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What would Obama’s record on Libya and Iran have looked like without Sarkozy?

President Obama is right to invite France’s new president to the White House in the coming weeks for a series of exploratory talks. The Obama team will understandably put a positive spin on such a visit, but I bet the motivation is as much fear as opportunity. From the point of view of American foreign ...

Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images
Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

President Obama is right to invite France's new president to the White House in the coming weeks for a series of exploratory talks. The Obama team will understandably put a positive spin on such a visit, but I bet the motivation is as much fear as opportunity. From the point of view of American foreign policy, I think Doyle McManus has it right: Obama is sure going to miss Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was the indispensable key figure in two of the more prominent policies that Obama officials tout as "successes." First, it was Sarkozy, not Obama, who led on Libya. Without Sarkozy (and British Prime Minister Cameron) pushing the agenda, it is likely that Obama's initial policy of refusing to intervene in Libya would have held. Obama joined the bandwagon somewhat belatedly, something that even White House spinners couldn't ignore, thus giving rise to the infamous "lead from behind" frame.

Likewise, it has been Sarkozy (and the U.S. Congress) more than the Obama administration out in front on using economic coercion to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama's innovative contribution to Iran policy was the unsuccessful attempt to hold unconditional talks with the Iranian leaders in 2009. However, with Sarkozy pushing hard from one end and the U.S. Congress pushing hard from the other end, eventually, after a year or so delay, the Obama administration did join in to impose tighter sanctions.

President Obama is right to invite France’s new president to the White House in the coming weeks for a series of exploratory talks. The Obama team will understandably put a positive spin on such a visit, but I bet the motivation is as much fear as opportunity. From the point of view of American foreign policy, I think Doyle McManus has it right: Obama is sure going to miss Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was the indispensable key figure in two of the more prominent policies that Obama officials tout as "successes." First, it was Sarkozy, not Obama, who led on Libya. Without Sarkozy (and British Prime Minister Cameron) pushing the agenda, it is likely that Obama’s initial policy of refusing to intervene in Libya would have held. Obama joined the bandwagon somewhat belatedly, something that even White House spinners couldn’t ignore, thus giving rise to the infamous "lead from behind" frame.

Likewise, it has been Sarkozy (and the U.S. Congress) more than the Obama administration out in front on using economic coercion to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama’s innovative contribution to Iran policy was the unsuccessful attempt to hold unconditional talks with the Iranian leaders in 2009. However, with Sarkozy pushing hard from one end and the U.S. Congress pushing hard from the other end, eventually, after a year or so delay, the Obama administration did join in to impose tighter sanctions.

Thus, Sarkozy may well have been the indispensable figure in two of the more prominent talking points on Obama’s brag sheet. If his French partner had been more of a spoiler in the mold of Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, is it plausible to think that President Obama would have intervened in Libya or secured new rounds of multilateral sanctions on Iran?  

Finding out what kind of partner President Hollande will be is a high priority for President Obama. And finding that out may also tell us some important things about President Obama. To borrow a sports analogy that the president would doubtless understand, we may learn that Obama is not as good a point guard when the other guys on his team can’t or won’t run the fast break.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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