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Obama's World

Let’s face it. America’s foreign policy is hardly healthier than its economy. Of course, jobs and taxes still dominate the politics of the day. Republicans will likely be running election campaigns on those matters. But, as foreign policy comes into focus more and more, Democrats may seek refuge from Barack Obama’s grand strategy and its consequences--or lack thereof. For, right now, Obama’s frustrated foreign policy is little more than aimlessness.

His biggest decision to date has been Afghanistan. During the campaign, Obama spoke repeatedly (and in contrast to his words on Iraq) of the battle there as the good war--a bit unconvinced himself, as his lengthy review of his war policy revealed, and certainly not convincing to many of his enthusiasts. But Afghanistan is the war on which the Democrats campaigned. And it is the war that the president has now escalated, with the newly launched offensive in Helmand province that has already resulted in the effective capture of the Taliban stronghold of Marja.

Yet, even in his West Point address last December, Obama clung awkwardly to his ambivalence about the commitment he was making, promising to begin a drawdown of troops in 18 months. In other words, he enshrined his ambivalence into his policy. Or, as war correspondent Dexter Filkins writes in this issue (“The American Awakening,” page 23), “The president announced an escalation and a de-escalation in the same speech. You have the resources now, he seemed to say, but your time is short. ... But the fact remains that with those crucial sentences, Obama bared his intentions, and even his soul. ... [I]t is difficult to imagine that the Taliban--and the Pakistanis--have not concluded that the Americans will soon be gone.” If the president holds to these deadlines, we will be no closer to our goals than when we began. Thus, we hope he listens to the advice of Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, who have counseled against premature departure.

Now find a globe and twirl it. It is hard to find examples of greater support for American goals. Start with Beijing and count the moves it has made to cut the United States down to size. Not just the demeaning modalities it stagemanaged for Obama’s visit to the People’s Republic, when the president was treated like the visiting head of a trade delegation, but also the more substantive slights. Toning down our criticisms of China’s human rights record and economic policies has gained us very little. From its obstinate refusal to consider sanctioning Iran to its brazen efforts to sabotage climate negotiations in Copenhagen, China has increasingly been flexing its muscles at our expense.

Turn the globe west to Moscow, and you will find a more modulated version of the Chinese stratagems. Peter Rutland of Wesleyan University argues that Obama’s “reset” has actually misfired. Every time President Dmitri Medvedev has hinted that his government might lend us a hand, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stepped forward to gleefully crush these prospects. Even after a celebrated agreement allowing American troops and supplies into Afghanistan through Russian airspace, Moscow has reportedly only allowed a small trickle of flights.

Move your fingers south toward Tehran. It is there that Obama’s foreign policy frustrations are most apparent. Determined to engage, the president initially refrained from loudly criticizing the dictatorship’s savagery against its own people-and the dictatorship reciprocated with open disdain and mendacity at the negotiating table. Now the embarrassed administration seems to be getting serious about sanctions--but they are a long shot and much time has been wasted. And then, put the palm of your hand over Africa, where there are concentrated a series of political and humanitarian cataclysms that we would have thought might exercise the president’s liberal constituencies, if not the president himself. Alas, not. To Sudan, Obama has dispatched a solicitous envoy who seems bent on conciliation with the country’s rulers. It is a blinkered strategy that suggests a gangster government can commit genocide (twice!) and still be offered “carrots” by the world’s superpower. Meanwhile, the human rights emergencies in Congo and Zimbabwe have been all but ignored.

As for Obama’s grand foreign policy project--peace between Israel and the Palestinians--it has gone exactly nowhere. He has struck an adversarial tone with the Israelis in hopes of winning over the Palestinians. But his strategy has flopped so badly that it has merely left Mahmoud Abbas stranded. The president has also fallen into the trap set for all American presidents: the 1967 lines, which are actually the 1949 intermediate armistice lines, defined in the truce agreements as nothing but temporary. Pointing this out is not pedantry: Peace cannot be made by pretending that the wars never happened, or that the wars never changed anything permanently. In any case, borders are not the real issue. The fact is that there are two Palestines now. One of them, in Gaza, is explicitly committed to the destruction of the Jewish state--and is a grim portent of what could happen within an independent Palestine. The other, in the West Bank, is partially committed to coexistence and afraid to act in a moderate way. Will Obama ever recognize this?

After a year of the Obama presidency, these reservations about its foreign policy are not ideological--they are empirical. The thrust of Obama’s strategy has been to rebuild U.S. credibility and create space for cooperation on our key priorities. But evidence of such success has yet to materialize. Obama acted on his dream and, thus far, has failed. Nobody likes to have his dream refuted by reality; but it is time for the reality-based community to act reality-based. We await this president’s learning curve.