September 16, 2010

Stephen Walt Criticizes Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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“There are not going to be any major [foreign policy] achievements in [President Barack Obama’s] first term,” said Prof. Stephen Walt, international relations, Harvard University, to a packed Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall Thursday. Walt offered an admittedly “grim forecast” of the potential impact of Obama’s policies in a lecture titled “Doomed to Fail: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy” that was part of the Mario Einaudi Center’s Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

Walt currently teaches at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he gained attention within the political sphere for his papers and research dealing with negative affects of the powerful Israel Lobby in Washington, D.C. His 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy — co-authored with Prof. John Mearshimer, political science, University of Chicago — was a New York Times bestseller.

After a fire alarm delayed the start of his presentation, Walt began by describing the differences between Obama’s foreign policy and that of President George W. Bush as largely “symbolic.”

Despite campaign promises, Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open, military tribunals still try suspected terrorists and many of these suspects are still held without trial — all continuations of Bush administration policy, Walt said.

In some cases, Obama even escalated controversial policies from the previous administration. According to Walt, since Obama took office, there were 75 unmanned aerial vehicle, or “drone,” attacks, which often resulted in civilian casualties in Pakistan. This is 50 more than the entire number of “drone” attacks during Bush’s second term.

“The question is: ‘what has he actually accomplished?’” Walt said.

Walt noted that Obama’s biggest foreign policy success was his reaction to a potential global depression, in which Obama “acted quickly, and for the most part, successfully, to stave off another meltdown,” but does not get much political credit for this because of continued high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Walt also believes that the official end of combat operations in Iraq “doesn’t mean the end of U.S. military presence … Iraq is likely to remain violent for many years and America is likely to remain in military strength.” He predicted that troops will remain in Iraq at the end of Obama’s first term.

“President Obama blundered when he decided to escalate the [Afghanistan] war,” Walt said as he switched topics. He questioned the purpose of the Afghan war, saying Al Qaeda has better safe havens. “Al Qaeda isn’t going to be a lot weaker if we succeed in Afghanistan and it isn’t going to be a lot stronger if we don’t succeed.”

“I would have advised him to deescalate in Afghanistan,” Walt said in response to a question regarding what advice he would have given Obama if he were a part of the administration.

Walt then addressed Iran’s nuclear program.

“There is no sign that Iran is willing to suspend its nuclear enrichment program,” he said, noting that even Iran’s chief political dissidents support the program. As a result, he suggested that the best approach is to allow Iran to enrich uranium for energy in exchange for strictly enforced promises not to make weapons.

Walt discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of his lecture. He called current talks “little more than a charade” and said that unless Obama is willing to put pressure on both sides — a move that he said is unlikely because Obama does not want to alienate Jewish voters — “there isn’t going to be a two state solution.”

Walt continued that “Obama and his team did not act like friends of Israel” because the current situation could eventually “result in apartheid,” like in South Africa, and spur a Palestinian civil rights movement.

Student attendees expressed mixed reactions to Walt’s speech.

“I was particularly interested in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and how we placate the lobby too much at times,” Patrick Boor ’14 said. However, he said he felt that Walt was “a bit cynical at times and there is room for hope.”

Diwakar Raisingh ’13 agreed with Walt’s position on Afghanistan because “withdrawing will help American foreign policy in the long run.” However, he didn’t completely agree with the professor, saying a pullout “might damage American military moral.”

Raisingh also said that Walt’s position on Iran is “false because it would set off an arms race in the Middle East.”

“We were expecting a wide range of direction from one of the most prominent thinkers on foreign policy,” said Prof. Fredrik Logevall, history, director of the Einuadi Center for the International Studies. “We try to mix in both academics, journalists … [so] we had to try to bring him.”

Original Author: Joseph Niczky