Obama Dives Into World Affairs,But Still Charting Overall Course

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War. Economic crisis. Global pandemic. Weapons proliferation. Changing alliances and enemies. These are just a fraction of the foreign policy issues virtually every U.S. president in the modern era has faced when coming into office. Some are more focused on domestic issues and treat problems abroad in an ad-hoc manner, without an overarching strategy to guide them. The result is usually embarrassment and policy drift. One only has to think back to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term, which was marred by such crises as the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia and genocide in Rwanda. Clinton learned from his mistakes and later developed a more coherent foreign policy, but not without some painful scars.

Others take a more strategic approach upon entering office. Harry Truman, who finished World War II after Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office, successfully dealt with the emerging Soviet threat following the war by establishing NATO and a strategy of “containment” that avoided another catastrophic war while rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan, which helped to keep the western part of the continent free from communism.

Richard Nixon, who came to power at the height of the Vietnam War and confrontation with the Soviets, pursued a three-pronged strategy of turning over the war to the Vietnamese, détente with the Soviet Union, and a strategic opening to China to provide a counter-balance to the Russians. Despite the humiliation of Watergate, Nixon is still broadly admired for his lasting foreign policy achievements.

And although former President George W. Bush’s legacy has yet to be written, his doctrine of pre-emptive attack, designation of the so-called “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and invasion of Iraq are likely to overshadow other foreign policy initiatives, such as greater outreach to Africa and India.

Bush had much of his presidency defined shortly into office with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After his first 100 days in office, has President Barack Obama developed a coherent foreign policy strategy to guide the country through the major international crisis that Vice President Joe Biden predicted Obama would face during his first six months in office? Is he following through on campaign promises to treat allies better, to end the Iraq War while renewing efforts in Afghanistan, and to respect human rights while fighting terrorism?

Foreign policy observers on both sides of the ideological fence seem to agree that Obama’s foreign policy strategy is taking shape but is still a work in progress.

The Sword and the Shield So far, one of the most defining characteristics of Obama’s presidency is his apparent willingness to reach out to adversaries, such as Iran, Syria and Cuba, that Bush had largely shunned, although it has yet to be seen if this diplomatic rapprochement will unclench any fists, as Obama famously stated in his inauguration (also see “Obama Tentatively Reaches Out to Unclench Enemies’ Fists” in the April 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

The gestures have been praised by some experts who cite the failure of the U.S. government to affect policy in countries it has diplomatically ignored, arguing that talks can’t hurt and can only help. But others counter that they can in fact be harmful, or at a minimum a waste of time.

“It seems that Obama is trying to develop an overarching strategy to reach out to people that had been alienated through American exceptionalism,” said Sally McNamara, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It is a belief that if we reach out, people will change their behavior. This can be viewed as both hopelessly idealistic and somewhat of a wrong reading of the situation.” McNamara also warned that “not being Bush will not be enough” for Obama to succeed in repairing damaged diplomatic relationships.

Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, praised Obama’s follow-through on campaign pledges to engage implacable foes in constructive negotiations over such issues as nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.

“A willingness to negotiate is making clear that you respect them, that you accept them, that you’re not planning regime change by force or by covert activity, and that you want to negotiate real differences as equals,” she said. “It doesn’t mean giving up our positions on critical issues.”

Mathews told The Washington Diplomat that while Obama clearly has a strategy of repairing old alliances and reaching out to potential new allies, the administration is still treating specific issues on a case-by-case basis. “There is an overarching strategy in his approach: engagement, attempting to repair the sense of rejection that many countries and regions feel from the U.S.,” she said. “Apart from that, policy is being made issue by issue, but a real belief in the value of diplomacy to achieve national interests distinguishes every one of the individual policies.

“They haven’t chosen a focus and probably can’t afford to,” Mathews added. “There’s just too much that needs doing. The Afghan war and the related challenge of Pakistan probably has been the focus in the sense of taking the most time — attempting to define a narrower goal for Afghanistan and then a strategy for achieving it.”

Indeed, Mathews seemed to think that Obama’s most notable foreign policy accomplishment so far was a quantitative, rather than a qualitative one. “What’s extraordinary is the sheer breadth of their foreign policymaking, on top of economic issues they are dealing with,” said Mathews, who served on the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. “It’s almost unfathomable to do as much as they have, given that they’re still only half-staffed,” she noted, citing such initiatives as “resetting” the Russian relationship, boosting nonproliferation, protecting civil liberties, addressing climate change, and engaging with Iraq, Iran and Syria.

“Taking on too many issues is certainly a risk, but I think that their policies have been met with open doors around the world,” Mathews argued. “Change in one area opens further opportunities in others.”

Charisma Versus Credentials One of the few foreign policy issues Obama took action on during his brief tenure as a senator was nuclear proliferation, an issue he apparently has carried with him during his move up Pennsylvania Avenue. McNamara said Obama is making nuclear disarmament a priority over missile defense, as highlighted by his March letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which Obama hinted that Russian help in discouraging the Iranian nuclear weapons program would reduce the need for a missile defense system, which Moscow vehemently opposes.

But beyond his Senate credentials, many people, including Obama himself, have cited his experience growing up abroad as the son of a foreign aid worker and his African heritage as evidence of his inherent ability to relate to foreigners (also see “Obama’s Worldly Background Imprints Foreign Policy Views” in the July 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat.)

Yet McNamara said there are limits to how far Obama’s famed charisma can carry his foreign policy agenda, and cited his lack of professional international experience as a potential handicap. She pointed to the first President Bush, whose experience as ambassador to China, director of the CIA, and vice president helped tremendously with his ability to assemble a broad coalition to fight the first Gulf war.

“He had great international contacts that he built over time,” she said. “It takes a lifetime to build up diplomatic skills, and unfortunately, personal diplomacy matters.”

Mathews countered that while Obama lacks the elder Bush’s rolodex of world leaders, he has a potentially more effective tool in the era of social networking: an ability to engage directly with everyday foreign citizens.

“He’ll build the relationships [with foreign leaders] over time,” Mathews said. “What he has more is a relationship with people around the world that is unprecedented; an ability to talk to them that makes change possible. It’s a very different way of operating. His style will be much less personal diplomacy, which is good because individuals change — policies should extend beyond them.”

But McNamara warned against pursuing such a strategy at the expense of America’s more traditional alliances, such as the British-American “special relationship.”

“Obama seems to have this attitude that we can be friends with everyone, but the fact is that America always comes back to relying on its closest allies,” she said. As evidence, McNamara praised Obama for his increased commitment of troops to the war in Afghanistan, but characterized his inability to get European countries to increase their commitment to the war there as “embarrassing.”

McNamara said that inability may have to do with Obama’s failure to engage forcefully with America’s most successful multilateral organization, NATO, despite Obama’s campaign promises for a more multilateral U.S. foreign policy. “He walked away from the Strasbourg summit the loser,” she charged, referring to a NATO summit earlier in the year in which Obama pushed the alliance for greater troop commitment in Afghanistan but came away with only a temporary increase by Britain and a pledge by the French to take one detainee from the prisoner camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

At the same time, Obama isn’t waiting on other countries to follow through on his campaign pledges to refocus the war effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, and to tackle human rights abuses that have tainted America’s reputation abroad. In addition to boosting the number of troops in Afghanistan by at least 17,000, he’s ordered the shutdown of Guantánamo and the end to controversial interrogation techniques that critics deem torture, while seeming to balance national security interests by preserving military tribunals for some Guantánamo detainees and refusing to release interrogation photographs that he said could further enflame anti-American sentiment.

Mathews stressed that Obama’s commitment to multilateralism has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, such as in Afghanistan, which requires involvement by all its neighbors. “The administration understands that problem-solving on most of these issues requires very broad participation.”

Who’s Manning the Tiller? Both McNamara and Mathews agreed that Obama seems to be steering foreign policy himself so far. “He’s using a lot of special envoys, and Biden is key, but he has his own overarching priorities, and they’re very idealistic,” said McNamara. “He’s still deciding his overall foreign policy agenda, and domestic issues are dominating attention at the moment.”

Mathews acknowledged that Obama’s increased use of special diplomatic envoys carries both benefits and potential hazards. “It’s a risk — you get talent but also some internal tension about who does what.” She added though that Obama has developed a strong foreign policy team to help him manage the huge array of international issues he is tackling. “He has extraordinary self-confidence, which includes a desire to have a very strong staff around him,” she said.

Regardless of the debate, what’s clear is that while Obama has bravely taken on a broad range of daunting global challenges that greeted him his first day in office, he has yet to develop a coherent, focused foreign policy template that will guide his response to the coming international crisis all observers anxiously await. In keeping with his pledge for more bipartisanship, perhaps he should read up on the two post-World War II presidents who had perhaps the most success in that field: Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Richard Nixon.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014