Daniel W. Drezner

What can soft power do for you?

A few days ago Gideon Rachman had a sharp column in the Financial Times about the limits to Barack Obama’s "soft power" approach:  Mr Bush had a shoe thrown at him in his last appearance in the Middle East. So if Mr Obama receives his customary standing ovation in Cairo, that will send a powerful ...

A few days ago Gideon Rachman had a sharp column in the Financial Times about the limits to Barack Obama’s "soft power" approach

Mr Bush had a shoe thrown at him in his last appearance in the Middle East. So if Mr Obama receives his customary standing ovation in Cairo, that will send a powerful symbolic message. But the president should not let the applause go to his head. Even if his speech is a success, the same foreign-policy problems will be sitting in his in-tray when he gets back to the Oval Office – and they will be just as dangerous as before….

The president’s charisma and rhetorical skill are real diplomatic assets. If Mr Obama can deploy them to improve America’s image and influence around the world, that is all to the good. There is nothing wrong with trying to re-build American “soft power”.

The danger is more subtle. It is that President Yes-we-can has raised exaggerated hopes about the pay-off from engagement and diplomacy. In the coming months it will become increasingly obvious that soft power also has its limits.

I don’t disagree with much of what Rachman says here, but there’s a sin of omission that is worth pointing out.  One of the advantages of Barack Obama’s popularity is pretty plain — he gets to say things that, in another man’s voice, would sound unbelievably arrogant. 

For exhibit A, let’s stroll over to Tom Friedman’s column today, which Friedman petty much outsources to Obama himself: 

“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”

A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”

There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.

“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”

Now, imagine that George W. Bush had said the exact same things to Friedman a year ago (not that much of a stretch, actually).  He would have been crucified for delivering such a high-handed, arrogant, imperious lecture.  Obama, apparently, can get away with it — if he could, I bet Obama’s advance team would have a workplace-safety sign behind him at the upcoming Cairo speech saying, "This is the 134th day that the Obama administration has not invaded an Arab country.  Keep it up!" 

Obama was surprisingly blunt with Friedman about why he can get away with it: 

"What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.”

Similarly, the president said that if he is asking German or French leaders to help more in Afghanistan or Pakistan, “it doesn’t hurt if I have credibility with the German and French people. They will still be constrained with budgets and internal politics, but it makes it easier.”

Part of America’s “battle against terrorist extremists involves changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruit from,” he added. “And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”

One last thought — I don’t disagree all that much with Obama’s diagnosis of the region, but it does suggest an important political problem.  Most Middle Eastern states have very little incentive to work towards a two-state solution.  Within many Arab countries, domestic resentment can be channeled into anger at the Israelis and symbolic support for the Palestinians.  Why would governments in the region want to turn off that very useful spigot? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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