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Is Obama giving away the store?: An answer

| Tuesday, February 10, 2015

After reading Christopher Newton’s Feb. 6 response to my previous column, “Is Obama giving away the store?,” I humorously gather he believes my only success was to give it a clever title. As I read his criticisms of my analysis, however, I notice some weaknesses in his arguments as well.

Newton notes that many of the criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy are, in fact, levied against him “too early to pass judgment.” Yet, it is a direct contradiction to expect a declarative answer as to whether Obama is giving away the store or not. I cannot say yet whether the President’s novel foreign policy moves will impair American interests, and it is premature for Newton to conclude that he hasn’t. The question, at this point, remains rhetorical.

Although Newton’s first point is nominally correct, his effort to display regional knowledge of the Middle East disregards that my reference to al-Qaeda, in good faith, should have been taken to refer to offshoots and other global networks, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In a short piece, I am not afforded print space to give the intricate history between Middle East religious sects and associated militant groups.

When Newton referred to the difference between Hezbollah and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — ideologically opposed and directly fighting each other — as equivalent to confusing AQAP and the Houthi rebels, I recognized that my writing was very misleading in failing to establish that I was referring to the role that AQAP’s ongoing conflict with the Houthis has played in the eventual collapse of the Yemenese government to the Houthi rebels. I apologize for any confusion or consternation that may have caused. More importantly, I should have also mentioned that AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo shooting mentioned later in the article. Given its part in these two major events, my larger claim still stands that al-Qaeda and its affiliates pose a risk about which Americans should stay informed.

Newton indicates he does not believe China’s human rights improvements have occurred due to Western engagement. At a minimum, though, trading with China led to economic reforms that lifted 500 million out of poverty since 1987, according to the World Bank. No one can deny the freedom that escaping poverty provides. Newton’s is a valid opinion, however, considering that beyond economic growth, many basic privileges remain out of reach to the Chinese.

With that said, I posit that in an anarchic international environment, the United States is limited in its options to encourage democratization in China, as well as Saudi Arabia and Cuba. We can hope (with some anecdotal support) that by demanding that products manufactured in China be made according to minimum standards, we can encourage fair labor practices for certain firms. With growing wealth, fair labor in some firms and greater cultural interaction, we may see the growth of democratic ideals in the populace, such as incidents like the recent events in Hong Kong.

Change is slow, and isolation certainly hasn’t proven effective in toppling many authoritarian regimes. Often, isolation, such as the Cuban embargo, harms the poor more than the powerful, and there is a strong moral case against that.

With respect to ISIS, I know that I am not alone in concluding that the President’s “degrade and destroy” campaign seems far from robust. The coalition combatting ISIS doesn’t appear capable of eviscerating the group without greater external support from the international community.

Newton declares that if Iran were to obtain a nuclear bomb, that event and its consequences would constitute abandoning our interests abroad. He asserts that my analysis underestimates the consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb, which is far from the case. I easily grant the fact that a nuclear Iran would comprise a seismic shock to the geopolitical balance and likely set off a series of aftershocks that would leave most of Asia and Europe geopolitically transformed and altogether more precarious.

Rather, we run again into American limitations in our options to counter Iran’s pursuit of a nuke. Considering that the president is currently pursuing a nuclear agreement with Iran, I certainly do not dismiss the value of Iran and the U.S. to each other. In fact, I place the value of the relationship above my fear of Iran’s nuclear potential, hoping that diplomacy will effectively find a road to stable power balance in the Middle East and trusting that the President is making the best decision with the information available.

Lastly, I don’t think it is reasonable to claim that I am overestimating Iran’s “patron-client relationships,” considering Newton’s own statement that Iran funds the Houthis and may have played a large role in undermining Yemen. To hope the United States will convince Iran to use its patron-client relationships to further our Middle East objectives — even with a promise of help against ISIS — seems at least as “wildly optimistic” as my claim about Chinese human rights being tied to economic interplay with the West.

I thank Newton for his input, as positive dialogue furthers our cumulative understanding of complex world politics.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dan Sehlhorst

Dan Sehlhorst is a junior studying economics and political science. Hailing from Troy, Ohio, and a resident of Zahm House, he looks forward to conversation about his columns and can be contacted at dsehlhor@nd.edu

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