If you’re trying to grade President Obama’s foreign policy one year after he took office, my advice is: Wait until next year.
It’s tempting to jump the gun and call his foreign policy a washout. After all, the sky-high global ratings inspired by Obama’s victory have not yet produced any tangible foreign-policy triumphs — in the Middle East, South Asia, or on global warming. Even an early Obama supporter like security expert Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that Obama “has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.”
But I believe it’s much too soon to pass judgment: 2010 will be the critical year for strategies that the Obama team has set in motion — on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and other key issues. By year’s end, we’ll be able to judge whether his emphasis on diplomatic “engagement” as substitute for — or complement to — military force can produce results.
Critics who deride Obama’s insistence on “engagement” are ignoring historical currents. The Bush administration’s debacle in Iraq, rescued at the last minute, has sharply diminished America’s clout and influence abroad. So did the Bush team’s abandonment of Afghanistan (squandering the gains of a successful war there), which permitted al-Qaida and the Taliban to revive.
Obama rightly understood that we could no longer act like the sole superpower of the 1990s, nor can we still rely primarily on force. We don’t have the resources. Our military is overstretched and our budgets grossly overextended. And our global clout — the ability to persuade or compel other nations to follow our lead — has been sharply eroding as our economy sinks.
If Sen. John McCain had won the presidency in 2008, he would have been forced to recognize the same foreign-policy realities Obama had already grasped.
Where the Obama team slipped up was in overestimating how far, and how quickly, their man could advance on a current of global good feelings. They also failed to grasp how swiftly U.S. influence would erode as America’s economic troubles grew.
Case in point: Iran. In his inaugural address, Obama included this now-famous phrase aimed at Tehran: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He hoped his outreach to the Muslim world, and his efforts to “engage” its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would bring results during his first year. He also hoped that smoothing relations with Moscow and Beijing would persuade them to back harsher sanctions against Iran if it failed to curb its nuclear program.
The policy made sense. The idea of waging a third U.S. war — with Iran — precipitated by U.S. or Israeli bomb strikes is crazy. The U.S. military does not want a third war.
But China and Russia were reluctant to endorse harsher sanctions as America’s global position weakened and Iran’s energy resources beckoned. Moreover, political upheaval within Iran made the regime less willing to deal. The president’s personal popularity took him only so far.
The same was true on Mideast peace talks, where his global appeal had little resonance inside Israel and could not, alone, win Arab concessions. Nor could his charm persuade a rising China and India to limit carbon emissions, which they believe means limiting growth.
In 2010, the Obama team will be more seasoned and, hopefully, more realistic. Its strategy of engagement — diplomatic, economic, and, if necessary, military — will be tested by approaching deadlines in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On Iran, if Tehran continues to develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons, pressure will mount in some U.S. circles and within Israel for a military strike this year. The president must repel this pressure, while pressing for new sanctions. Bombing Iranian sites would not end Tehran’s nuclear program, but would inflame the region, while undercutting the best hope for change within Iran — the growing domestic opposition to the regime.
In Iraq, the number of U.S. soldiers will drop sharply this year. But it will take keen U.S. attention and regional diplomacy to get Iraq successfully through March elections and prepare the country for the exit of most or all U.S. troops in 2011.
And this year, Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan will be fully tested, with hopes that his troop surge can be reversed in 2011.
The U.S. military and the White House insist that Islamist militants cannot be defeated solely by military means. It will take skillful political engagement with the weak Afghan and Pakistani governments to ensure that increased international aid goes for jobs, thus undercutting the Taliban. And U.S. military commanders must also persuade their Pakistani counterparts to destroy Taliban havens within their country.
At the same time, it will take astute, behind-the-scenes U.S. diplomacy to help restart Pakistani-Indian talks over Kashmir, a conflict that fuels Pakistan’s Islamist fervor. And, in the end, it will take regional diplomacy, promoted by the United States, to woo key Taliban leaders to drop their links with al-Qaida and re-enter the Afghan political process.
The beginnings of such diplomacy will be on view at the London conference on Afghanistan next weekend. We’ll be in a better position to judge the success of Obama’s efforts at engagement by this time next year.