Obama stumbles: A chilling week in which we forget that engagement is a tactic not a goal…

Like any new president, Barack Obama has stumbled as he grappled with the learning curve associated with the world’s most demanding job. Given the range of issues with which he was confronted from his first day in office, it has only been fair that he should be not be judged too quickly and that his ...

584638_090619_roth2.jpg
584638_090619_roth2.jpg

Like any new president, Barack Obama has stumbled as he grappled with the learning curve associated with the world's most demanding job. Given the range of issues with which he was confronted from his first day in office, it has only been fair that he should be not be judged too quickly and that his ideas and his team had time to take root and grow. In some areas, he has achieved notable success, such as his efforts to improve America's image in the world and his effort to move quickly to respond to the economic crisis.  In others, such as the efforts to restart the auto industry or make meaningful changes in the regulation of the financial sector, the jury is out. As for real health care reform and meaningful steps to combat climate change, the key legislation is still being shaped, the key votes months away.

But as this week comes to an end, I think it is fair to say that Obama's foreign policy has suffered its first major failure, one that may haunt it for a long time to come. As those of you who have been reading this blog for the past few days know, I've been grappling with the issue of the administration's response...or lack thereof...to Iran's stolen election and the opposition's efforts to contest the results in the streets. Because I see the merits in stopping and evaluating a situation before responding. And I understand the reasons to maintain an open dialogue with the regime in Tehran. 

Like any new president, Barack Obama has stumbled as he grappled with the learning curve associated with the world’s most demanding job. Given the range of issues with which he was confronted from his first day in office, it has only been fair that he should be not be judged too quickly and that his ideas and his team had time to take root and grow. In some areas, he has achieved notable success, such as his efforts to improve America’s image in the world and his effort to move quickly to respond to the economic crisis.  In others, such as the efforts to restart the auto industry or make meaningful changes in the regulation of the financial sector, the jury is out. As for real health care reform and meaningful steps to combat climate change, the key legislation is still being shaped, the key votes months away.

But as this week comes to an end, I think it is fair to say that Obama’s foreign policy has suffered its first major failure, one that may haunt it for a long time to come. As those of you who have been reading this blog for the past few days know, I’ve been grappling with the issue of the administration’s response…or lack thereof…to Iran’s stolen election and the opposition’s efforts to contest the results in the streets. Because I see the merits in stopping and evaluating a situation before responding. And I understand the reasons to maintain an open dialogue with the regime in Tehran. 

But as each day of the week has gone by, America’s silence seems less defensible. Do we really intend to engage the current regime as if nothing had happened? Do we really believe it is useful to send a message that America doesn’t care any longer, won’t act, won’t speak out, won’t penalize or criticize or seek to pressure those who compromise or crush democracy? 

The administration seems to be saying that we can’t afford ill will from anyone, even countries whose regimes denounce us and our allies. They seem to be worried that by supporting the opposition they will be tainted by association with us rather than empowered by it. And they seem to be saying that they can’t think of any approaches better than their silence to advance our interests.

Why? Because multilateral diplomacy is so difficult? Britain, France, and Germany have all made stronger statements, we could have made one together? Why? Because the Chinas of this world would never go along with our statements because it puts them in a difficult light? The statement could have come from western powers alone. We don’t need unanimity in matters like this. We need a forceful message that countries that violate the basic rights of their citizens should expect to pay a price for such behavior in the international community. Those who rise up in those countries should also know that the international community or a substantial portion of it will work tirelessly to support them to make the risks they are taking worthwhile.

We can seek engagement without checking our values at the door.   Indeed, to do otherwise is to make engagement pointless. Why engage if it is not to advance our interests? How naïve it is to think that won’t involve challenging, offending, even battling those with whom we are engaged.  That doesn’t mean our battles must be wars or produce the needless rifts of the Bush years. 

But we must ask, in our silence did we send a message to Ayatollah Khamenei that might make he and his cronies feel more comfortable in using violence to suppress the pro-Democracy protestors? In our weak response to Kim Jong Il do we send a message that he may proceed with his nuclear and missile provocations effectively unchecked? In our desire to undo the damage of the Bush years by reaching out to former enemies, do we strengthen those who we should seek to weaken, tolerate the intolerable, fail to take action where action is called for?

I’m afraid the answer is yes. We are back on our heels. This does not make the world safer or conflict any less likely. Quite the contrary. Bush debased American leadership with his actions. Obama should remember that it is just as possible to do so through inaction.

There are many things this administration could have and should have said that would not undercut that which is sound in their foreign policy. They could have said… ideally in chorus with our allies… that the international community was disturbed by apparent irregularities, that any recount or investigation should be made by objective observers, that the suppression of peaceful protests would be viewed with great concern, that Iran would jeopardize its talks with the international community if it undertook violence or condoned voter fraud, that nuclear weapons agreements depend on trust and that countries that seek such trust must act accordingly, that while we seek to maintain engagement, there are limits to what we will tolerate and that we reserve all our options to advance our interests. They could have convened a meeting among like-minded countries to discuss options, sent an envoy, formally postponed further discussions of the nuclear issue until this situation was clarified. They could have raised a doubt in the minds of the leaders in Tehran about how we would react in the face of a crackdown, that there might be consequences.

If all this would make the Chinese uncomfortable because they might fear they could be accused of similar indifference to the rights of their citizens, well, that’s too bad. It’s a message they too need to hear. Capitulation to them on every issue simply because they are big (and yes, I am talking to you, Google management) creates terrible precedents and invites further bad acts. 

Is the vision a world in which engagement becomes the ultimate objective of all foreign relations? Just as critics once rightly reminded the Bush administration that terror was not an enemy it was a tactic, so is it worth remembering that engagement is also just a tactic and not a goal in and of itself? While we should sacrifice to preserve our core values and interests, we should not sacrifice those values and interests to preserve our tactics.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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