Shadow Government

How to win friends and influence enemies

By Peter Feaver So far, I have seen more continuity than change in President Obama’s national security policy, but that does not mean I am blind to any change whatsoever. And even marginal changes can have some significant implications down the line (change the bearing of an aircraft carrier 1 degree and then check back ...

By Peter Feaver

So far, I have seen more continuity than change in President Obama’s national security policy, but that does not mean I am blind to any change whatsoever. And even marginal changes can have some significant implications down the line (change the bearing of an aircraft carrier 1 degree and then check back in on it in a few weeks of steaming and you will see what I mean).

It is with that spirit that I have been thinking about the Obama team’s Pakistan policy and their diplomatic approach thereto. Obama came to office believing that we had far more leverage over the behavior of the Pakistan government than President Bush had been wielding. Under Bush, according to Obama, Pakistan had enjoyed something of a free ride — a blank check given in the form of unconditional support for Musharraf. Not surprisingly, unpressed, Pakistan had consistently under-delivered. Bush insiders might agree that Pakistan had under-delivered, whether in terms of information about the A.Q. Khan network or vigorous action against the Taliban, but the Bush administration generally subscribed to the "get more flies with honey" maxim, at least in public dealings with Pakistan.

Thus, I was struck by Secretary Clinton’s comment that Pakistan’s leaders were "abdicating" to the Taliban. I don’t necessarily disagree with her analysis, but I am surprised to see it stated so publicly and so, well, undiplomatically. She is a very careful speaker, so I assume this was a deliberate ramping up of public pressure on the Pakistani leadership. It is not quite brass-knuckles diplomacy, but it is heading in that direction. (Put it this way: if Rumsfeld can be endlessly pilloried for one solitary stray comment about "old Europe," can you imagine how he would have been savaged for such rough treatment of a strategic partner as vital as Pakistan?)

I think this is a more systematic difference in diplomatic approach extending well beyond Pakistan. It fairly describes, I believe, the slight tonal difference between Bush and Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan and, perhaps more stridently, on Israel. In each case, Obama or his key advisors appear to believe that the United States was not demanding enough when it came to dealing with these partners.

Curiously, it is paired with an entirely opposite yet apposite contrast regarding how to deal with major international troublemakers, such as Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran. Here, the Bush administration approach tended to be from the "call a spade a spade" school of candor, whereas Obama is squarely in "get more flies with honey" mode.

The point here is not that one team is diplomatic and the other team is not, nor even that one team is sweet while the other is tart. Rather, the point is that the Obama team appears to believe that wherever Bush was sweet, he should have been more tart, and vice versa. These are not huge differences, but for such nuances do diplomats wrestle and squirm.

Yet the acid test of such diplomacy is not whether it makes the striped-pants-set squirm, but rather whether it will work. If the Obama team is basically right, and the United States had far more leverage over Pakistani behavior than was effectively wielded, and if they are right again that public rough stuff will get Pakistan more on side, we should see the results soon enough. And if they are right about the greater efficacy of sweet-talking Iran, that should bear fruit fairly soon, too. If not, this could start to look like a mild symptom of Anything But Bush syndrome — not fatal, but not likely to lead to complete health either.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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