Terms of Engagement

Better Late than Never

How naive self-confidence led Barack Obama astray, before prudence brought him back.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Presidents, like the rest of us, only learn that their intuitions about the world are wrong when painful experience teaches them so. Some grip their convictions all the harder and blunder onward. Woodrow Wilson could not accept that neither Europe’s leaders nor American politicians shared his vision for a post-war reordering of the world; Lyndon B. Johnson could not admit that he was losing Vietnam; George W. Bush could not see that America’s own allies would not sign on to his swaggering Global War on Terror. Others adapt, as John F. Kennedy did when his bellicosity almost provoked World War III.

Neither Barack Obama nor his senior advisors are about to admit in the last weeks of a re-election campaign that experience has forced the administration to reconsider its collective worldview; but it has.

When I interviewed Obama on the campaign trail in the late summer of 2007, he told me that if and when he became the "face" of U.S. foreign policy and power, people around the world would see that America’s president understood their plight. Although he was careful to add that none of this would matter unless he made "prudent strategic decisions," Obama believed that his face, his voice, his biography would allow the United States to recast itself and to climb out of the deep reputational hole into which Bush had plunged it. Once he had gotten the world to see the United States in a different light, Obama thought, he could make progress on frozen issues like nuclear nonproliferation or peace in the Middle East. His advisors thought so too, as did many of those who most passionately supported him, not to mention sympathetic journalists like me.

It was this intuition, in turn, that shaped Obama’s spontaneous response when he was asked in a debate with Hillary Clinton whether he would meet "without preconditions" with the leaders of states like Iran or North Korea. "I would," Obama said. Clinton said she wouldn’t. Samantha Power, then one of Obama’s closest advisors, told me that Obama had found the disagreement "galvanizing and orienting." This is who he was: A leader who would disdain diplomatic orthodoxy to address both states and peoples in a way they had not been addressed before. Thus was born the policy the Obama White House came to call "engagement." White House officials sometimes used the term narrowly to refer to Obama’s bid to open talks with rogue states, above all Iran; sometimes they used it more broadly to describe diplomacy with rivals like Russia and China, and sometimes it was used almost metaphysically to describe the president’s very personal outreach to the world.

In March 2009, Obama sent a New Year’s message to Iran proposing "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." He demonstrated his bona fides by addressing the country as "the Islamic Republic of Iran" — a subtle signal, according to Dennis Ross, the former White House official in charge of policy towards Iran, that the administration accepted the regime and was not contemplating regime change. Obama continued to hold out hope for a breakthrough, which is one of the reasons he at first declined to criticize sharply the grossly rigged Iranian elections of June 2009. Then he spoke out more bluntly, and the Iranians rang down the curtain.

Did Obama really believe that Iran would respond to his deferential blandishments? A senior White House official says that while the administration did, indeed, hope that engagement would work, the "theory of the case" was that "if we can demonstrate that we’re not the problem," and Iran was, the president would be able to assemble a strong coalition to impose tough sanctions on Tehran. And that is precisely what happened, though of course it hasn’t yet changed Iran’s behavior. If Plan A was based on Obama’s special brand of magic, Plan B rested on prudent strategic decisions.

Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009, was in many ways the high-water mark of engagement writ large — the transubstantiation of face, voice, and personal narrative into diplomacy. The president offered a "new beginning" to the Muslim world based not on new policies but on a new posture of respectfulness and mutuality, and on a personal understanding that came from his own history in the Islamic world. He asked Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a similar act of mutual recognition. The transaction he invoked was psychic or spiritual rather than material: Just about the only tangible thing the president offered his listeners was a "summit on entrepreneurship."

The Cairo speech produced a brief burst of enthusiasm in the Muslim world, followed by disappointment. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, points out that one of the goals of the speech, and of Obama’s broader diplomacy at the time, was to induce Saudi Arabia and other "moderate" states to normalize relations with Israel — if Israel agreed to freeze settlement construction. There was no movement toward normalization. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians struggled along at a low ebb and then wheezed to a stop. And no one in the Arab world attributed the great awakening of 2011 to Obama’s modest exhortations for regional states to "maintain your power through consent, not coercion." Something was wrong with the theory of the case.

This was, in effect, Obama’s Wilsonian moment. At the time, Robert Kagan wrote that Obama seemed to believe, like Wilson, that "nations will act on what they perceive to be the goodwill, good intentions or moral purity of other nations, in particular the United States." Obama himself was the incarnation of that goodwill. In fact, the behavior of states, as Obama discovered, is governed overwhelmingly by a calculus of national interest. Public opinion does matter, far more than ever before. But what Obama’s Arab public wanted to know was how he would pressure Israel into accepting a two-state solution, or what he would do to dislodge the tyrants who ruled their lives. Obama’s "salaam aleykum" was pocketed, and ignored.

As one former senior administration official says of Obama, "He had an image of himself as a bridge builder that worked quite well at the Harvard Law Review and in the campaign. I do think he wildly overestimated his own personal power in foreign policy. He had that experience of going to Europe during the campaign and being accorded a hero’s welcome — that’s an understatement. I think he mistook public adulation for the ability to change national calculations." It’s clear, in retrospect, that Obama, like so many American presidents, entered office with too little respect for the world’s intransigence and too much for his own persuasive powers.

But the consequence of Wilson’s, Johnson’s, and Bush’s stubbornness or naiveté was catastrophic; not so Obama’s, whose misreading of the world did not set back nonproliferation in Iran and may only have inflated hopes on Middle East peace. And perhaps because he is a more supple figure than they, he adapted to the world as he found it. By the end of 2010, the White House had announced that it would no longer pursue active talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama had received a rebuff at climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, and he no longer seriously pursued the subject. By 2010 he had gotten all he could on nuclear nonproliferation and let the subject lie. Even when he agreed to join the coalition invading Libya in January 2011, he was the last one on board. Obama’s Wilsonian era lasted at most two years. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, no devotee of Obama, describes the president as the fastest learner in the Oval Office since George H.W. Bush and, before that, Kennedy.

The Barack Obama of 2012 is preoccupied with ending inherited wars and suppressing terrorism and the threat of Iran — and, of course, the threat of Mitt Romney. Obama’s challenger has done his worst to describe the president as a liberal softie and his engagement policy as a strange brew of cynicism and naiveté. But Romney is not getting much traction. Obama is still the face of American power — but it’s a very different face.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a 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.

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