Obama's Biggest Challenge: Foreign Policy Revanchism

I run a small technology company in Seattle, and will normally focus my HuffPosts on business, culture, and technology. As we absorb the meaning of Barack Obama's election, however, I will launch my inaugural post with some thoughts on his biggest challenge as president: which will be facing down the coming assault from the revanchist, hard-right base of the Republican Party.

Swept from power and nursing deep wounds, loosened from the responsibility of governing and free to attack without any consideration for coalition-building or compromise, the surviving Republican members of Congress, in alliance with their media allies and their geographically insulated bases of support in the nether regions of the nation, will do their best to make Obama's life miserable. And let's not fool ourselves. The politics of falsely righteous Republican anger and contempt we witnessed throughout the presidential campaign will increase in intensity in 2009.

The Republican base is like a three-legged stool, drawing support from social (values-driven) conservatives; economic (free-market) libertarians; and militaristic (nationalistic) neoconservatives. Let's focus on the foreign policy neocons, those who led us down the bloody road to Iraq and who, like Sauron separated from his ring of power, will seek with great urgency to undermine and weaken those who stand between them and a return to the unilateralism of a hegemonic power.

Obama's foreign policy will begin with the assumption of a multilateral global arena in which the United States plays a leadership role based on alliances and diplomacy. Hardened, cynical views of international relationships - in China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, to name four examples - will challenge Obama's commitment to multilateral diplomacy. Nonetheless, in dealing with foreign leaders, Obama will have two assets on which to draw: his personal charm - which is so important in cultivating trusted relationships among leaders - and a willingness to leverage the influence of other countries, in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, in achieving tangible policy victories with respect to nuclear proliferation, global warming, and Islamic radicalism.

Obama's major challenges therefore will not come from abroad, but from home, where a steady drumbeat of revanchist criticism from the right, and blasted through media organs such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, as well as from Congressional firebrands in the Republican Party, will make his path from a military-first doctrine to a diplomacy-first approach like dancing across a bed of hot coals.

For now, Obama can bask in the glow of admiration from right-wing pundits such as William Kristol, George Will and Charles Krauthammer who respect his intelligence and political skills. For a sample of the savaging he can expect to receive in the days following his inauguration, we might do better to sample Daniel Henninger in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, Oliver North on Fox News, and John Bolton at the American Enterprise Institute.

Neoconservatives voice an ideology based on two self-reinforcing principles. The first is their belief in American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is not "like" other nations, that we are superior by virtue of our history and our values. The second is that with the end of the Cold War, the world will plunge into chaos without strong, active directives from the United States. Let's be clear. Directives are not leadership. They are more like military orders, in this case supported by the global projection of American military power throughout the world.

As Chalmers Johnson observed presciently in Blowback, first published in 2000, the territorial projection of US military power - with more than 700 US military installations housing nearly one million troops, dependants, contractors, spies, in more than 130 other nations around the world - creates local resentments and reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy of "enemies at our doorstep." The obvious costs of these deployments aside - both financial and political - we are dancing with the the Devil for more troubling reasons that Obama may only with difficulty be able to address.

The policy of force projection and maintenance of a global military infrastructure depends upon: 1) a web of payments and quid pro quos with non-elected leaders of other nations; 2) a commitment to secrecy and the absence of meaningful oversight and transparency; and 3) a reliance upon covert activity, spying, secret missions, and subterfuge (note revelations of the order permitting secret raids on Al-Qaeda around the globe, in nations such as Pakistan, Syria, and Somalia).

We need a foreign policy for the 21st century. Obama's success in transforming US foreign policy into a tool of constructive, meaningful engagement with other nations depends upon his ability to rebuild shattered relationships upon a new foundation of open communication, outreach, trust, and accountability. To build a foreign policy for the 21st century, Obama can draw upon the success and methods of his own political campaign, which used new technologies and means of communication already widespread around the world to reach and speak directly to individual Americans.

The problem Obama will face is in dismantling the structural outposts of our dated 20th century foreign policy driven by the strategy of force projection and a global military infrastructure. Our economy in great measure depend on this stimulus - let's call it "military welfare". Our concept of national security - both psychological and physical - also depends upon this policy, with its insinuating values of strength and of a proactive, global state of military readiness to address threats that by definition this policy frames as "us" against "them".

Let's be absolutely clear. Obama will need to draw upon all the reassuring calm he inspires to shift our sense of the world from one in which threat predominates to one in which opportunities for constructive relationships abound. He must adopt his superhero identity of Ocalma and resist what will surely be a strong impulse from White House advisers and Congressional allies to not appear "weak" when tested, not simply by foreign foes but by shrieking adversaries from the Republican right. Above all, he must work, slowly perhaps, but also steadily and with determination, to dismantle the global military web of bases and policies that have themselves been the source of anger and resentment contributing to our national insecurity.