Obama learns foreign policy on job

May 14, 2012


President Barack Obama begins his re-election campaign with something almost nobody would have predicted four years ago: a sense of success and political advantage in the foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats.

The tight, wary control that was often apparent when Obama discussed foreign policy in his first two years has been replaced by an easier informality. The pre-scripted phrases and the gaze into the middle distance, as if he were reading a teleprompter, are mostly gone, too, at least in private, aides say.

He conveys the sense that managing foreign policy is an iterative skill, which he has learned through trial and error. This former anti-war activist and community organizer certainly didn’t run for president so he would have authority to kill people. But that’s just what he does every time he authorizes a drone strike against an al-Qaeda target.

The Obama team seems almost dismissive of the foreign-policy savvy of his likely Republican rival, Mitt Romney. They see Romney as out of his depth on this subject, making gestures to his neoconservative supporters and talking tough, no matter the issue — almost in a caricature of the chest-beating unilateralist.

The White House doubts Romney is serious in these positions — and suspects that if the Republican challenger should actually become president, he would have to jettison his uber-tough stance. Does Romney really intend an open-ended commitment of current troop levels in Afghanistan? Does he really want a trade war with China? Even if Romney imagined taking these positions in the White House, his corporate patrons would quickly pull him back.

The trickiest test for Obama this year is Iran. He thinks the Iranians may be moving toward the confidence-building measure the P5+1 group has proposed, which would involve sending Iran’s small store of 20 percent-enriched uranium outside the country in return for fuel rods and medical isotopes enriched at that level, from abroad. And if Iran agreed to stop enriching above 5 percent, that would effectively mean closing its facility at Fordo, near Qom, which was built for higher levels of enrichment.

There’s still a lot of haggling ahead. Obama doubts the Iranians will decide to accept this package soon enough to delay the oil and other sanctions that are scheduled to take effect June 28 and July 1. But if a deal can be reached over the summer, he believes that would be enough to convince Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Iran’s “zone of immunity” for building a weapon had been delayed — making an Israeli attack unnecessary.

Still ahead would be a broader negotiation in which the West would use Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s edict that Iran doesn’t plan to build a nuclear weapon as the basis for a comprehensive and verifiable agreement.

On Syria, the other Middle East tinderbox, Obama knows that Kofi Annan’s peace effort is failing, because of the former U.N. secretary-general’s inability to halt violence and begin the transition from President Bashar Al-Assad. Obama knows that Russia is the key to avoiding a civil war, but he doesn’t think the Russians will commit to oust Assad unless they’re convinced he can’t govern, and that only a new government will contain extremism in Syria. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama thinks parts of the Syrian opposition would be worse than Assad — and he worries that the protracted struggle is empowering precisely these people.

Obama is hoping to do business with Putin, whom he sees as the ultimate transactional leader. The White House has had indications since last weekend that Putin would skip the G-8 meeting this month and doesn’t seem perturbed, recognizing that the Russian leader has big problems to address at home. The two leaders will meet at the G-20 meeting next month in Mexico.

What’s striking about Obama’s management of foreign policy, as the campaign season opens, is that he knows what he knows. To take one delicate example, he understands that China depends on good relations with the U.S. during its bumpy time of leadership transition — and he knows it’s important not to gratuitously embarrass the Chinese leadership.

Obama is beginning to think about what he would do in a second term, and it’s a predictable list: addressing climate change, reducing nuclear weapons, reviving the Palestinian peace process, managing the “Arab Spring” constructively and improving development assistance for Africa. But it isn’t so much the specific things he wants as the one big thing he has learned, which is how to make decisions in the Oval Office. This sense of having learned on the job is what he’ll try to sell the country come November.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


Flap Doodle 5 years, 8 months ago

"...a sense of success and political advantage in the foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats...." Really? What color is the sky on your planet?

cato_the_elder 5 years, 8 months ago

What world does Ignatius inhabit? The Beltway, of course.

Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster. The Russians have owned him from the git-go, Iran gets ever closer to a nuclear weapon, Obama's "Arab Spring" has turned out to be a joke, he continues to be ruled by Valerie Jarrett (Osama bin Laden would still be alive today were it not for Leon Panetta taking over and getting Jarrett out of the way), Egypt is dangerously close to being taken over by radical Islamists, Syria pays no attention to Obama and the Chicoms laugh at Obama daily.

The one thing this column gets right is that the only foreign policy experience Obama has ever had is the on-the-job training he's received since too many gullible Americans voted for him - and, of course, the invaluable assistance he's received from his modern-day Seneca, the ever-brilliant Joe Biden.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

So, what would you have Obama (or his prospective replacement) do about Egypt, Syria, Iran......? Would invasions and occupations of those countries satisfy you? Or should we just bomb the bejesus out of them, thereby creating an even greater pool of disaffected youth with no better options than to strap on a suicide vest?

(Don't worry, Cato, these are rhetorical questions as I know you're not capable of substantive responses.)

cato_the_elder 5 years, 8 months ago

I'd say the truth is that you're not capable of anything more than a rhetorical question.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

Just as I predicted-- no substantial answer from you-- just empty rhetoric.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 8 months ago

Said by one who admitted that all he asked was a rhetorical question.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

It was rhetorical in the sense that I knew you couldn't/wouldn't provide a substantial response-- that's just not your posting MO. You rarely if ever go beyond purely partisan whining.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 8 months ago

I merely state the truth. Your M.O. is to disagree with the truth. It it were merely "purely partisan whining," you'd never respond. The fact that it's the truth is why you do.

JackMcKee 5 years, 8 months ago

Will you ever post a thought that is coherent?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

Obama is a huge improvement over Bush, and Romney would be a big step backwards. But that's a back-handed compliment, at best.

As has been noted by Noam Chomsky, paraphrasing a former foreign correspondent for the WSJ, while BushCo would kidnap and secretly rendition suspected terrorists to various torture chambers around the world, Obama has chosen instead just to assassinate them with drones, along with whatever unfortunate collateral damage happens to get in the way.

And while even Republicans fall over themselves to praise the assassination of Osama bin Laden, it required an invasion of a sovereign country, a supposed ally at that, to accomplish. And the assassins were ordered to fight their way out if necessary-- if that had occurred, it very likely would have started a war with Pakistan-- a country that possesses nuclear weapons, and whose cooperation is required to supply the thousands of US troops still stationed in Afghanistan, potentially making many of them sitting ducks for Taliban attackers.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 8 months ago

His job has been to do basic research and mentor graduate students in linguistics. Just because he's at an institution that has major Pentagon and other government contracts doesn't mean that any of the work he has done conflicts with his political views, or his activism.

But I understand that you typically prefer to shoot the messenger rather than counter the message-- that would require you to actually think. It's much easier just to play your usual shallow game of petty partisanship.

usnsnp 5 years, 8 months ago

My question is, how much foreign policy experience does Ronmey have. Two has anyone in his family or the people that advise him served in the military. It is not as hard to make certain decisions if you dont have any skin in the game.

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