During his campaign, Barack Obama the candidate played it safe. He gave careful answers in the debates. He didn’t provide detailed foreign policy proposals. He spoke of the need for change, but stressed decisions he made in the past — like voting against the invasion of Iraq — rather than the decisions he planned to make in the future.
As president, Obama may well attempt to steer a middle course on foreign policy. His global affairs brain trust is filled with the usual suspects, including his vice president, Joe Biden, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and retiring Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel. Bipartisanship has been his creed. He has sought to reassure Washington that he is more insider than game-changer.
After the Bush administration’s heavy-handed foreign policy, which alienated many U.S. allies, a period of caution might be welcome. But exercising too much caution, if it translates into maintaining the status quo, would be a profound mistake. The sheer number of grave crises confronting the new president requires a fundamental change in the way that the United States approaches the world.
A global economic crisis will likely throw millions out of work and cast many more into deeper poverty. A climate crisis threatens to disrupt agriculture, trigger massive flooding and wreak other kinds of havoc. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan present the United States with not one, but two quagmires. U.S.-Russian relations teeter on the edge of a new Cold War, Arab-Israeli peace is as elusive as ever, North Korea still clings to its nukes and Africa remains convulsed by wars and disease.
Obama could view these crises as separate and attempt to solve them through the same traditional methods that previous administrations tried and failed. Or he could avoid the safe route and think big.
Thinking big must begin with the Pentagon. By cutting the U.S. defense budget — which, at more than half a trillion dollars, represents nearly half of all global military spending — the new president can immediately find money to address both the economic crisis and climate crisis. A “green” stimulus package financed by Pentagon cuts — achieved by scrapping obsolete weapons systems, eliminating administrative waste and scaling back our overseas bases — could support alternative energy sources. That would reduce our dependence on foreign oil and remove a motive for the country to engage in wars to secure that oil.
One important Pentagon cut would be the woefully expensive and technically challenged Star Wars program. Not only could a green stimulus package potentially derive several billion dollars in funding, but canceling Star Wars would vastly improve U.S. relations with both Russia and China.
By reducing the U.S. military footprint around the world, President Obama will discover that he will have greater standing to resolve previously intractable conflicts in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. By persuading our allies and adversaries alike to follow through with their own cuts in military spending, the president can help create a global green stimulus package. Our greatest crises are global, and they require global responses.
Barack Obama is certainly no stranger to thinking big. After all, he pursued a long-shot campaign to become the first African-American president. And by running for president at such a difficult time in world history, he obviously avoided the safe path of staying in the Senate or carving out a position in the private sector.
Now that he’s won, it’s no time to rest on his laurels and play a cautious, Washington-insider game. The world cheered his victory. The world awaits his bold new plan.
John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.
Distributed by Minuteman Media.