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Will Obama’s Failed Foreign Policies Hurt the Democrats? | Conversations in the Digital Age

Will Obama’s Failed Foreign Policies Hurt the Democrats? | Conversations in the Digital Age


♪ [Theme Music] ♪>>>JIM ZIRIN: Hi there. I’m Jim
Zirin. Welcome back to more Conversations in the Digital
Age. With us is an old friend Jim Lindsay. Jim Lindsay is a
senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and his
specialty is the relationship between domestic politics
and foreign policy. He is director of studies. Jim
we’re delighted to welcome you back. This is been such an
eventful week and certainly with the looming 2016
presidential elections it becomes all the more important.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
Certainly does. Well thank you for having me back
Jim. Glad to be here. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Now Jim. We
witnessed the performance at the UN General
Assembly. The inconclusive and I think brusque
meeting between Obama and Putin. And then the
announcement to the United States on one hour’s
notice that the Russians were going to start bombing
in Syria. Now what does all this bode for American foreign
policy in the Middle East?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
Nothing good Jim. It’s an extra complicating factor in an
already very complicated and difficult situation. And indeed
one of the things we’ve seen right away is what the Russians
are saying is the reason for their activity doesn’t match
up with what they’re doing. The Russians have argued that
they need to enter and attack ISIS but what
they’re actually getting is going after elements
opposed to the government of Bashar Assad in Syria.>>>JIM ZIRIN: So they’re helping
to prop up Assad along with their coalition of
Iraq and Iran.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
Exactly right. And here’s the problem. You now have the
potential of unintentional conflict between U.S.
forces and Russian forces in Syria because as you
noted, the Russians went in and started operating without
notifying the United States. They haven’t provided
where they’re going to go. And it makes a very dicey
situation. It also creates an additional complication Jim,
which is it could lead to actually strengthen the arm of
ISIS. That is having, we might call it the moderate
elements, we call it the non ISIS elements, opposed
to the government of Syria deciding that the West
can’t help them and hence driving them to align
with the Islamic state. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Now the Russians
appeared of scrupulously avoided bombing in the
eastern part of the country, which would be ISIS enclaves
and Secretary Kerry said, well we were ready to
accelerate. The United States was ready to accelerate
bombing ISIS. Why haven’t we done that a long time ago?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY- Well
we have been bombing ISIS targets. The problem is
that air power, while important, it is not definitive. It
can’t turn the tide. The hope is that the United
States could, using it since its allies are friends and
proxies, on the ground be able to turn back the
Islamic State. They’ve had some successes but they haven’t
obviously been able to overturn Islamist State control in Syria
and Iraq. It’s a very difficult problem. I don’t think
anyone should sort of escape that reality. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Obama’s UN
speech, he repeated what he said many times before,
which is Assad must go. That he’s lost his legitimacy.
But former ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill,
differs with that. He says, perhaps our intelligence was
flawed. That Assad has hung in there for four years. Yes
he’s had the support of others from the outside
but he’s there. Possession is nine points of the law so why
do we make the elimination of Assad the cornerstone of
U.S. policy in Syria?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well,
I think it’s one of the questions the United
States really has to address. Does it make sense to continue
the policy of desiring Assad’s departure? I mean, I
think to sort of go back one of the issues that happened is
that we wished his departure but didn’t provide
the means to make it happen. And so now he is there and the
obviously the complicating factor with the strength of
the Islamic State if you succeeded in toppling the
government of Mr. Assad, what would replace it?
Would it be able to stand up to the Islam State? Or
would you end up making a very bad problem a lot
worse? And there are a lot of arguments that can go
back and forth on that score and again Russia’s entry into
this issue by trying to prop up the Syrian government as an
additional complicating factor.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Well it creates
the possibility of two possible outcomes in Syria. None of
them terribly palatable. One that ISIS is in
control of the country. And the other is that Russia
is in control of the country. They have a naval base I think
in Tartus. It’s been within their sphere of influence.
They have troops on the ground. They’re bombing the opposition
to Assad and now neither of those outcomes is palatable
to the United States is it?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
Neither one is desirable. I think that’s important to keep
in mind. I wouldn’t quite say that the Russians will
end up controlling Syria. I think the more likely
outcome, or the one we have right now, is different
parts of Syria are controlled by different groups. Obviously
Islamic State controls a good portion of the, I guess
the northeastern portion of Syria where as the
government of Assad controls eastern Syria in
the areas around Damascus. But it’s a very unpleasant
situation. And again the Russian entry greatly
complicates it. I think the question for U.S. policy is
given sort of this mix of undesirable outcomes,
which is the one that you can most live with? In essence,
which is the lesser of the evils. And also the question
of what sort of leverage do we have to be able to change
what’s there on the ground and I think, you know, the
events of the last 15 years I think it communicated to
American foreign policy elites that what we want and what we
can accomplish are two different things. And
that our levers to sort of change the facts on the
ground are quite limited. And one of the constraining
factors for any American action whether it’s
this president or the successor president is to what
extent are you willing to expend American military power. Not
just air power but combat troops on the ground to try
to change what’s there and I think one of the constraints
is very little appetite in this country to send
American troops in large numbers back
on the ground. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Been
there done that. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Exactly
right. >>>JIM ZIRIN: So what do
you see, given the fact that we have an empty
holster, what do you see as the best outcome
for the United States? >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: I
think probably the best outcome for the United
States is to try to find some sort of negotiated
solution that puts us in a position in which, rather
than working against the Russians, there’s more
common cause. Obviously there’s going to have to
be more support for anti Islamic State forces on
the ground but it’s very difficult to do that.
Again you know we’ve had this policy of trying
to train Syrians to go against the Islamic State
and I think it’s safe to say that that strategy so
far has been a failure. The problem is how do
you make it succeed? >>>JIM ZIRIN: Any kind of
negotiated solution would of necessity involve
Russia would it not? >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Exactly
right. >>>JIM ZIRIN: And how can
we possibly negotiate with the Russians and take the
position that Assad must go?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
That’s where something has to give, one way or the
other. And again that’s the nature of diplomacy.
Sometimes you have to choose what your
priorities are and you may have to sacrifice some
goals. And I think that’s the real challenge for
the White House. It was so categorical about Mr.
Assad having to go and it’s very hard to
for a president or administration to walk
back from that. And there are a variety of ways
you can get around that. Perhaps you have a
reshuffling at the top of the Syrian government, maybe the
Russians would be open to that, but again we’re in a position
in which what we want and what we can do don’t
align very well.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Now do you see
the situation as it exists now as of major foreign policy
defeat for President Obama?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: I
wouldn’t, I wouldn’t call it a defeat but it’s certainly
a problem. I mean if you look out. You pick up the
newspaper, you see this issue day in and day out and
we haven’t seem to be able to generate a policy
that works. And it has big spillover effects. As we’ve
seen the last month or two large numbers of refugees
moving out of the Middle East particularly from Syria but not
only from Syria going into the European Union this has
caused major problems within the E.U., which is
already suffering from a variety of other ailments,
many related to the inability to overcome
their debt crises and get the economy going. And
it’s really pulling big strains on the European
Union. The United States has a vested interest in
seeing the European Union succeed for a lot of
reasons, not the least of the importance of the E.U.
in the global economy and this is creating a lot of
challenges but again the problem is it’s easy to
identify the issues, to provide a diagnosis. The
challenge is coming up with a prescription
that can work. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Well, let’s morph
ahead to November of 2016. Let’s assume that the situation
hasn’t materially change, that wee have an intractable
situation on the ground. We have Russian military
presence. That the opposition to Assad is being degraded by
Russian bombs as well as Iranian activity and ISIS and
we’re asked to take in ourselves 100,000 Syrian
refugees as well as the influx in Europe, which is
causing a right wing that backlash. How do you
see all this parade of horrible as impacting
the 2016 election? >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
let’s look at more broadly and I would sort of say
the following and that is, well I think foreign policy
issues, whether we’re talking about Syrian refugees
or Russian behavior in Ukraine, or Iran, or what’s happening
in East Asia, I would say generally foreign policy
will matter to voters much more than it will matter
to the ultimate vote. And I mean that
for the following reason; American elections, presidential
elections, generally rise and fall with domestic issues.
There’s no reason to believe that that won’t be the case
in 2016. If you look at poll numbers right now clearly the
American public is most concerned about
domestic issues. >>>JIM ZIRIN: But of course
immigration is a domestic issue.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well,
then you get into the question whether immigration is
domestic or foreign policy and we can come back to that but
obviously there is a sizable group of Americans,
probably around a 1/3 right now, for whom issues of
immigration, foreign policy, terrorism in particular, are
sort of their top priority. But as it turns out it’s really
Republican voters who are most concerned about those
issues, national security is higher up their list of
must do’s then it is for Democrats, so the question
is from the vantage point of the impact on the vote
is, is foreign policy, or our foreign policy issues,
likely to move people from supporting one party to
the other. And right now it doesn’t look that way
but obviously things can change. We are more than a
year out from the election. And if you’ve seen over the
last 6 months, let alone the last 12 months, a lot
of things we weren’t expecting can all of the sudden
end up on the political agenda.>>>JIM ZIRIN: But of course
foreign policy is absolutely vital issue insofar as our
national security is concerned. And let’s look across the
spectrum of this field of candidates and one of the
interesting things is that the qualities and elements
that go into a person that make them a successful candidate
are not necessarily relevant to whether they’re going to
be good at statecraft or foreign policy.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY- Oh
you’re exactly right. I mean campaigning and governing
are two different things Jim. Campaigning is about visions
and promises. Governing is about decisions, choices and
decisions. And that’s why in many cases when people
succeed in getting into the White House as the president
they discover they wish they hadn’t said some things
when they are candidates.>>>JIM ZIRIN: What should
voters look for in the various candidates to see whether or
not but be good at statecraft?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
That’s a great question and it’s I think a very hard one to
answer. I mean, obviously when the American public looks a
president they’re judging a presidential candidate on
lots of different dimensions. They’re interested in is this
person someone they can see leading the country?
Is it someone that they think has the right
temperament for doing so? I think that’s important.
Americans are probably interested in wanting
to know what a candidate knows about the world. I
don’t think the vote, the average voter is
interested in establishing whether a candidate knows a
lot about foreign policy. I think what average
voters are looking for is do they know enough. Can you
envision the president when he sitting behind the desk in
the Oval Office being able to handle that proverbial 3
A.M. in the morning phone call and knowing what to do. And
again it’s very hard to know beforehand who’s going
to do well at that job because I’m not sure
that any past set of experiences train someone
for just the rafted issues that end up coming
to the Oval Office. >>>JIM ZIRIN: And also
judgment is an important factor isn’t it? How do
we assess the judgment a candidate is going to have
should they be successful and go into the
Oval Office? >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: I
don’t know if I can say that but I think judgment along
with temperament are really sort of the two greatest
characteristics in successful presidents but it’s very hard
beforehand to know who’s going to have it. I mean,
if you go back in American history, if you were to look
at candidates who looked to be totally prepared to be
president, perhaps one of the best would’ve been a gentleman
named Herbert Hoover who coming in to the office
in 1929 seemed to be the poster child for an incredibly
accomplished president. As we all know his presidency
didn’t turn out terribly well. On the other hand I
think a lot of people when Harry Truman became president
back in 1945 would have said he didn’t have what it
took and he was treated almost like an accidental
choice to be vice president. But he had a very successful
presidency so it can be very difficult beforehand to
know who’s going to do really well and who isn’t.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Moving forward
to the modern era, I mean, who have been the successful
presidents in foreign policy?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well,
if you were to ask me to list my top presidents of
the sort of post 1945 era I would put George H.W. Bush at
the top of my list I think.>>>JIM ZIRIN: He had a lot
of relevant experience. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: He had a
lot of relevant experience. He had great judgment. I think
he surrounded himself with superb set of advisors.
If you think back to who was his advisors; General Scowcroft,
Secretary of State Jim Baker, very, very accomplished people
and I think what’s really interesting about to George
H.W. Bush’s presidency is that he had a number of
challenges that he succeeded at; the Gulf War I think obviously
won but I think we tend to forget how successful he was
in managing the collapse of the Soviet Union. And
we tend to think of it as almost natural for it to turnout the
way it did. I don’t think it was. And it was an incredible
amount of deft diplomacy that I think paid off really
well that we have a Europe now that is whole and peaceful.
Obviously have an issue in Ukraine. Talk about
Russian behavior before. But I think if I were to sort
of pick one president from the last fifty years it would
be George H.W. Bush.>>>JIM ZIRIN: OK. Using
him as a model let’s look at the Republican
candidates who appeared in the debates. Let’s start
with Carly Fiorina. No foreign policy experience
that’s discernable. She wants to rebuild the Sixth
Fleet and reinstitute the missile defense program
in Poland and aggressive military exercises in the
Balts, the Baltic States, more troops in Germany. I
mean how do you assess her program?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
I would step back a second and say looking at most
of the candidates on both sides of the ledger they
have very little in the way of traditional foreign
policy experience. And indeed those candidates
that do you have foreign policy experience it’s
really on the Republican side are actually doing
fairly poorly in the polling at least at this stage, that
course can change. I mean, I think when you look at the
program that you’re talking about that Ms. Fiorina has put
forward. That was really should her steps in terms of how
she would deal with the possibility of Russian
aggression and pressure in Eastern Europe. I mean, some
of those things obviously make sense. The United States
I think does need to spend more on its defense.
Carly can disagree with that. On other aspects Ms.
Fiorina has said that she would not speak with Mr. Putin. I
think I can understand the appeal is making that claim
on the campaign trail but I think given the nature of
the issues we face and the fact that Russia is a player,
whether we like it or not, it’s hard to see how you
can sustain a “we’re not going to talk to
Mr. Putin strategy.” >>>JIM ZIRIN: OK. Senator
Ted Cruz. He wants to rip up the Iran deal the
day he’s in office. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well,
he’s not the only one who wants to do that Jim.
Obviously when you look at the candidates there’s a
division between the two parties over whether the
Iran deal is good or not. I think you’ll see the
Democratic candidates arguing that the Iran
nuclear deal is in the best interest of the country and
indeed Democratic senators came and rallied to the White
House’s side on that issue. And I think within the
Republican Party there’s a division not on whether the Iran
nuclear deal is good or bad, I think there’s uniformity
that it’s a bad deal. The question is would you
rip it up on day one. Some candidates like Senator
Cruz have said, I would rip it up on day one others like
Governor Christie, John Kasich of Ohio have said that->>>JIM ZIRIN: Rand Paul. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Rand
Paul and they also think Governor Jeb Bush from
Florida have said, let’s hold off for a second- >>>JIM ZIRIN: Not a
strategy to rip up a deal.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
in part because no one knows what the war will
look like on January 20, 2017. Events could be quite different
in what looks like a why step now would be imprudent
then so I think these are the sort of things that are typical
of campaigns. There’s going to be a lot of back and forth on
that score among Republicans about whether it’s better to rip
it up or to wait and see.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Now, you
said that we’re going to cross the whole spectrum.
No one has a great deal of relevant experience but
you would have to concede the both Joe Biden and
Hillary Clinton have considerable foreign
policy experience. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
let me step back. I don’t want to say that most candidates
don’t. I would say on the Republican side a big chunk
of them don’t have a lot to of what we’d call the standard
foreign policy experience but putting that aside->>>JIM ZIRIN: Marco Rubio
was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
for a number of years- >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: John
Kasich was on the Armed Services for eighteen years
so there are some that have. So there is experience but
again many of the candidates on the Republican side haven’t.
I think that, well first, Vice President Biden hasn’t
said he was going to join the race and as we sit here right
now there’s a lot of speculation as to whether he
will or not. Obviously Secretary Clinton has
considerable foreign policy experience both as First Lady,
as senator from the state of New York and as Secretary
of State. And I think that’s one of the attributes that
she makes in the campaign trail and if she becomes the
nominee and during the general campaign would argue that
she has the experience to handle that 3AM phone call
that she’s ready and tested.>>>JIM ZIRIN: What about
the pivot to Asia, which was certainly something that Hillary
Clinton was a part of and Obama sponsored and
the problem of course with the word pivot implies that
you are embracing one interest and objecting another. And Obama
really could be criticized for having too much of a hands
off policy on them with respect to the Middle East. But
has the Pivot to Asia worked as a foreign policy? >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: On
balance yes. And I think that the question that, is
certainly in the region, is are we going to see more of
it in this administration really committed to it and
what will the attitude of the next administration be.
And I think it’s important we talk about the Pivot or
as I think it’s now it’s been rechristened the rebalance
is that it was more than a purely military strategy. I
think the administration made a mistake when it sort of
introduced the Pivot or rebalance to do it by talking
about having twenty four hundred Marines that would
rotate through Darwin in Australia because it sort of
put the focus on the military aspect. I think the big thing
for the administration right now is can it succeed and on
that economic component. I was in Southeast Asia
this summer and talking to various people, it’s very
clear they want the Americans in Asia but they want American
investment, they want American companies, they want to trade
with the United States->>>JIM ZIRIN: They
being China or? – >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well,
they being the Malaysians, the Singaporeans, the ASEAN
countries, Australians and that’s why T.P.P., the
Trans Pacific Partnership, is so important. As we’re
sitting here talking right now U.S. negotiators and other
T.P.P. negotiators are down in Atlanta trying to see if
they can get this agreement across the finish line, it’s
not clear they’re going to, there are a variety of
last minute issues that are really keeping things
from agreement and I think for the administration is if
you can get an agreement on T.P.P. that will be seen in the
region as a major step but then the question is can you
go from having an agreement in principle to one
that the president can get through Congress. And that
can become a very big issue in the next 12 months
of the campaign particularly on the Democratic side of the
table where certain parts of the core constituency
of the Democratic side is very skeptical of
trade agreements. >>>JIM ZIRIN: Because the
Democrats traditionally have been a high tariff
party in order to protect American workers
and the like. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
I think you know from the Democratic side there’s a
disillusionment about what trade can do and the trade
hurts U.S. manufacturing, cost U.S. jobs and again
if you get economists around the table it’s a
much more complicated discussion but I do think
that it’s certain core parts of the Democratic Party are
deeply skeptical about trade. The flip side is that if
you don’t get success on T.P.P., if it falls apart, I think that
will be seen in the region, in Southeast Asia, as a major
failure on the part of the Obama administration.>>>JIM ZIRIN: So do you
think that is going to have some negative fallout for the
Democrats if T.P.P. doesn’t pass? Or is that an
issue that really doesn’t effect voters? The voters seem
to be appealed to on the basis of the social issues.
Planned Parenthood and->>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: Well
I think if you don’t get a deal then it won’t become
an issue on the Democratic side. I think on the Republican
side, Republicans can argue that the president has not
succeeded in advancing our interests but in essence in
purely political terms, in terms of how it effects
the election, if you don’t get a deal on T.P.P. than
trade really won’t be an issue in the campaign.>>>JIM ZIRIN: So I have
a question for you Jim Lindsey; do you expect that the
foreign policy failures of this Obama administration
are going to influence the 2016 presidential election?>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: I
will come back to you Jim and say both the
presidents failures and his successes and which
issues belong in which category are debated
depending upon which party you’re in are going to be
issues that will be talked a lot about, there will be
a lot of counter charges, but I don’t think at the end of
the day they’re going to be pivotal in deciding who takes
office on January 20, 2017.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Won’t be
pivotal in decided so it’s a leap into the future.
Leap of faith into the future.>>>JIM M. LINDSAY- I think
domestic politics was still, at the end of the day, be
what drives the choices that most voters make.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Films about
Planned Parenthood and abortion causes.>>>JAMES M. LINDSAY: But also
jobs, the future of America, who do you want to entrust
with the leadership of the United States over the
next four years.>>>JIM ZIRIN: Jim Lindsay,
thank you for coming by. >>>JAMES M. LINDSAY:
My pleasure Jim. >>>JIM ZIRIN: And thank you for
coming by. Tune in next week for more Conversations
in the Digital Age. Please visit our website
at www.digitalage.org. I’m Jim Zirin. All
the best and take care. ♪ [Theme Music] ♪

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