President Barack Obama was ridiculed by some on the right early on for alleged foreign policy weakness. Removing the missile defense system plans from Poland and the Czech Republic was criticized, and it was alleged (without evidence) that Sarkozy and Merkel don’t respect him. Obama was also chided for not giving Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK the proper respect.
First of all, it’s heartening that those on the right are now concerned about being on the good side of France of Germany. But more importantly, Obama actually looks to be setting the stage for having foreign policy has one of his strengths come 2012. As with his domestic policy (and his Presidential campaign), he started slowly, but is building up steam.
1. He’s tough. Yes, he didn’t treat Gordon Brown like a brother, he humiliated Netanyahu, and his pressure caused Hamid Karzai to throw a hissy fit and threaten to join the Taliban. The world is certainly getting the message: Obama is not some dovish ‘let’s all get alone and hold hands’ President. If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll respond with both actions and words.
Take Israel. The Vice President of the US arrives for a visit and on that day the Israeli government announces new settlements in East Jerusalem, officially land taken in the 1967 war and considered occupied territory. No doubt the US would have opposed such a move anyway, but when it’s done while Biden is on a state visit, that’s needless provocation. Perhaps Netanyahu was testing the Obama Administration? The US sent a message in its response, the Israelis are complaining, but they now know that they need to stay on the good side of Obama or they will be punished. They now are unsure if Obama will give them the unrestricted ‘blank check’ support they expect from the US. That will force them to be reconsider their positions, and ultimately Netanyahu may have to switch coalitions and join the centrist Kadema party.
Moreover, word is that unlike President Clinton, who tried to hammer out a peace plan with the various sides, Obama is thinking of presenting his own plan. In that he would give Israel real benefits, such as dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran, taking into account Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon. In exchange, Israel will have to make some compromises that held up talks before. If Israel knows that rejecting the US might mean less support, and if they see real benefits from this kind of plan, there could be a real breakthrough in the peace process. If Obama can engineer that, he’ll not only show he deserves the Nobel Prize, but he will be seen as again succeeding where others failed.
2. Russia. The Obama Administration has handled Russia brilliantly. They understand that Russia is not the threat it used to be, and that ‘saving face’ is important. So he’s made symbolic concessions. The missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic was not really scrapped, it was just altered to cover more of Europe. But the way it was announced appeared a victory for the Russians, and they needed that. The new nuclear strategy of the US also fits in those lines. Russia has long had a ‘no first use’ doctrine for nuclear weapons. Obama’s change of strategy not only recognizes that the old approach was based on Cold War realities, but had no real value in the current strategic environment. By changing it (though everyone knows that in a crisis Presidents can easily put options back on the table) he makes it easier for other states to work more closely with the US and approve sanctions on Iran. The result: a new START treaty, and real movement with China and Russia on sanctions focused on Iran.
3. Iran. Obama gave them a chance to change behavior, something he promised to do. They did not, and the conservatives there, fearing loss of power, have clamped down harder. Obama has decided to shift course and increase the pressure — with the promise that if they avoid getting nuclear weapons, they can still join the globalized world economy. This pressure, should China and Russia finally join, would be immense. Iran has real weaknesses, especially on the economic front.
4. China. Obama’s policy towards China has been similarly realist as the one towards Russia. He recognizes the importance of symbolism, and internal struggles within China. Like President Bush, he also recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the two, and how the future will likely see China trying to diversify its markets so it is not so reliant on the US. For the first time since President Nixon, Obama seems able to navigate the Chinese political landscape and reshape a relationship that has been on the rocks for ten years (remember the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo and angry Chinese response?), despite the fact the two know they need each other. Treasury Secretary Geithner’s trip to China also suggests growing economic cooperation, something in the interests of both countries.
5. Afghanistan. Obama’s decision making on Afghanistan is text book of what a President should do. He listened to advisors, considered the plans, avoided pressure to make a hasty decision (such as when former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of ‘dithering’), and then made a call. His decision was based largely on input from the military and especially Gen. David Petraeus, with whom he seems to have developed a very close working relationship. Yet he had no good options, and has signaled the Afghan government that if they don’t change, they’ll get a lot less support from us. Karzai is angry about that, it’s clear that the US is no longer going to be boxed in by some sense that we have no choice but to stay and support a corrupt government. Our focus is on terrorists, we do want to defeat or coopt the Taliban, but it’s on our terms. I suspect that by 2012 successful withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan will be underway.
A lot can still go wrong. A lucky terrorist strike opens the door on numerous possibilities. Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israel, there could be a lot of crises that can’t be anticipated this early. But don’t be surprised if in future years Obama’s foreign policy successes are what he’s remembered for. It’s early, but there are signs of positive change — and given the last decade’s debacles, we need that!