Defending the Indefensible, Academically

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

Perhaps the Obama Administration’s foreign policy is becoming so indefensible that even its best and brightest academic defenders are becoming tongue tied defending it.

At the Center for American Progress, Georgetown professor of international affairs Charles Kupchan recently said, “Obama is probably out in front of this issue, that he made, perhaps I would go so far as to say a signature part of his first term policy, engaging.” But, he added, “I would say that the jury is still out, but that the glass is more half-full than half-empty, or you might say empty.”

He dove into several examples and gave a simple response to how Obama has fared in foreign policy:

  • “Russia: we had some good years on reset when Medvedev was in office, reversal since Putin’s come back.”
  • “Cuba? Not a slam dunk but some progress has been made.”
  • “Syria? Disaster.”
  • “Burma? Success.”

“Engagement with adversaries doesn’t always work, but often does work,”  Kupchan claimed.

“I would say that Obama has not been a failure and hasn’t been a great success, but that these things take time,” Kupchan concluded.  He claimed that it takes 10 years to go from rapprochement to friendly relations, and insisted to the audience that engagement takes time.

But, notwithstanding his previous points of how engagement is worth the effort, Kupchan added another condition: Do not engage in “countenance engagement” with “maximalist actors like al-Qaeda.” Why not? His point was that if an actor is actively trying to harm you, then you should not negotiate with that actor.

Regarding diplomacy, Kupchan said, “Even if we agree that North Korea and Iran are rogues, in an era of weapons of mass destruction, do we have an alternative not to try diplomacy?”

Kupchan addressed Iran and called it “a pretty nasty regime.” By “neutralizing their nuclear program and avoiding a nuclear war, why not take it to the 11th hour?” He defended engagement with Iran because “the two alternatives that come with that failure are ugly.” Yet, Kupchan believed that “we have more room for maneuver than ever before” after the election of Hassan Rouhani. And, he criticized the U.S. government because “they need a strategy” to contain the fallout from the Syrian civil war and how they handled it.

He laid the blame for failed engagements or the fear of engaging the enemy on the public. Kupchan said, “Talking to bad guys is domestically dangerous, that’s why at the end of the day, there’s no replacement for concrete concessions.”

Also, Kupchan reasoned, “You have to do it with eyes wide open, aware that it might not work, and as a consequence have your aircraft carriers ready.” He brought up the example of Neville Chamberlain, a British prime minister after World War I, who “was not prepared [and] Great Britain was not arming” after Nazi Germany was making strides in rearmament. To reiterate his point on preparedness, Kupchan suggested to “have the F-16s fueled because it [engagement] just might not work.”

Despite his statement, Kupchan backtracked and said there was “a wide array of historical evidence that suggests that longstanding rivalries… have been settled diplomatically.” He cited evidence of U.S.-Great Britain relations in the late 1800s, the negotiations between Norway and Sweden, China and the U.S.S.R. as well as Brazil and Argentina. And, contrary to modern perception, Kupchan alleged that “the regime type doesn’t really matter that much” as to the effect on negotiations.

The sad thing is, when not trying to explain the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, Kupchan is, by all accounts, lucid and erudite. Here are some of his reviews on Rate My

  • “I really recommend Professor Kupchan. He really knows his material and is able to lead discussion well. Intelligent and dry, but basically friendly. He speaks very precisely and clear speaking = clear thinking.”
  • “Good survey of grand strategy, focusing on one case study every week or two. Kupchan is brilliant and very entertaining; I could listen to him talk for hours. You can expect about a book a week and a 30 pg. term paper. Definite recommend.”
  • “Fun professor – acerbic, dry, funny as hell! Very organized and knows his stuff. There are some days it can drag, but they’re few. The sarcasm and his sense of humor just made this class! I learned a lot as well.”