Stephen M. Walt

Some good news for a change — that you can believe in

Some good news for a change — that you can believe in

I’m jetlagged in Geneva, but I spent part of the flight over thinking about thee bits of seemingly good news:

1. The pro-Western March 14 coalition won a clear victory in the Lebanese election, a promising step towards more enduring stability in that deeply-divided country.

2. The Iranian presidential election campaign has turned into a real dogfight between incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. Although recent polls in Iran suggest that Ahmadinjed will still win, Mousavi seems to be gaining ground and there may well be a run-off. Even if Mousavi loses, there’s clearly a lot of popular disconnect with Ahmadinejad’s rule, and a lot of it centers around his bizarrely self-defeating approach to foreign policy. (Side note: is there any other major world figure who has done as much public relations damage to his own country’s image and interests? Nominations welcome). Moreover, there seems to be widespread popular support for improving relations with the United States.

3. The New York Times reports that some Pakistani villagers are turning against the Taliban, and may even be supporting the government’s more active role against them.

It would be a mistake to give Barack all (or even most) of the credit for these developments, but I don’t think its completely unrelated either. (Juan Cole agrees, see here). By striking a fundamentally different tone towards all three countries (and the Arab/Muslim world in general), Obama hasn’t made reflexive anti-Americanism go away. But he has made it a less potent political weapon, so leaders like Ahmadinejad or Sheik Nasrallah don’t reap the same domestic benefits from America-bashing. (Even Republicans should recognize that Bush and Cheney were nearly-ideal bogeymen; heck, even GOP candidates in the last election did their best to pretend they didn’t know them.) It’s also possible that Pakistan’s government decided to take a more assertive stance against the Taliban after President Zardari got a rather chilly reception up on Capitol Hill, where several key members suggested that they weren’t going to shell out endless billions to a government that continued to play footsie with Mullah Omar and his associates. The key lesson: if the United States stops trying to do everything itself, sometimes others will start addressing common problems because it is in their interest to do so too.  

Matt Yglesias is right: elections in most countries turn on local conditions and issues and not on what’s happening in Washington. But it sure looks like Obama’s approach is helping tip the scale in the right direction. Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey used to say that “luck is the residue of design.” If Obama has been getting “lucky” the past week or so, maybe that suggests that his foreign policy design is better suited to contemporary world conditions than that of his predecessor.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images