Stephen M. Walt

Time to get tough?

Although I voted for him with enthusiasm and was delighted when he won, I’ve tried to maintain a critical stance towards the Obama administration’s efforts so far. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been critical of their approach to AfPak, ambivalent about their Middle East policy, troubled by the backsliding on torture and ...

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GRAND JUNCTION, CO - AUGUST 15: President Barack Obama whipes his brow while holding a health care town hall meeting in the Central High School gym on August 15, 2009 in Grand Junction, Colorado. The event was part of his swing through through three western states promoting his health care reform proposals as well as visiting national parks. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Although I voted for him with enthusiasm and was delighted when he won, I’ve tried to maintain a critical stance towards the Obama administration’s efforts so far. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been critical of their approach to AfPak, ambivalent about their Middle East policy, troubled by the backsliding on torture and indefinite detentions, and concerned that they were trying to do way too much too soon. But I’ve also tried to cut them some slack, knowing that they inherited an economy in free fall and a set of intractable foreign policy problems. Even a great president and a competent team would find it difficult to work instantaneous miracles, especially in a political system that has many veto points and was designed to make far-reaching change difficult to impossible.

That said, I am starting to wonder. In particular, I think Obama is going to have to pick an issue and demonstrate that there is a price to pay for thwarting him. Not every opponent is amenable to sweet reason and calm deliberation, and adversaries abroad –and at home — need to understand that the President can be tough too. Like the early Bill Clinton, so far he’s been better at punishing supporters (e.g., Van Jones, Charles Freeman) than opponents.

So I keep thinking about Ronald Reagan’s decision to go after the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) back in 1981. When the union went out on strike over demands for better pay and working conditions, thereby violating a federal law barring walkouts by federal employees, Reagan ordered them back to work and fired any members who didn’t comply. In fact, he barred the strikers from further federal employment (a ban he later rescinded), while the administration improvised a replacement system that kept the airplanes flying. Whatever the merits of Reagan’s action, it showed he could play hardball and it made him appear to be a decisive leader who wasn’t afraid to go to the mat.

Bottom line: Obama and his team need to pick a fight with someone and win, so that both rivals and fence-sitters recognize that foot-dragging, malicious distortion, etc., are not without costs and risks. But one word of advice: a war with Iran is not the sort of fight I have in mind.

John Moore/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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