In search of an Obama doctrine

Who can fail to be impressed by Barack Obama’s energy, or a little stunned by his self-confidence? Show this man a financial crisis, sufficient to occupy or overwhelm an ordinary president, and he sees the chance to “remake” – as he puts it – the entire US economy. You might dismiss that as rhetorical exuberance, but it becomes ever more apparent that his ambition is real. For good or ill, he means to do it.

In foreign policy, one sees the same disposition – the same appetite, the same willingness to bring new thinking to old problems. In recent days, the administration has conceived a spate of new approaches and initiatives.

Just as the financial breakdown is too small a domestic canvas, so Iraq and Afghanistan – where the US currently has most at stake and which constitute by themselves a crushing workload – are too mild a test. The White House has recently made approaches to Cuba and Iran, alongside diplomatic “resets” on Mexico and Latin America, Russia, China, the Middle East, Nato, global summitry, global warming, the international financial institutions and almost anything you care to name.

By Clive Crook

In every case, Mr Obama seems to say, this administration starts afresh – and if it can break with the diplomatic and strategic failures of George W. Bush, remaking the world as well as the US economy is so much the better.

In domestic policy, an organising principle directs the innovation. Mr Obama wants to shove the US in the direction of a more social democratic – Americans say “progressive” – social contract, with universal healthcare and a tax and benefits system much more attuned to reducing inequality. Whether this is wise, feasible or what the country even wants is questionable, but the connecting theme is clear.

Is any such theme emerging in foreign policy? Can one begin to talk of an “Obama doctrine”?

If style and temperament can constitute a doctrine, the answer is yes. The intellectual traits that Mr Obama says he most prizes in himself and those around him are pragmatism and perseverance. Many would say that Mr Bush also had perseverance, carried to the point of dull-witted obstinacy, but nobody ever accused him of pragmatism. Mr Obama’s willingness to start anew, ask what works, offer respect to governments that crave it (even if they may not deserve it) and patiently seek progress where he may is refreshing.

One aspect of this pragmatism is the president’s desire to build alliances and cool old enmities, and work towards US aims through co-operation rather than confrontation. The trouble is, most US presidents – including Mr Obama’s predecessor – felt the same way until the world beat it out of them. Foreign policy doctrine is put to the test only when co-operation in pursuit of mutual interests fails to achieve results, and the hard choices that Mr Obama insists he is willing to make actually present themselves.

Though it is much too soon to write off Mr Obama’s friendly overtures, you could hardly describe them so far as a notable success. He travelled to Europe this month and received ovations at every step; presidents and prime ministers jostled like giddy teenagers to be photographed with him. Yet he went away with nothing: no co-ordinated fiscal stimulus; no meaningful commitments of new military support in Afghanistan. Judged by the outcome, could his predecessor have done much worse?

The world agreed that North Korea’s missile test should be opposed; the US even hinted it might shoot the rocket down. The launch went ahead without repercussions. The US and its allies could not agree on a response.

The world believes that Iran should be stopped from developing nuclear weapons, but the allies drag their feet over sanctions. Privately, the US tells Russia it would not build missile defence sites in Poland or the Czech Republic if it received help on Iran in exchange; publicly, Russia says no. Next, the new administration tries outreach, signalling a willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions – and an American-Iranian journalist is sentenced to eight years in jail for spying. At this, Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, say they are “deeply disappointed”.

The persevering president will no doubt keep plugging away and for a while will be right to do so. The new opportunities afforded by his global popularity are worth exploring – where this can be done at low cost.

In Iran, despite the great stakes, there is not much to lose because the Bush administration’s unyielding line had failed in any case. The debacle in Iraq rendered the threat of US military intervention not credible: Israel permitting, Iran was on track to get its nukes regardless. On many other issues as well – Cuba is an obvious instance – the preference for confrontation over co-operation has failed to advance US goals. In both Cuba and Iran, moreover, the US and its foes have real interests in common, so a warming of relations is at least possible. More generally, as Mr Obama would doubtless point out, most nations have a shared interest in peace and security.

Unfortunately, not all are as willing as the US to pay for them. Soon, the leaders who say they so admire Mr Obama will have to return more than warm feelings. Europe should bear more of the burden in Afghanistan. Iran would be better induced to co-operate if US overtures were combined with solidarity among the allies should those overtures be rejected. If US allies keep demanding the benefits of co-operation without the costs, Mr Obama’s respect for them will evaporate and so will his country’s – and that will be that for the Obama doctrine on foreign policy.

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Russia Rearms


WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama has gone abroad and gored an ox—the deeply held belief that the United States does not make mistakes in dealings with either friends or foes.

And in the process, he’s taking a huge gamble both at home and abroad, for a payoff that could be a long time coming, if ever.

By way of explanation, senior adviser David Axelrod describes the president’s tactics this way:

“You plant, you cultivate, you harvest. Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable.”

While historic analogies are never perfect, Obama’s stark efforts to change the U.S. image abroad are reminiscent of the stunning realignments sought by former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. During his short—by Soviet standards—tenure, he scrambled incessantly to shed the ideological entanglements that were leading the communist empire toward ruin.

But Obama is outpacing even Gorbachev. After just three months in power, the new American leader has, among many other things:

—Admitted to Europeans that America deserves at least part of the blame for the world’s financial crisis because it did not regulate high-flying and greedy Wall Street gamblers.

—Told the Russians he wants to reset relations that fell to Cold War-style levels under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

—Asked NATO for more help in the fight in Afghanistan, and, not getting much, did not castigate alliance partners.

—Lifted some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ travel to their communist homeland and eased rules on sending wages back to families there.

—Shook hands with, more than once, and accepted a book from Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-American leader of oil-rich Venezuela.

—Said America’s appetite for illegal drugs and its lax control of the flow of guns and cash to Mexico were partly to blame for the drug-lord-inspired violence that is rattling the southern U.S. neighbor.

At a news conference ending the three-day Summit of the Americas on Sunday, Obama was asked to explain what a reporter called this emerging “Obama Doctrine.

He said that first, he remains intent on telling the world that the United States is a powerful and wealthy nation that realizes it is just one country among many. Obama said he believes that other countries have “good ideas” and interests that cannot be ignored.

Second, while the United States best represents itself by living up to its universal values and ideas, Obama said it must also respect the variety of cultures and perspectives that guide both American foes and friends.

“I firmly believe that if we’re willing to break free from the arguments and ideologies of an earlier era and continue to act, as we have at this summit, with a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual respect and mutual interest, then each of our nations can come out of this challenging period stronger and more prosperous, and we can advance opportunity, equality, and security across the Americas,” the president said.

Critics, especially those deeply attached to the foreign policy course of the past 50-plus years, see a president whose lofty ideals expose the country to a dangerous probing of U.S. weakness, of an unseemly readiness to admit past mistakes, of a willingness to talk with unpleasant opponents.

“I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez,” said Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican. “This is a person along the lines with Fidel Castro and the types of dictatorship that he has down there in Venezuela and the anti-Americanism that he has been spreading around the world is not somebody the president of the United States should be seen as having, you know, kind of friendly relations with.”

At his news conference Obama said he didn’t think he did much damage to U.S. security or interests by shaking the hand of Chavez, whose country has a defense budget about one-six hundredth the size of the United States, and depends upon it’s oil reserves for solvency.

But beyond specific attacks on his new foreign policy are the deeper philosophical challenges emerging from the still powerful, if diminished, conservative political structure in the United States. Such opponents can play havoc with Obama’s attempts to change domestic policy and will work to weaken his 60-plus percent approval among Americans.

Obama brushes that aside:

“One of the benefits of my campaign and how I’ve been trying to operate as president is I don’t worry about the politics—I try to figure out what’s right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I’m right.”

So thought Gorbachev. But being right is not always politically healthy.


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