The Two Obamas
It's too early to call the U.S. president a foreign-policy failure. But he does need to figure out what kind of global leader he wants to be.
More than 18 months into his presidency, Barack Obama has yet to bank a significant foreign-policy success. Surveying policy toward Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, my blogging colleague Stephen Walt has scored the Obama administration oh-for-four. Politically, that's right -- and that's a big problem. But that doesn't mean the president has been doing the wrong thing, unless the right thing is simply whatever works in the polls. I would argue that the lesson of Obama's tenure to date is not so much, "The policy isn't working" as, "It's even harder than you thought."
More than 18 months into his presidency, Barack Obama has yet to bank a significant foreign-policy success. Surveying policy toward Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, my blogging colleague Stephen Walt has scored the Obama administration oh-for-four. Politically, that’s right — and that’s a big problem. But that doesn’t mean the president has been doing the wrong thing, unless the right thing is simply whatever works in the polls. I would argue that the lesson of Obama’s tenure to date is not so much, "The policy isn’t working" as, "It’s even harder than you thought."
This is the season of diminished expectations. Obama’s speech on Iraq this week was designed to highlight what is now deemed his greatest foreign-policy success to date — pulling U.S. troops out according to schedule. The speech was so painfully modest that at its rhetorical apex, when Obama uttered that stern presidential phrase, "make no mistake," he went on to vow not that the United States would stay the course until victory was gained, but rather that "Our commitment in Iraq is changing — from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." The great achievement was not leaving Iraq a better place, but simply leaving it. I think, unlike Walt (but like Walt’s fellow blogger, Marc Lynch), that the Obama administration has handled Iraq about as deftly as possible, but that is in large part because the administration has recognized that it must let Iraqis make their own mistakes in the hope that they will ultimately muddle through. Policymakers have wisely husbanded their limited political capital. So far, of course, Iraqi leaders have not been muddling through, but rather fiddling while their country burns. (The White House may need to take a more active role, but Iraq is now facing a political problem that only its own politicians can solve.)
Obama has gotten it right in Iraq by trying to do less; if the president has gotten it wrong in Afghanistan, which increasingly seems to be the case, it’s because he passed up the "do less" option advanced by Vice President Joe Biden and others in favor of the full-bore counterinsurgency option that his generals insisted would work. The advocates of "do more" believed that a focused application of military force and civilian effort could change the political dynamic inside Afghanistan and do so quickly enough that U.S. forces would be able to begin withdrawing by mid-2011. So far, that looks wrong. Here the lesson is: Even with virtually unlimited force and money at its disposal, the United States cannot confer legitimacy upon a government viewed as illegitimate by its own citizens. (Good morning, Vietnam!)
Is there a pattern here? Does this administration succeed when it is modest, and err when it expects, and promises, more than can in fact be produced by the instruments of American power? It’s a surprising thought: From the time of the campaign, Obama offered himself as a cautious figure, in the mold of Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, aware of the limits of American power, as George W. Bush decidedly was not. He knew that nations have conflicting interests, that American values cannot simply be imposed or transfused, that history conditions people’s expectations — and that past experience had conditioned many people, especially in the Middle East, to fear and resent the United States. He recognized the inherent intransigence of things. As he said in his much-admired June 2009 address in Cairo "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust."
That is one side of Barack Obama. But there is another side, a deeply hopeful and visionary side that holds out the possibility of transformative change. Obama has long believed that by virtue of his identity, history, and voice, he has the unique capacity to redeem America’s reputation in the world. Millions of Americans, and people all over the world, came to share this remarkable faith. Obama deployed this aspiration to great effect in the Cairo speech, in which he said that his conviction that the breach between Islam and the West could be overcome was in part "rooted in my own experience" as a Christian from a Kenyan family, an American with Muslim roots, a man who himself bridged those worlds. The tremendous enthusiasm that initially greeted the speech, in the Middle East and beyond, seemed to confirm that view.
That excitement already feels like a distant memory. Although the speech succeeded in raising America’s standing in the Islamic world, it had virtually no effect on policy. Policy is made by regimes, and regimes in the region were not swayed by Obama’s proffer of a new policy of "mutual interest and mutual respect." Moderate states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have taken no further steps to press for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pocketed Obama’s impassioned defense of his country’s right to exist and continued to pursue a policy Obama viewed as obstructive. The regime in Tehran brushed off Obama’s Nowruz message of peace and continued its pursuit of nuclear capacity. And with the absence of progress on major issues, public opinion in the Islamic world has slumped, though not to Bush-era levels.
If the Middle East is a physics problem, Obama fully recognized the inertia of the object, but exaggerated the force his lever could produce. Like Bush, Obama believed that there was something in himself — a very different something, to be sure — that would break the stalemates of years past. Bush arguably deepened those stalemates. Obama has not done that; in the case of Iran, he deserves credit for assembling a coalition of states prepared to impose sanctions, and for giving Tehran no pretext to forge a closing of ranks against the meddlesome outsider. America’s face, its voice, its tone, do matter — but less than Obama, and those around him, and those rooting for him, believed. The single biggest reason Middle Eastern publics cite for anger at the United States is American support for Israel. But the one public completely unmoved by the Cairo speech was the Israeli one. Obama has less leverage in Israel than Bush had because he has pushed Israel so much harder than Bush did. Obama demanded an end to settlements; Israel pushed back. The ongoing stalemate has virtually killed off the "new beginning" Obama promised in the Cairo speech.
Obama’s charisma has been a dwindling force, both at home and abroad. That has been a painful lesson for the White House. Still, we shouldn’t mistake a transitory judgment for a final one. Obama has always been more patient than his critics. He stuck to his line of attack when he was being dismissed as roadkill in 2007. He prolonged the debate over Afghanistan when critics were ridiculing him for indecision. On his core issue of nuclear nonproliferation, he has played a very deliberate game, laying down a foundation of small but significant achievements in what he views as a generational project. Politics, of course, has a much shorter and less forgiving time frame, and if voters harshly punish the Democrats this November, Obama’s failure to deliver quick wins might jeopardize his ability to achieve his long-term goals. But would we wish Obama to, say, threaten to invade Iran to prove his toughness to wavering independents? Would we want him to court voters as shamelessly as, say, John McCain? Not me.
The power to inspire others matters, in statecraft as in politics. But patience, persistence, and clarity of judgment — those virtues Obama admires in hard-shell realists like Baker and Scowcroft — ultimately carry the day. For this reason, I would say that the Obama story has not yet been written. It is too early to fill in the score card.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
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