Streetwise Professor

April 14, 2015

Obama the Negotiator at Home and Abroad: Compare and Contrast

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:56 pm

We know that Obama knows how to play tough in negotiations. We know that he can engage in brinksmanship. We know he can draw red lines, and stick to them. Just look at past confrontations with Congressional Republicans, especially over budgetary issues, the debt ceiling, and Obamacare.

This contrasts starkly with his abysmal negotiating strategies with foreign adversaries. The unilateral concessions, by the bagful. The failure to extract any meaningful concessions from his interlocutors. The declaration of red lines, followed by at most mewling protests when the lines are crossed.

The Iran negotiations are of course the most prominent example. But consider the opening to Cuba. Indeed, it is really impossible to consider this a negotiation at all. Instead. Obama has just unilaterally undone a set of restrictions that have been in place for years, including today’s removal of Cuba from the State Department’s terror supporting nations list.

And Cuba has done what in return? Bupkis.

Whatever you think about the embargo and the terrorism list designation, we have issues with Cuba, notably its expanded cooperation with Russia (which last year Newsweek called “Partying like it’s 1962“), including the reopening of the Lourdes surveillance facility: note, that the Cold War is not over for everyone. To ease up on Cuba at the very same time it is increasing its cooperation with an aggressive and truculent Russia is astounding. Human rights is another issue.

So we have things that we should want from Cuba, and the means to extract them. Cuba is in dire economic straits, especially since its most recent patron, Venezuela, is circling the bowl at mach speed. So the US has leverage, just as it does with Iran. And the costs to the US of continuing the embargo are trivial. Threats to walk away-or to increase the pressure-are quite credible. There is a huge asymmetry in bargaining power here.

You know how Obama would play this hand with Republicans. We see how he plays it with the Castros and Khamenei. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to play hard ball: It’s that he doesn’t want to.

The question is why? I keep returning to the theory that he  believes that the exercise of American power abroad is illegitimate, and that in the cases of countries like Iran and Cuba, he actually believes that the US owes redress for past transgressions.

If you all have a better theory, I’d like to hear it. But your theory has to explain why a man who can be so obdurate in negotiations at home is so pliable-to put it mildly-in negotiations abroad.

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  1. Perhaps this is what he meant when he told Mevedev he would have more flexibilty after his election?

    Comment by Mudak — April 14, 2015 @ 7:18 pm


    Comment by Mudak — April 14, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

  3. @Mudak-Funny you should mention that. No more than 30 minutes ago I brought up that episode an email with someone, in a discussion of Obama’s pliability and disingenuousness.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 14, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

  4. You see similar behavior in corporations from the greasy-pole climbers: shit on those below you, arselick those above you, in order to advance your career. Obama never cared about governance of the USA, he thinks that is small potatoes beneath somebody like him, so he treats it with contempt. He is more interested in strutting the global stage and trying to get his name in the history books as some kind of grand, global statesman who managed to untie the Gordian knots that he believes his predecessors – lacking his intelligence – have been unable to tackle. He’s your bog-standard, over-ambitious career man. The problem is that being President of the USA still wasn’t enough. He believes he is entitled to a grander legacy.

    Comment by Tim Newman — April 14, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

  5. @Tim, then what is Obama’s next act? He has a good 10-20 years ahead of him, and nobody has won the Nobel prize twice.

    Comment by Scott — April 15, 2015 @ 12:41 am

  6. Look how he negotiates with international friends Israel just look. Germany, taps Merkles phone. France snubs the Hebdo massacre. He is a narcissist no other description fits better.

    Comment by Peter Whale — April 15, 2015 @ 12:57 am

  7. @SWP– imo, the domestic/foreign constrast is due to the capabiliities of his affiliates- in which he places enormous power compared to most leaders. Harry Reid is a tough and nasty negotiator, and that is why Obamacare and debt ceiling ended the way they did. John Kerry as a negotiator (and intellect) is as stiff as a bean bag-and that is why we have Iran and Cuba and soon Venesezula at the dinner table.

    Obama has a long history of delegating his efforts– and not being involved directly in the mission. Obamcare – his biggest legacy, does not have his fingerprints on it anywhere. From Chicago community organizing to the Russian reset.. the list goes on and on. He is busy playing golf, basketball and adoring himeself in the mirror. Affilates do the work, he does the pontificating.

    The liberal democratic bench for diplomats is grossly deficient in aptitude. Maybe Leon Panetta could wring some concessions from Iran, same with Rahm Emanuel, but the bench is so shallow for defense to had to hire the cross-dresser Chuck Hagel. No democrats even applied for the job. Perhaps somebody can name a non-adademic democrat with foreign policy experience and some backbone.

    Comment by Scott — April 15, 2015 @ 1:02 am

  8. Tim, then what is Obama’s next act?

    Decades of meddling from the sidelines in the same vein as Carter, I imagine. Or Michelle running in 2020/24.

    Comment by Tim Newman — April 15, 2015 @ 3:13 am

  9. Obama is an academic at best. He is an approval seeker. He succeeded at getting the “right” answer on tests. In the real world, the “right” answer may not be the “correct” answer and it may not be knowable. He basically takes the “right” answer from the types of folk one sees in the academy and other “establishment” institutions (press, celebrities, the like minded super-rich). Yet he also doesn’t want to offend certain parts of the electorate that he knows reasonably well. Thus the flip flop on same sex marriage between 2008 & 2012.

    This explains why he cannot bring himself to either approve or reject Keystone XL. Celebrities and much of the left hate it; mainstream is mixed but nuanced. Yet he knows that people can get very upset over even higher gasoline prices or disruption in supplies. There are building trades & refinery workers (but not as reliably Democrat nor in blue states).

    But I think you have to question Obama’s negotiating skills in either domestic or international. And approval seekers are often very poor negotiators.

    That said, your hypothesis is most likely correct. But it can also be explained by incompetence and also not being willing to take a stand (approval seeker tendency – they don’t know the “right” answer and kick the can down the road).

    That said, while I am no fan of Obama, I am hard pressed to understand why we should take such a huge role in the world. I tend to find a lot of wisdom in the Taft Republicans. I am also more a believer in Realpolitik and many of these issues are outside of our real interests.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — April 15, 2015 @ 6:36 am

  10. Thanks for the comments, all. Very thoughtful. Gives me a lot to chew over.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 15, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

  11. While it’s true that Holbrooke was the last Democrat prominent in foreign affairs whom one could imagine engaging in hardball but persistent negotiations with an adversary, I think SWP has hit on the core issue.

    Comment by srp — April 16, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

  12. SWP:

    And now Putin threatens France over warships. Where will Obama stand? With France? With Russia?

    Obama will probably stand aside.

    VP VP

    Comment by Vlad — April 16, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

  13. You’re wrong in one thing.
    “We want things from Cuba” – but that “we” does not include Obama and his gang. He is on schizophrenicly on both sides of the table: technically on ours, mentally – on Cuban

    Comment by ETat — April 17, 2015 @ 6:06 am

  14. I think he could be very successful in the teleprompter industry.

    His confidence in halting global warming and sea level rise is apparent in paying so so much money for his estate right on the beach in Oahu. That took courage.

    Comment by pahoben — April 17, 2015 @ 8:17 am

  15. @ETat. You are right. I should have been more specific about the meaning of “we.” (This reminds me of the punch line to the old joke: “What do you mean we, Kimosabe?”)

    Though perhaps imprecisely phrased, I did try to convey the idea that Obama is definitely sympathetic with Cuba and Iran, and hostile to the US.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 17, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  16. You made me look up words – on a Sunday morning! The learning never ends…

    You did [convey, that is] – but you keep thinking Obama&Co fundamentally share our common American values. They don’t. I know it’s a difficult premise, mentally, for a normal American – to accept that a President of United States is, at the core, an enemy of America.

    Comment by ETat — April 19, 2015 @ 5:59 am

  17. Good thing he is also incompetent or we would really be screwed.

    Comment by pahoben — April 21, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

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