off topic, but is that an 8-track tape player you’re carrying around?”

    “Hah, good eye Barack. KC and the Sunshine Band, Greatest Hits. Things work oddly in the spirit world and one of the quirks is that unloved electronics from Christmas’ past migrate to us. Here, look at my cell phone, big as a shoebox, with a retractable antenna. I still play games on an old Atari. We got Zunes and Blackberries piled up like snow drifts over there. But back to business.”

    “What else, Spirit?”

    “As a ghost, I’m used to taking the long view of things. I know better than most that memory lasts longer than aspiration, that history influences the future. You have it now in your power to finally amend an ugly sore, America’s dark legacy of the war of terror. Guantanamo. You realize that every day that place stays open it helps radicalize dozens of young men for every one you hold in prison. Demand your intel agencies give you a straight-up accounting on who is locked away there. For the very few that probably really are as horrible as we’d like to believe, designate them something or the other and lock them away in an existing Federal Super Max. Just do it, override Congress and take the heat. Heck, you’re not very popular even among your former supporters anymore, so why not go for a win for the base. Turn the others in Gitmo over to the UN or the Red Cross for resettlement. It is an ugly deal, but it is an ugly problem. Close the place down early in 2014 over the first three-day weekend to defuse the media, let the short-term heat burn off and move on.”

    “And Afghanistan?”

    “Same thing. Cut your losses. Afghanistan will be on a slow burn for, well, probably forever no matter how many occupiers you can leave in place. Among other reasons, Pakistan needs it to stay that way. They like a weak but not failed state on their western border and you can manage that. The special ops guys you secretly leave behind can deal with any serious messes. Corruption and internal disagreements mean there will never be a real Afghan nation-state, no matter how badly you want one. The soldier suicides, helicopter accidents and green-on-blue attacks are a horror, and so unnecessary at this late stage of the great game. You are going to accomplish nothing by dragging that corpse of a war around with you for two more years, so cut it off now.”

    “Next is drones, right?”

    “Yes Barack, next is drones. This is fool’s gold and you bought into it big. You thought it was risk-free, no American lives in danger, always the 500 pound elephant in the room when considering military action. But, to borrow a phrase, look at the collateral damage. First, you have had to further militarize Africa, setting up your main drone base in Djibouti. Like Gitmo, every thug you kill creates more, radicalizes more, gives the bad guys another propaganda lede. Seriously, haven’t you noticed that the more you kill, the more there seem to be to kill? You need more friends for America and fewer people saying they are victims of America. Make your intel people truly pick out the real, real bad guys, the ones who absolutely threaten American lives. Be comfortable in publicly being able to articulate every decision. Don’t be lazy with bringing death. Don’t continue to slide downhill into killing easier and easier just because you have a new technology that falsely seems without risk. Drones are a tool, not a strategy. Seek a realistic form of containment, and stop chasing complete destruction. You need an end game. The risk is there my friend, you just have to pull back and see it in the bigger picture.”

    “Bigger picture, eh? That’s what this legacy business is all about, isn’t it? Seeing Iranian nukes not as the problem per se, but as part of a solution set that doesn’t just leave a glowing hole in the ground, but instead fills in things, builds a base for more building.”

    “You’re getting it now. And even as domestic politics suffers in gridlock, you have room to do things in foreign policy that will mark history for you. As a second term president, you are freed from a lot of political restraints, just like you told Medvedev you would be.”

    “Open mikes, who knew, right? But what about my successor? The party wants me to leave things ready for 2016.”

    “Don’t worry about that. I’ve got Springsteen working on new songs for the campaign. Hey, you know anything that rhymes well with ‘Hillary’? Right now we’ve only got ‘pillory’ and ‘distillery.’ Bruce is stuck on that.”

    “But look, Spirit, I appreciate the advice and all, but to be honest, all this you propose is a lot of work. It’s complicated, needs to be managed, has a lot of potential for political friction. I could, you know, just stick with things the way they are. Ordering the military to do things is easy, we’ve got an online form for it now where I just select countries to attack from a drop-down list. People seem to have gotten used to a permanent state of low-level warfare everywhere, drone killings, the occasional boil flaring up like Benghazi. It wasn’t a serious election issue at all. Why should I bother?”

    “Well, among other things Barack, you’ve got two very sweet, wonderful reasons sleeping just down the hallway. It is all about their future, maybe even more than yours.”



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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