Commentary: Obama faces a hostile world

Special to McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2012 

The second Obama Administration faces a series of foreign policy challenges from war to hunger to terrorism to trade and aid. From the South China Sea to Somalia to Mali to Nigeria to Venezuela the usual culprits are at play: nationalism, ethnic hatred, religious zeal, overpopulation, climate change, pandemic disease, hunger, water, greed, and lust for power.

I’ve written often about such challenges – war in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, terrorists in Pakistan, refugees and drought and tsunamis for newspapers and magazines over 30 years as a correspondent.

When I entered government in 2003, I learned that many bureaucrats and political appointees see the enemy as the rival U.S. government agencies – not Osama bin Laden and his ilk, hunger or other conflict. Instead, the people who have the chance to change things and solve world problems are more concerned with getting rival agencies kicked off the podium at ribbon cuttings. Defense, State, USAID and Treasury all claimed to run U.S. foreign policy. Some two dozen other U.S. agencies have staff in U.S. embassies abroad: Trade, Drug Enforcement, Health, Commerce, Justice, Immigration, Labor and more.

One agency chief told me, when I mentioned all the in-fighting going on: “Ben – We are in an imperial capital and the knives are always out.”

But being inside government for a number of years made me understand that you cannot simply use the obvious solution to solve foreign policy issues. If you fight for human rights it undermines U.S. business groups that sell abroad. If you condemn cruel dictators, it turns out that they supply rare earths or petroleum or assist U.S. policy in conflict zones.

So it’s "back off buster" before you get to first base.

Well, I’m taking this moment to get back in everyone’s face and make a few obvious proposals to solve America’s major foreign policy problems – especially those expected to hit critical mass in the coming months.

  • North Korea needs ping-pong therapy. The U.S. default position of making hollow threats simply has no effect. Back in the depths of the Cold War, when China was really red and scary, U.S. and Chinese ping-pong teams played each other. It humanized both sides to the other. Can’t be total monsters if they can slice and leap after the featherweight white ball on the limits of the green table. And if they get aced, no one pulls out a nuke or a knife to get even. We learned that even the deadly inscrutable Red Chinese are able to follow the rules of the game. Today, for better and for worse, they are our economic partners.

    Let’s start a similar outreach to the North Koreans. They are cruel masters over a suffering population. And they know we know how they operate. So let’s give the rhetoric of blame a break and challenge them to a few games of ping pong. Nothing else has worked.

  • Israel needs to reach short term solutions with the Palestinians, especially with the West Bankers whose quiet progress in security, farming, construction and other economic advances is overshadowed by the flagrant rocket rattling of Hamas. If the West Bank’s success were better known, few Palestinians and their militant supporters in the Muslim world would join the blustering of Hamas amid the ruins of Gaza.

    To move ahead, Israel needs to remove internal checkpoints between West Bank cities and stop all settlement expansion. It should seek full annexation of the narrow band of neighborhoods along the old 1967 border, the Green Line, and offer equal land areas in exchange. Israel should ease access by Palestinian farmers and manufacturers to Israeli ports for exports to the lucrative European market. In the past, trucks laden with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers from Jordan Valley hothouses have rotted while waiting for permits to enter Israel and reach the ports. Goodwill breeds good will.

  • The South China Sea is a vast region with fisheries, petroleum and vital sea lanes linking Japan to the Middle East. But China claims it all, even though most of it is closer to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. Chinese military boats have faced off against Vietnamese and Philippine craft. Obama has announced a “pivot” away from the toxic Middle East towards Asia. He plans to shift 60 percent of our ships there, post 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Australia and he visited Thailand, Burma and Cambodia on his first trip one week after re-election.

    But, he needs to find out how to reinforce U.S. ties to Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia without poking a finger in the eye of China. Beijing needs to agree on a set of multilateral rules to work out conflicts in the Sea. The United States must find out how to do this and what concessions China will demand in return. It’s too late for ping-pong here. Maybe joint outer space ventures, global warming talks, or cooperation on developing Africa and other needy regions would engage both sides in constructive ways.

  • Russia remains Russia. Vladimir Putin clamps down on dissent, declares all foreign-backed human rights and aid groups “foreign agents”, jails opposition leaders and amasses total power over media, commerce, resources, and local and federal government bodies. It reminds one of Stalin and the Tzars. But who will bell that cat? Our foreign aid programs helped ex-communist Russia learn to operate a capitalist system. But then the oligarchs and former KGB around Putin cleverly eviscerated the economic and political heart of Russia.

    Today, our aid taints those we assist. We need to launder our aid through international groups such as the Red Cross, World Bank, EU and the United Nations. And the grey shadowy concern about missiles and nuclear weapons must remain in the shadows, especially since Putin dropped out of the Nunn-Lugar system of recycling and safeguarding excess weapons fuel. Despite the nationalistic, chest-thumping value of nukes, Russians will soon discover they are costly, rapidly outdated, corroding, at risk of theft and serve no purpose.

  • Northern Mali was taken over in April by al Qaida-linked terrorists armed with weapons ransacked from Libya after Gadhafi’s downfall. Anti-terrorism training of Malian troops by the U.S. Africa Command failed to prevent the al Qaida takeover. What is needed now is to press neighboring West African nations to supply troops to rescue the north and shut down the new jihadi camps in the Sahara filling with radical Algerians, Nigerians, Taliban, etc., preparing a new wave of terrorism. U.S. support should include intelligence, vehicles, fuel, food and uniforms - possibly, air power, and cash as well. But no U.S. boots on the ground to avoid the whiff of colonialism. And U.S., French, Nigerian and other parties must work with Morocco which defeated the Polisario Saharan rebels by building a wall of sand and stone topped with electronic motion sensors to alert its jet fighters to attack anyone crossing that berm in the desert.

  • Governments in Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries, face an onslaught of religiously-inspired militants ready to blow up churches and temples full of those they consider crusaders, apostates, idol-worshippers, blasphemers, and heretics. Basically, all who disagree with them. When these terror groups threaten U.S. targets, we are swift to launch drones and training teams and even lethal weapons assistance. But we can never totally extirpate such people – they have sown terror since time began. The challenge is to not turn the entire globe into a free fire zone that looks a lot like Gaza did last week.

    We learned in Cuba that all our efforts proved unable to dislodge Castro. In Venezuela, a similar standoff remains in effect. Perhaps the best we can accomplish in the coming months is to try a more live-and-let-live policy. Maybe even ping pong.

  • Finally, Iran where the rush to enrich uranium is leading inevitably to attaining the capacity to construct a nuclear bomb. No one believes the program is meant for civilian power and medical use only. With enrichment centrifuges in a deep bunker, any attempt by Israel to destroy them would require heavier bunker-buster bombs (only the U.S. has them) and possibly a commando squad. The response by Iran could include striking U.S. military targets in the Persian Gulf, drawing us into another Middle East war. Sanctions are having an economic effect. But as long as the Tehran government has a tight grip on all means of media and security forces and can suppress all opposition, it is likely to survive the sanctions and go nuclear. A peaceful resolution of this would require exceptional statecraft. Or a revolution inside Iran.

    Foreign policy challenges on a broader and longer scale include: slowing the population explosion so the planet reaches equilibrium of deaths and births at far less than the worst prediction of 15 billion people in 2075; providing food and medicine for everyone; creating jobs for the millions of Americans made jobless by Chinese labor; halting the cutting of forests and burning of coal and other fuels that are melting the polar ice and raising sea levels; and finding a way to deal with the inexorable flow of migrants from the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America to the wealthy nations of North America and Europe.

    Mr. Obama – good luck. It may be time to practice ping pong and other confidence-building measures to bypass some of the ossified discussions that have failed so far to resolve some of the challenges listed above.


    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in early 2013 by He can be reached at

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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