WALTER LAFEBER: What I want to do today is to talk a little bit about the background of President Obama, what he said during the campaign, and look at some of the problems that he's had to deal with since he became president. And to do this, forgive me. I'm a historian. I'm going to go back, not only beyond last November, not only beyond 9/11, not only beyond 1989 when the Cold War ended.
I want to go back, actually, to the 1950s and 1960s, because I think that is when the world began that President Obama inherited. I've talked about this with some of the people in the audience whom I see here this morning. So you'll have to forgive me this slight review. But it seems to me that this world that President Obama inherited was a world that changed dramatically and fundamentally between the 1950s and 1989 when the Cold War ended.
One way of getting at this is very simple. And that is to note that, in the 1890s and 1900, there were probably 40 to 50 nations in the world. The nations in the 18th and 19th century had been pretty much absorbed by the colonial powers-- France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States and Japan.
If there were 40 to 50 powers in the world by counting in the 1890s, by 1945 there were about 85. And by 2000 there were close to 200 nations in the world. Within a century, in other words, the number of nations in the world increased four to five times. And not only did they increase that rapidly, but they also became essentially unlinked to states. That is to say, the dangers in the international community changed from being state-based dangers to being essentially free of state ties.
Now, let me demonstrate this. What I'm arguing here is that the world fragmented in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. That we talked about a two-power world, Russia and the United States. And that was the world in terms of, say, nuclear weapons down to the 1970s and 1980s. But underneath that, something very fundamental was happening. And what was happening was that the world was fragmenting as these states multiplied.
But it went beyond that. When the Israeli Olympic team was set upon by terrorists in the 1972 Olympics, when the American soldiers in Beirut in 1983, some 270 of them, were killed by terrorists, in those and in other episodes, the terrorists were usually state-related, usually Palestinian or Libyan. But by 1993, this had changed.
Not only were there more states, but the terrorism that became increasingly important in international relations, as I said a moment ago, was essentially free of state ties. And so what we began to see in the 1990s was not Libyan-tied or Palestinian-tied terrorism. But we began to see in the 1990s was essentially terrorism unlinked to states.
So we had the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. So we had the attack on US embassies in Africa in 1998. So we had the attack on the US ship in 2000. And then we had 9/11. In other words, there was a multiplication of nations. There was a fragmentation of the world community. But there was also beyond that the delinking of terrorism from nations to essentially non-national terrorist groups.
The world became increasingly fragmented. It became increasingly unpredictable. And this was essentially the world not only that Obama inherited last November. It's also the world that, of course, President Bush inherited in 9/11. Now what President Bush decided to do in the days and weeks and months after 9/11 was not to attack these terrorists on the basis of non-state attacks.
That is to say, one of the things President Bush could have done after 9/11-- and in fact, this was recommended in a couple of very influential articles in 2001. What he could've done was not invade Iraq and not even invade Afghanistan. It was recommended, particularly in Great Britain, that what he should have done is essentially work with other agencies in the world, counterterrorist agencies, and essentially surreptitiously go into the areas where the terrorists were-- Afghanistan, North Africa. They were in some 60 countries by late 9/11-- and surreptitiously, secretly, either kill or take these people out, and bring them to justice.
President Bush decided not to do that. Or if he did and we're just starting to find out something about this, it was essentially placed secondarily to his decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. So by 2007, 2008 when Obama began to think seriously about the presidency, what had happened was that the United States had essentially attacked states as the terrorism was becoming non-state-based.
And this was a considerable problem, not only in terms of capturing al-Qaeda leadership, Osama bin Laden. It also became a problem because many of our allies did not see the world the way we saw it. They particularly did not see the necessity of going into Iraq as we well know in 2003. And indeed, the Western alliance, the NATO alliance that had essentially won the Cold War-- the NATO alliance, it dates from 1949.
The NATO alliance fractured over the whole issue of the invasion of Iraq. The French particularly rebelled. So did the Germans in a much lighter way. And so by 2004, 2005, the alliance that the United States had depended upon-- [INAUDIBLE], I can say, the alliance says that we depended upon after 1949-- those alliances were becoming frayed, decayed. And other than in Afghanistan where the NATO alliance was working to some extent, they were quite ineffectual in carrying out American foreign policy objectives.
Now, Obama talked about some of this. And he took very strong positions during the campaign. One of the places where you can find this most easily is in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, which came out in 2006. He has a long chapter in there on foreign policy. And one of the most interesting things he says-- he says two interesting things.
But one of the most interesting things he says is that the world has fragmented along with American alliances. And that he believed, that given this fragmented world, this highly pluralistic world, that it is absolutely essential for the United States to go back and reform these alliances. That the United States would have to go back essentially to Truman and Eisenhower in the '40s and '50s.
This was the only way, he believed, that we could essentially solve the key problems of the day. There was a speech made last summer by the British Foreign Minister, David Miliband. And I like this speech because it nicely summarizes, I think, the foreign policy platform on which Obama ran. What Miliband argued last summer was that the key problems we face include financial problems, pandemics. They include the problems of terrorism. They are problems in essence, Miliband argued, which require cooperation.
And then he said, cooperation of democratic and non-democratic nations alike. That is, Miliband argued, when we start dealing with pandemics like swine flu, when we start dealing with financial crises, when we started dealing with terrorism, we have to deal with governments. And we cannot look too closely at whether they were democratically elected or not.
Now, that raised a central issue. And Obama had been talking about this issue for some time. In 2005 at his second inaugural, President Bush very eloquently made one of the most effective pleas I've ever read for the United States expanding democratic systems. That is to say, what President Bush argued in that second inaugural was that we, as a functioning centuries-old democracy, should be sure that democracy has a chance to expand around the world for all kinds of reasons.
The old belief that democracies don't fight one another, the belief that this is the best way of checking what he called tyranny in domestic systems. And as a consequence of this in 2005, the Bush administration essentially launched a crusade to expand democracy. And the places they picked out initially were in the Middle East. The most important country they picked out was Egypt.
Secretary of State Rice made several speeches, including one in Egypt, in which she asked Mubarak, the ruler of Egypt, to have democratic elections and argued that what this would do would be to set an example for other countries in the area, read Iran, to also have democratic elections. There would be pressure put on other Middle East nations to be democratic rather than authoritarian.
Mubarak had the election. And the result, as you'll remember, was that the Muslim Brotherhood got nearly 20% of the vote. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood is the Muslim Brotherhood that spawned some of the most radical factions in the Middle East-- Hamas and Hezbollah. And when this happened, Mubarak immediately cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, put some of the leaders back in jail. And Condoleezza Rice did not go back to Egypt for some time.
Her plea for a democratic election had not ended well. And Mubarak moved away from any hope that there would be any kind of a democratic system installed in Egypt. That was followed by Hezbollah and Hamas winning elections in the West Bank and in Lebanon and directly threatening Israel because both Hamas and Hezbollah had vowed to destroy Israel.
So by 2006 and 2007, this democratic crusade was not working very well. And what Obama said was, and he said it most eloquently I think in the speech he gave last June in Cairo-- very interesting that he gave his speech to the Muslim world of all the places he could have chosen including his childhood home in Indonesia. He chose to give it in Cairo, which had just been through this experience I've described.
Other than making an appeal to Islamic states for reconciliation with the United States, what he said in that speech is that democracy was not essentially the essential end. That elections could be corrupted and that you need, he argued, much more than the elections, to have a democratic state. We know all this.
But what Obama was essentially saying last June in Cairo was what he had been saying in Audacity of Hope in 2006 and in this campaign in 2007 and 2008. And that is he was essentially disavowing George Bush's second inaugural address. That from now on the United States was not going to go on a democratic crusade.
That as David Miliband said, we had immediate problems that had to be solved by non-democratic as well as Democratic states. And as a consequence, I think that Obama thought that by essentially pushing aside this crusade for democracy, he could be what political scientists call a realist and talk about the necessity to cooperate with states, whether those states were democratically elected or not. And that's essentially what he set out to do.
Now, I want to emphasize a couple of these points, that is to say Obama's belief that we now had to cooperate with a number of different states unlike, say, President Bush who talked about a coalition of the willing. But the coalition of the willing turned out to be pretty small and quite passing by 2003, 2004, 2005, especially in Iraq. And the second theme, which is that, in doing this, President Obama was going to be highly realistic and non-ideological.
As I said, I want to use a couple of case studies to point these principles out. And I want to begin essentially with one of Miliband's examples. And that is the financial crisis. In previous financial crises when the United States got in trouble, say, in the 1970s or in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s, the problem was usually resolved by the United States dealing with it internally and by itself.
We could raise funds within the United States in the '70s and '80s and '90s that essentially could pull us out. We would use deficit spending, a good Keynesian approach. It did not involve foreign policy all that much. It certainly involved some other nations particularly. Japan, which was loaning us large amounts of money in the 1980s, early 1990s. But the primary emphasis was on American resources. It was on domestic policy.
What has happened in the last year to 18 months is quite historic, because the United States as we have gotten deeper and deeper in what is now called the Great Recession-- as we've gotten deeper and deeper into this financial crisis, we've become more and more dependent on outside nations and, especially of course, the Chinese who have between $1 trillion and $2 trillion of American debt. Just in the last decade to 15 years they've compiled this much money.
The United States has to deal with the Chinese even though the Chinese government is not democratic. We've had to deal with the Chinese because of Chinese economic efficiency. The United States and China are having some difficulty. You probably read about it in the papers. The United States has imposed tariffs on tires.
The Chinese just within the last week has said they are going to go to the World Trade Organization complaining about how the United States is subsidizing automobile exports into China. That's a good case for the Chinese. It's not going to disturb US-Chinese relations too much. It'll probably take about 10 to 15 years for this case to work out. And that's the point.
What we're reading about in the newspapers, that is to say the trade problems that are arising between the US and China as they have arisen over the last decade or two decades, is really beside the point. When President Obama goes over to China later this month as he plans to do, the discussion will not be so much on tires or automobiles. Indeed, General Motors sold more automobiles in China two months ago than they sold in the United States, all of them produced in China. So US exports of cars to China don't make all that much difference.
What really makes a difference is whether or not the Chinese are going to de-emphasize their connection to the dollar and whether or not they are going to begin to pull out from providing the cash that we need to pay for our debts as they mushroom and as they have mushroomed over the last 18 months. This is the key issue. And there is, I would suggest, absolutely no indication that the Chinese are going to do this.
They're talking about it. Indeed, there were stories in the newspapers in the last couple of days about the Chinese getting together with other US creditors and talking about other kinds of currency, another kind of an international pot of currency. But the Chinese probably won't do this. And they won't do it for a very simple reason. In 2005 and 2006, the Chinese, under terrific American criticism, decided they would finally revalue the won. That is to say, they would have to increase the value of the won because it was simply too cheap in rural markets. That was how they were subsidizing a lot of their exports.
After that experience, they have gone back to tying the won very closely to the dollar, very closely. We all know, especially in the last couple of weeks, how the discussion has multiplied about the weakening dollar and how the dollar is declining in value. And as the dollar declines in value, Chinese exports, with the won tied to the dollar, are becoming increasingly cheap.
And so as the US dollar goes down, Chinese exports go up. Chinese exports to the United States have dropped some. They certainly haven't dropped nearly as much as Canadian or other key export sources to the United States. But the Chinese have a very close tie with the United States then in two ways.
First, their dependence on our market. As the dollar goes down, we're going to buy more and more Chinese goods. They already are overtaking, say, Romania, which has been a main source of our shoes. Furniture from Canada, it's where we get much of our furniture. It's now coming, in the last six months to a year, increasingly from China. The Chinese are taking over parts of the American market because of the cheapness of their goods that they had not enjoyed before 2006.
And the second part of this is that they're not about to pull out from financing our debt, because the financing of the debt essentially allows them to control the pace of the dollar. So as far as US-Chinese relations are concerned, what we read in the newspapers does not really, I think, reveal what's going on. There's a lot of trade disputes. But underneath, there are very, very strong ties, to the point where the Chinese and the United States are so symbiotically tied economically that it's extremely difficult to criticize the Chinese for anything that they do that we don't like.
Now, one nation that has come to understand this, particularly in the last three or four months, is Japan, which has been our closest ally in Asia since 1951 when we formed an alliance with Japan, renewed in 1960. And the United States has kept thousands-- indeed, tens of thousands of troops in Japan and Okinawa, essentially as a US, Western-based defense.
But as a result of the elections several months ago, the Democratic Party of Japan, for the first time-- it was just formed in the late '90s-- for the first time came to power. And prime minister Hatoyama essentially gained control of Japanese foreign policy. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan had been in power since the early 1950s, almost continually.
One of the first things that Hatoyama did was go to China. One of the second things that Hatoyama did, and this was in the last month, was to announce that Japan was no longer going to act as a refueling agent for US ships in Afghanistan in the Indian Ocean. The Japanese have a large Navy and a very large Air Force. They are able to control large parts of Asia.
And one of the things they've been doing to help us in Afghanistan is to act essentially as a refueling agent for US ships. Hatoyama has announced that that is going to end. The next thing Hatoyama said was that 8,000 Marines should be pulled out of Japan and sent elsewhere. And the pressure continues, of course, to get the United States out of Okinawa entirely. Now, this is within the last two months.
The US-Japanese alliance, which has been the backbone of American policy in the Far East since 1951, is undergoing terrific stress now one year into President Obama's term in office. And Hatoyama is not going at the United States by himself. He is doing this after going to China. And clearly, one of the things he's doing-- in fact, he just proposed it last week-- is an Asian group including China and Japan. In fact, they'd be the two key Asian nations, which would exclude the United States.
So what we're seeing in Asia, what Obama has to deal with in Asia, is a China that is increasingly important, if not essential, to the American economy and a Japan, which for the first time since World War II is rather dramatically pulling away from the United States, not only economically, but militarily, politically.
This is a particular set of problems that I think Obama did not anticipate. He did not anticipate a China like this. He certainly did not anticipate a Japan like this. And I would guess that one of the reasons he's going over there later this month is to find out on the spot exactly what's happening and to have face-to-face discussions with Hatoyama, particularly about the US-Japanese alliance. This is very much in turmoil, very much in the mix, and greatly changing.
I think one perspective we could get on this is if you think about the first months of the Bush administration in 2001. When the Bush administration came into office in 2001, they had a number one enemy. And they were very clear about what the number one enemy was. It was China.
In March and April of 2001 immediately after Bush came into power, there was a collision of a US surveillance plane with a Japanese fighter. 24 Americans were captured by the Chinese. There was an immediate crisis. And it was only Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was able to negotiate a way out of that, for which Powell got tremendous criticism from conservative Republicans because of the way he did this, for the way he apologized to the Chinese so that he could get these 24 US fliers out.
9/11 changed that. But the assumption all the way through of the Bush administration was that China was the oncoming major power that we had to be careful about. We had to think about the Chinese first and foremost, not the Russians, not nations in the Middle East. It was the Chinese. That has now changed considerably. And Obama has taken quite a different tack by necessity because of the factors I've just mentioned-- the economic, the military, and now this shifting Japan. If the Japanese are not going to be as trustworthy as allies in the near future, China becomes all the more important. That's one case study.
The Chinese are also interesting to us because they have had, for something like 300 years, considerable difficulty with Russia. And so are we. And as a consequence, the US and Chinese are beginning to find common ground in dealing with the Russians. Now, I don't want to argue that the Cold War is coming back, although a lot of people are arguing that, particularly because of what's happening in Eastern Europe and in places like the Ukraine and Georgia.
I think that this has to be considered very carefully. Because the Russians are certainly not what the Russians were during the height of the Cold War in the '50s and the 1960s. The Russian society is essentially a society that is degenerating. The average lifespan for a woman in Russia has dropped from about 75 years to about 70 to 71 years.
The lifespan for a male in Russia has dropped from 64 years to 57 years and is still dropping. The Russians have more drug addicts than any other nation in the world, something like 2.8 million. The Chinese have, by their count, about 2.3 million. Russia is only 1/11 the size of China in overall population.
The Russians are having great difficulty. Their difficulties are hidden by the price of oil. The Russians are now the leading oil exporter in the world. They have surpassed Saudi Arabia. They ship something like 10 to 11 million barrels of oil out a day. And at $80, which is where oil reached yesterday, this is a very profitable enterprise for the Russians and gives them economic maneuverability, which they had never had before the 1990s or the oil boom in the early part of this century.
The Russians, as far as the United States are concerned then, are a problem. They might be corrupt and hollow at the center, and they certainly are corrupt and hollow at the center. I remember when I was in Russia in 1980, a correspondent said to me, you know, this is a nuclear power. But underneath it is a banana Republic that is to say, politically, socially, culturally, this Russia is not something to take seriously if they just didn't have those bombs.
I read a statement a couple of weeks ago in which a US official in Moscow said that what Russia reminded him of right now is Chicago in the 1930s with the crime. He said, only this time, Al Capone has access to nuclear weapons. And that does put a different dimension on it.
He could have added, they don't only have access to nuclear weapons. They also have access to incredible amounts of oil. And they're building oil pipelines towards Japan and towards China to particularly try to sew up those kinds of political relationships based on an economic tie of oil. The Russians then are corrupt at the center as I said. But they also are a nation that has a lot of wealth. And they also are a nation that is very able to work effectively on their own periphery as we saw a year ago when they invaded Georgia.
In 1989, 1991, a single nation, the Soviet Union, essentially became a dozen nations overnight. And several of those countries combined with the breakup of the Soviet alliances in Eastern Europe, particularly the alliance that included Poland and then Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. When that split occurred, the Russians essentially lost their political base that they had been forming in that area and in the Caucasus region for the last 200 years. This was a historical trauma for the Russians in the early 1990s.
The United States moved in very quickly in the 1990s to exploit this. We began to invite some of these nations into NATO. We began to invite some of these nations into the European Union, the Europeans did. And in 2004, 2005 with the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, two of the areas that had been most important to the Soviet Union, the United States moved in after those color revolutions and began to have a large economic and even military help on the former Soviet border.
The Russians were not able to do much until 18 months ago when they invaded Georgia, essentially to set an example for nations in this area who might think of joining Western alliances. And the Russians have been very effective in doing this. Ukrainian politics have essentially shifted. And Obama has a situation in this area that is quite unlike anything that President Bush had to deal with because of the growth of pro Russian feelings and policies in the Ukraine.
Georgia is essentially under siege. In Poland and in the Czech Republic, President Obama has essentially pulled back the Bush promise to set up an anti-ballistic missile system, supposedly to deal with Iranian missiles but nobody was too fooled by that. I think they thought this was really aimed at the Russians.
This whole area then, which seemed to be moving towards the west, towards the United States, in 2006, had suddenly shifted. And with the Russian economic power, the Russians are becoming an increasingly important force. Vice President Biden was over in Eastern Europe a week ago.
He made a very significant speech in Romania where he essentially assured all of Eastern Europeans we've been helping since 1991. He assured them that the United States was going to help them in terms, particularly, of anti-ballistic missile systems against Soviet missiles. And we are putting the Patriot system-- a much lesser system than what President Bush had promised, but the Bush system wasn't very effective. The Patriot system is.
And then Biden said something else. In his speech in Romania, he said, the one thing we will not tolerate in the world are spheres of influence. That phrase is a kind of a magic phrase in international politics. Spheres of influence means closed-off areas, the kind of closed-off areas that the Soviets had in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. And what the Obama administration has now essentially done is declare a Cold War on the Soviet initiatives that have been occurring in Georgia, the Ukraine, and against their former Eastern European allies, particularly the Pols and the Czechs.
To summarize this, as the United States has gotten closer to China for various reasons, we are moving into a Cold War position with the Russians. I think Obama is not surprised by this. I think what he is surprised about is something else. What he is surprised about is how the Russians are dealing on certain issues that he thought they would cooperate with him about. And the number 1 issue is Iran.
When he campaigned in 2007 and 2008, President Obama really shook up Hillary Clinton-- the Candidate Obama shook up Hillary Clinton-- when Obama essentially said that he was prepared to talk and to negotiate with anybody. That meant not only the Russians. That meant not only, my goodness, the Cubans. It also meant the Iranians.
About that time, we found out that in May 2003 right after the United States invaded Iraq, the Iranians had secretly approached the United States and had asked for fundamental discussions, fundamental discussions about a whole range of issues, including Iranian nuclear weapons.
President Bush had never answered that approach. He did not believe there was anything to talk about. He was confident that the United States would have a much better position to negotiate from after we consolidated our invasion in Iraq. By 2005, 2006, the United States was essentially in a Cold War with the Iranians as the Iranians were increasing their leverage, particularly through the Shia in Iran.
What Obama said in his campaign was, we're going to talk about this. We are not willing to go back and essentially accept that Iranian initiative in May of 2003. The Iranians, however, have proved to be less interested. And indeed, the Iranian leader, Khomeini, has just said in the last couple of days that he has absolutely no interest in talking to the United States at all.
Now, that's a little misleading because US-Iranian talks have been going on secretly. We don't know what they've accomplished, if anything. But there is communication. The Iranian leadership also has, as you probably noticed on television last night, more important things to deal with such as thousands of demonstrators, anti-government demonstrators on the streets of Tehran and other major cities.
But the key question that the United States has to deal with, the key problem that Obama has to deal with of course, is the whole question of Iranian nuclear capacity. And that has been strung out and strung out and strung out by the Iranians over the last couple of months so that now Obama is reaching the point, it seems to me, that he is beginning to think seriously about military pressure, if not the use of military power.
The Israelis have wanted to use military power against the Iranians for some time. We know that in the middle of 2007 they came to the Bush administration and essentially asked for permission to fly over Iraq so they could bomb, at that point, the three or four nuclear facilities that the Iranians were building. The Bush administration turned them down.
The Bush administration I think did this for good reason at the time. There was hope that the Iranian nuclear project would not produce any kind of bombs until 2013, 2014 at least. That was the best US intelligence estimate. And moreover, any attack on Iran would unleash a domino effect in the Middle East, which could be terrifying, including the cutting off of 40% of the world's oil going through the Straits of Hormuz.
That would produce a real economic crisis, globally. But in the last two weeks, the Obama administration, quite in contrast to Obama's request during the campaign that we and the Iranians get together and talk about this, has taken a series of initiatives.
Let me outline some of these to you. One of the things that Obama did was to send his national security advisor, General Jones, to Moscow and tell the Russians who are now the most important power supporting Iran and have deep economic interests in Iran-- Jones has told the Russians last week, quote, "all options are on the table." That is to say, all options, including military options, are on the table.
To drive this point home, in the last two weeks, the United States and Israel have combined their usual military maneuvers, the so-called Juniper COBRA maneuvers, in which the United States and Israel team up for anti-defense protection against what is obviously considered to be Iranian attacks on Israel. That particular set of maneuvers is ending this morning.
Clearly, it was timed to coincide-- in fact, it was delay-- timed to coincide with Jones's trip to Moscow. In other words, we're telling the Russians that, unless the Iranians stop the production of nuclear weapons we think they're producing or at least send this uranium out to be enriched and not do it at home-- they're particularly stalling on that-- we not only will keep the military option open. But we are now working very closely with the Israelis. And you know what the Israelis want to do.
The Obama administration has done something else in the last week. They have begun to tap the strategic petroleum reserve the United States. They're setting up the operation to draw down those reserves if an attack on Iran does stop or hinder the 40% of the world's oil that goes through the Straits of Hormuz. Certainly, one of the first things the Iranians will do will be to try to block the Straits of Hormuz, particularly by sinking small ships in the Straits.
And so the Obama administration now is beginning to approach the strategic petroleum reserves, the reserves that we have kept aside so that we can use them in a crisis such as this one is becoming. In all of these instances that I've just outlined to you, quite clearly, President Obama has moved 180 degrees from the position he had during the campaign.
And he hasn't had much choice but to do so, given the fact that the Iranians are not willing to do what we thought they had promised us, which is essentially to allow the Russians or other countries to process their uranium and to make sure that that uranium was not processed to a level where it would become weapons-grade uranium. This is a very serious crisis And it has essentially sneaked up, I think, on Obama in a way that neither he nor many of his advisors saw coming.
What they were concerned about was not Iran during the campaign. And it was not Iraq, quite clearly. President Obama who had opposed the Iraqi invasion from 2000 on was quite clear that he was going to pull all US troops out of Iraq by 2011. And he'd like to do it even earlier than that, because he had something else in mind. And that was Afghanistan.
He was very explicit in saying that we were going to lower the American power commitment to Iraq in order to concentrate on where al-Qaeda, where the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, really were. And that was in Afghanistan in the Northwestern portions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
Now, I've often wondered why Obama made such a point of this. He dug himself in very deeply on the Afghan commitment during the campaign. And if you want to be cynical about it but maybe rather accurate, one of the reasons he did this certainly was to ensure that the Democrats, the party he headed, would not be accused of essentially being a McGovernite party.
That is to say that the Democrats might want to get out of Iraq. But the Democrats could be very tough and use American military force in Afghanistan. And it did make a certain amount of political logic during the campaign for Obama to take his position. When he criticized our policies in Iraq, it did not mean that he was reluctant to use American force. And he wanted to make that very, very clear.
What happened after he got in office was some consistency with his campaign speeches. He made a speech this past March 7 in which he said that our major objective was to keep the Taliban out of power. There would be no compromise. President Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, would be supported by the United States. This was essentially, as he phrased it in the March 7 speech, zero-sum policy. Karzai in power, the Taliban defeated and out of power.
That zero-sum policy has changed considerably in the last six to eight months. The policy now is quite different. It began to change, I think, in the early part of the summer when President Obama began to see that the United States did not have the military capacity nor the support from our allies to keep the Taliban out. Indeed, you did not have to be extraordinarily brilliant to see this. The Taliban essentially controlled the southern half of Afghanistan. And it was going to take many more troops than the 60,000 troops the US and their allies had in place.
We know that the US military commander of these troops, General McChrystal, has now asked for 40,000 more troops so that the US troop level in Afghanistan will be up and around 100,000. And McChrystal has been also very clear that this doesn't guarantee anything. With 100,000 troops, he is not guaranteeing victory. He's not guaranteeing stalemate. He's simply saying that we need 100,000, troops 40,000 more, simply in order to not be defeated by the Taliban in the foreseeable future.
In the last several months, President Obama has already sent 21,000 of those troops. Now, there would be 21,000 in addition to the 40,000 so that the United States troop level in Afghanistan is going up over 100,000 towards 120,000. This 21,000 troops have been sent without a great deal of newspaper or television discussion about them. But they've been sent, and they've been sent by President Obama.
The situation in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous. And it is extremely dangerous, not only because Obama was mistaken as were many US observers when he assumed during the campaign and last spring that it was possible to win a military victory against the Taliban. He is also in deep trouble, of course, because his person, our person, in Afghanistan, President Karzai, won an election in August, which was deeply corrupted.
And now, there is not going to be a second election because Abdullah Abdullah, his main competitor, has dropped out over the weekend. And as a result, we are now going to fight the Taliban, who are making very rapid progress in Afghanistan, with a troop level that probably, as McChrystal says himself, is not sufficient to win a victory, with a president representing our interests in Afghanistan who is deeply corrupted and mistrusted by large numbers of the Pashtuns and the other tribes in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern part of that country.
It is an extremely dangerous and difficult situation made more dangerous by Obama's statements during the campaign that this is where he would focus US foreign policy, not in the Middle East. Let me give a couple of concluding remarks to try to wrap this up. The first thing I think we ought to notice here is that the United States is the number 1 power in the world, economically and militarily.
We might be dependent on the Chinese for our national debt. But our GNP is still 2 and 1/2 to three times greater than the Chinese, although they're rapidly approaching our level. In 1990 when the United States clearly had been on the right side of the Cold War, Charles Krauthammer, the columnist, talked about the United States being a unipolar power. We were the only nation in the world that had this kind of political power dominance, economically and militarily.
By the 1990s, later in the '90s, this fragmented world began to take over. And even a unipolar power could not protect itself at the World Trade Center or its embassies in Africa or its ships in the Indian Ocean. And by 2005, 2006, it was quite clear that this unipolar power was nothing like it was cracked up to be by Krauthammer in 1990.
This unipolar power was vulnerable economically. It was vulnerable militarily, particularly in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And there were divisions beginning to appear within the United States as we saw in the campaign debates about how the United States should respond with its power to this pluralism.
And I think the second conclusion we can draw from this is that one of the reasons the United States has had trouble responding since 1990 is because of this fragmented world that I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. This is a world that is highly unpredictable. It is a world we did not know in the Cold War, which just ended 20 years ago. It is a world that is not only fragmented but where many of the major threats to us and to our Western allies essentially come from stateless terrorists.
There is, I think then, in the Obama foreign policy an inadequacy in being able to define and to deal with these two problems. I do not mean to criticize Obama, given the fact that he's been in office less than a year. But it is nevertheless the case that this world that he's dealing with, and the way he's dealt with it as I've tried to describe it to you, particularly in Afghanistan and in Iran, certain extent in Iraq too, that this world is very, very different than the world that he thought he would face when he became president.
I like the title of his book in 2006, The Audacity of Hope. I think if we were going to describe his foreign policy since last January, we'd use that title, The Audacity of Hope, to describe it. Now, I'll be very glad to take questions. [APPLAUSE]
Comments, commendations, criticisms. Yes.
AUDIENCE: In a fragmented world where terrorism exposes us all to these unexpected events, the terrorists get their money from someplace, their supplies. It must be that some nation-states are involved in supporting the terrorists. So separating the nation-states from terrorism seems to me to present a problem.
WALTER LAFEBER: I appreciate your point. When al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, it is figured that it cost them about $400,000. We spend considerably more than that in reaction to that attack. Terrorism is not a really expensive business. Moreover, what al-Qaeda draws from-- what they drew from originally was Saudi Arabia. I mean, we know this.
The al-Qaeda people were essentially Wahhabis. And the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia was providing a great deal of support both in terms of personnel and in terms of money. And the Saudi government was allowing this to happen all through the '90s to pick up your point-- all through the '90s and into the early part of this century.
Then al-Qaeda turned on the Saudis. And when they turned on the Saudis, the Saudis, over the last five to eight years began to turn of the economic funnel to al-Qaeda. And indeed, it's gotten much further than that. The two are essentially at war. So to answer your question, now that the Saudis as they were in the '80s and the '90s are no longer providing this kind of financial help, where are they getting it?
I'd give you the twofold answer. The first, as I've said, they don't need a great deal. Secondly, they're in-- I'm not sure 60 anymore, but at least 50 to 60 different countries, including North Africa and East Africa, particularly strong around Somalia and in some of the countries in North Africa. They are also quite numerous in parts of Southeast Asia.
And they can draw on local resources. And they're getting a lot of support from local resources. They're getting a lot of support in Afghanistan, and they're getting a lot of support in Pakistan. In other words, there's no one place as there had been with Saudi Arabia in the 1990s to provide this kind of financial help. It's now much more dispersed, much more dispersed, much more localized, much more pluralistic, a part of the fragmented world indeed.
And as a consequence of this, you can destroy one particular source of al-Qaeda financial support. You certainly will not destroy it all. In fact, you can probably destroy only a small part of it. So my answer is they don't need much. And what they're getting now is pluralized and fragmented and dispersed. It's very, very difficult to track down these sources of al-Qaeda or other terrorist-related to al-Qaeda sources for money.
AUDIENCE: What do you see as Obama's options in terms of Afghanistan?
WALTER LAFEBER: Yeah, I think he has several. Let me say what I think he's going to try to avoid. And I could be entirely wrong. I mean, historians are still trying to figure out the causes of the American Civil War. So I don't have any business telling you what President Obama is going to do next month. Being a Cubs fan is good for humility.
But what I don't think he's going to do is-- I would be very surprised if he increased the US military commitment up to and certainly beyond the 40,000 that has been asked by the Pentagon. I believe that he would not do this in part because this puts him about where, say, President Kennedy was in Vietnam in the early 1960s. You increase the troop level in order to meet the military demands and to try to maintain a status quo or better.
And instead, what you find is you've been sucked into a situation which you cannot control but which is claiming ever-higher casualties. And the care with which Obama is doing this, I mean, it's quite unusual for a decision like this to be made over this period of time, particularly as the situation is getting worse and worse-- I mean, it's getting very critical. I would be surprised if he did this.
I think what he could well do is to keep the US military pretty well at its present levels, maybe increase it 10,000 to 20,000 but nothing like the military and the Pentagon would like. And then to station many of these troops in urban areas simply so the United States would have a presence in Afghanistan. I think it would be extremely dangerous if he did it. But I don't see given the commitment where he has anything much better to choose from.
This would essentially be the kind of policy that some people were suggesting in Vietnam in the early 1970s. It was then disavowed. But Afghanistan, for all the comparisons with Vietnam, is very different than Vietnam-- very different than Vietnam in so many ways. And I think in this case, it would at least give Obama a way of getting through the next year or two trying to provide some kind of security while he worked out a deal with the Taliban.
If you're going to negotiate with the Taliban, what you want to negotiate with the Taliban about is making sure that they will not support al-Qaeda. If you're going to support the Taliban, you've got to have some leverage. And you don't get leverage by withdrawing US forces. That's the problem he's got. If you're going to make your forces effective, you're probably going to have to put more in.
If you're going to put more in, you've got to make sure-- and I'm sure why they're taking two weeks to a month to try to work this thing through. You've got to reach the perfect balance where you have enough leverage but not too much where you are essentially sucked into a deteriorating situation and lose control over it. My guess is that's what he's going to do. And it's going to be essentially a policy trying to create the leverage for negotiations with the Taliban.
Now, where this leaves Karzai, I'm not sure. Karzai and his brother obviously get along very, very well in different kinds of situations. And my guess is that they could probably survive this, or they have enough money to live rather well in Paris if it's over with. What we do know is, if you're going to negotiate this, you're not going to negotiate on the basis of the Karzai government.
I mean, this is a highly corrupt government. I would recommend that if you want to get some insight into this, one of the best and quickest places is to look at the resignation letter of Matthew Hoh, Matt Hoh, the US Foreign Service officer who resigned about 10 days ago. A person who was a distinguished Marine in two tours in Iraq and then joined the Foreign Service, the State Department, and essentially headed one of the State Department's departmental embassies in Afghanistan.
And when he resigned, immediately he was seen as so valuable that Ambassador Holbrooke immediately asked him to reconsider and come on Holbrooke staff. And Matt Hoh declined. In his letter of resignation, Hoh makes several really interesting points. He makes them quite eloquently. And one of the points he makes is that, as a former Marine, he is not about to support any policy which will claim more American lives in a situation where he thinks there's not going to be any good result for the United States.
And then another part of the letter, he directly attacks the whole idea that we've been debating over the last year or two, which is, if you pull out from Afghanistan, if you make a deal with the Taliban, what kind of assurances are you going to get that what you're really concerned about, al-Qaeda, will be blocked out of Afghanistan?
And the way his resignation letter deals with this is interesting. He says that, after all, al-Qaeda-- and this goes back to your point, that al-Qaeda is not just in Afghanistan. It's also in a number of other countries, including East Africa. He mentioned Syria, several other places. He says, if this is the logic of American policy, then are we also going to occupy these countries? Or are we also going to put increased military presence in these countries?
In other words, he's arguing he doesn't think this is the way to do it. And he thinks that the policy in Afghanistan to occupy Afghanistan to make sure that al-Qaeda doesn't get there is all right. But the al-Qaeda is something like mercury. And as you hit it in one place, it slides over to other places. He doesn't use that analogy I did, but that's essentially what he's arguing.
As I said in the talk, there's been, since the fall of 2001, the argument that invading countries to get at stateless terrorists, as one person said, is like drunk looking for the money he lost underneath the street lamp. He looks underneath the street lamp because that's where the light is. But he lost the money a block away.
And that's essentially what the United States, these critics say, has been doing. We're going after terrorists, but we're going after them in Iraq, which had no ties to al-Qaeda as President Bush admitted in the fall of 2004. And now in Afghanistan, we've got to work through the same kind of problem. And this is, I think, what Matt Hoh's letter points up very graphically and, I think, very eloquently. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Do you think there's a role for the United States currently to support our position to the government in Iran given what's going on this week? And we haven't done very much in that in some ways.
WALTER LAFEBER: No-- well, we have. We've done it over the years. And we've done it in some places pretty successfully. But where we've done it was in places like Guatemala, which is not contemporary Iran. We actually did do it in around in 1953, '54. We overturned an elected government and put the Shah back in power because that elected government was raising all kinds of fundamental questions about US policy in the Middle East. It also had won its election with 99% of the vote.
And President Eisenhower said that any government that won with 99% of the vote must be a communist government. And so he set about overthrowing the Iranian government. There's been a lot of regret about that. It led to the restoration of the Shah. And then he overthrew the Shah in 1979.
I go through all of this because, to answer your question, we've had a very mixed story of success in trying to set up governments that we prefer over the old governments or to ensure that they will cooperate with us. In places like Guatemala, we did this. We did it pretty easily in 1953, 1954.
The Guatemalan government has been a good ally of the United States ever since 1953, '54, particularly in the 1980s when there were Central American revolutions. The Guatemalans could always be depended on to cooperate with us. The Guatemalans also have the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere over the last 50 years. It's a brutalized society. It's very closely tied to us.
And Latin Americans see us as tied. I mean, if you travel through Central America and you talk to people down there, they believe that much of the brutality in Guatemala is simply winked at by the United States. That's the price you pay when you install a government that cooperates with you but essentially maintains itself this way.
When you start talking about replacing governments, the United States has not been all that successful in replacing governments with governments which will cooperate with us, last a while, and have values that we have. Now having said that, I'm sure that there's some evidence of this that the CIA and other US intelligence sources, as active as they possibly can be in Iran-- it's difficult to be active in Iran actually. But I think they're doing it doing everything they can.
What's also interesting here is the whole relationship of Iran to Iraq. When you think about this, the United States removed Iran's number one enemy in 2003, Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis and the Iranians had fought a war in the 1990s with a million casualties over eight years. And we moved in and essentially removed that threat to the Iranians.
And we not only helped the Iranians that way. We've also turned around and removed their number two enemy, which were the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Iranians were surrounded by enemies. And we've taken care of that for them. They must be rather confused about what the United States is really all about.
Now, that's another way of saying-- and I think that what I talked about in the lecture that Iranian approach to the United States in May of 2003 when they said, let's talk. We've got things to talk about. I think what I've just described to you indicates that there's many more common interests between the United States and Iran that we think-- at first glance, that there are.
They have been an enemy of the United States since 1979. We have not recognized them. Obama has said, we want to talk to you. Clearly, Obama, I mean, it seems to me during the campaign but after as well, has really thought seriously about informal recognition of the Iranians. I mean, the whole downplaying of democracy, the way he's approached the idea of democracy and recognition, it seems to me is essentially a setup for some kind of dealing with the Iranians.
But the problem, the major obstacle to that-- and it's an all consuming obstacle-- is the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian nuclear program, which the United States is dead set against, and which our number one ally in the Middle East, Israel, is also dead set against and sees it essentially as a mortal threat. There's got to be some kind of resolution to this.
And I'm not sure that CIA operations in Iran are going to have any effect on this at all. Or any attempt to replace the Iranian government is quixotic, I mean, quite clearly. This is an issue that has to be resolved diplomatically. And it might have to be resolved militarily. Yes.
AUDIENCE: To what extent do you think the nuclear weapons in Pakistan, the instability in Pakistan, interacts with our policy in Afghanistan?
WALTER LAFEBER: Yes. How much does the instability in Pakistan affect our policy in Afghanistan? I didn't talk about that.
AUDIENCE: And the nuclear weapons.
WALTER LAFEBER: And the nuclear weapons particularly. I didn't talk about that simply because of time. And it's a lecture in and of itself obviously. What's interesting to me is that Obama has been dealing with Afghanistan and trying to keep Pakistan as much on the sideline as possible. This is a very difficult thing to do for all kinds of reasons.
But one of the things that's going on-- and there are several things going on in Pakistan-- one of them is that the Pakistani army, apparently for the first time, is taking seriously the problems in the northwest. They've just launched in the last 48 hours major attacks in Waziristan. And they're going after it finally it seems. They're going after the terrorists, including al-Qaeda, in that area, particularly since the elements in that area have come into Pakistan and have, in the last week or two as we've seen on television, killed a number of people in several different cities in Pakistan.
So on the one hand, the Pakistani army seems finally to have responded. How far that army will go I think is very problematic. We know that the army, but particularly the Pakistani Secret Service, the ISI, have had historic and close ties with the elements in northwest Pakistan.
How much the Pakistani army is attacking to settle some scores and to please the United States, but they're going to stop short of clearing the area? We'll have to wait and see. But this is encouraging that the Pakistani army really for the first time has been rather effective in destabilizing some of the elements.
The second thing, I think, to note about this is that the Pakistani government the Zardari government, he is the husband of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. She was one of the major leaders of Pakistan and one of the great hopes I think until her assassination a couple of years ago.
Zardari, as the president, is in deep trouble. Yesterday, the elements of the military and the legislature indicated that they do not want him around anymore. He is highly corrupt. He is a person who is not trusted by a lot of the political factions in Pakistan. But he happens to be the president. How you're going to maintain stability in Pakistan is a major question.
What I think the Obama administration hopes is its ability lasts long enough until the Northwest is cleared or at least quasi-cleared and stabilized. But what interests me is how Pakistan has become much less important to the United States over the last six months, why we've put more and more focus on dealing with the Taliban inside Afghanistan. That's where al-Qaeda has to be taken care of too, in Afghanistan, sort of detached from this relationship with Pakistan.
I'll take one more question. Then time for lunch. Yes.
AUDIENCE: To what extent do you think the military-industrial relation in this country affects the foreign policy? I guess I mean by that is seeing that there is many, many more people now reported as being support personnel required for the military operations-- and this leads to a variety of other activities and generates money. To what extent is that influencing foreign policy?
WALTER LAFEBER: As I understand it, the question is, what is the nature of the present military-industrial complex and how does it shape US foreign policy? One of the most interesting developments in the last 10 years in American foreign policy has been the appearance of these private firms. Blackwater is the best known.
And the dependence of the US military on these firms in a way that most of us who have vague memories of World War II or Korea or even Vietnam have never seen before. We're increasingly dependent upon these private firms. They're actually more employees of these private firms in Iraq than there were of US soldiers in Iraq by 2006, 2007. And despite Blackwater's problems, they're still heavily involved, heavily present in Iraq.
We depend on them for all kinds of security, even the security of US embassies, even the security and the maintenance provision of food of some US military bases. This is new in American history as far as I know. We have really privatized this anti-terrorist war. And as a result, we've lost some control over it.
As congressional hearings and newspaper revelations have told us, sometimes these people really do get out of control. They have killed a number, particularly several episodes, a number of Iraqis. The Iraqis responded very badly to this. And there were then congressional hearings about this whole relationship between the private firms who are providing so much of the security and the maintenance and the US military effort.
One of the interesting things to me was that when the head of Blackwater was called before congressional committees, his major lawyer was a Cornell graduate, class of 1977, who is one of the most active members in the top level of the Democratic Party. I thought that it would be somebody who was considerably more conservative. But it wasn't. It's very difficult, in other words, to categorize these people sometimes, or these groups.
But to deal with the second part of your question, does this affect American foreign policy directly or the formulation of American foreign policy, I don't think so. I think that these groups have essentially been used. They have been used for very specific purposes. And sometimes they've gone beyond that and caused deep embarrassment to the United States, particularly in Iraq.
But they do not make US foreign policy. And I think that Obama and President Bush did not make decisions to go into-- I can't speak for Vice President Cheney. He might have thought otherwise. But Bush and Obama, I think, have been defining these issues in such a way that they have thought of it in macro terms. That they have thought of it in terms of overall relationships of American foreign policy, which is the way they ought to think about it.
And this particular military-industrial complex, although it can have a lot to do with the formation of a defense budget, it can have an awful lot to do with the implementation of these policies in places like Iraq or even Afghanistan. I think they've had minimal influence in the shaping of the overall foreign policy. Thank you very, very much.
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Walt LaFeber discusses the post-Cold War world in which the new Obama administration has found itself, the most important foreign policies which President Obama as a presidential candidate discussed, and how President Obama has handled those policies--especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the international economy.