The Unintended Deleterious Consequences of Populism

by Ehsan Ahrari on September 27, 2012, No Comments

The growing chatter about America’s impending desire to remain a world hegemon has its roots in the growing confusion inside the country about its foreign policy–more precisely, about its foreign policy toward the Arab world and, to a lesser extent, toward the world of Islam.

Since Barack Obama’s election as president, the issue that has topped the American political agenda has been the global meltdown and America’s management of it. There has been no doubt inside or outside America that the Obama administration’s handling of that obdurate problem would determine whether the world would continue to accept America’s global hegemony. An added variable was that, if Obama were to succeed in finding solutions to the global economic meltdown, he would, in the process, also revive the American economy.

The global economic meltdown is still with us, even though the Obama administration has made palpable strides in resolving a number of economic problems, such as the passage of “Obamacare,” the revival of General Motors, a partial solution of the housing crisis, and keeping the big-banks crisis from further exploding. However, Washington’s major problem is that the US economy has not been as productive in manufacturing jobs in order to keep the unemployment level below 7 percent. According to one report: “Manufacturing lost jobs because manufacturing lost output, and it lost output because its ability to compete in global markets–some manipulated by egregious foreign mercantilist policies, others supported by better national competiveness policies, like lower corporate tax rates–declined significantly. In 2010, 13 of 19 the U.S. manufacturing sectors (employing 55 percent of manufacturing workers) were producing less than they were in 2000, in terms of inflation-adjusted output. Moreover, we assert that the government’s official calculation of manufacturing output growth, and by definition productivity, is significantly overstated. Overall, U.S. manufacturing output actually fell by 11 percent during a period when GDP increased by 17 percent.” (

One can also explain this decline on the basis of one’s ideology. The Republicans are blaming it on Obama’s “lack of leadership” or even “incompetence,” while the democrats are saying that the Obama administration has made considerable strides in improving the economy, but it needs more time to show further progress. This is the essence of the conundrum faced by American voters. Are they to buy the Republicans’ criticism of Obama and vote him out of office, or will they side with the Democrats and give him another four years?

In this intense focus on America’s economic doldrums, the foreign policy of the Obama administration stayed pretty much out of the limelight until the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in his desperation to score points for his sagging poll numbers, started attacking some nuanced aspects of Obama’s foreign policy.

For instance, on the issue of attacking Iran, Romney is willing to give Israel a free hand. That is a no-lose situation if the war between Iran and Israel goes bad, since he holds no official responsibility for the outcome. Second, Romney, quite ignorantly, insists that the United States should establish the rule of behavior for extant governments in the Middle East. Someone forgot to tell him that the United States is no longer dealing with countries in the Middle East headed by spineless rulers of the Cold War years, who would do anything to appease the lone superpower. The new breed of Islamists of the Arab world is increasingly challenging US hegemony. They have pretty much rejected the old “rules of the game,” which governed the great power play in their region–rules that Romney is most familiar with, given his archaic global frame of reference.

Under these circumstances, Obama’s nuanced way of applying economic sanctions on Iran, while keeping open the military option, or his threats to cut off economic assistance to Egypt in order to force it to moderate its foreign policy, will likely generate the least damaging results to US interests.

What the US is faced with inside its domestic arena is the phenomenon of populism that is forcing its top foreign policymakers, not only to oversimplify their country’s foreign policy, but also to create pressure on them to produce results that unrealistically favor the lone superpower. Such results are not likely to surface. In reality, what is likely to happen is that such expectations would only decouple US foreign policy from the changing political realities of the Middle East. Indeed, a perilous development in the short-run. At the same time, this rising phenomenon also promises to both disappoint and frustrate Washington, no matter who is in the White House.