Obama, Diplomat-in-Chief

barack obama and hillary clinton

“2010” graced the titles of so many forecasting reports in the 1990s—“China 2010,” “Global Finance 2010,” and the like—that it seems appropriate to revisit them now while venturing a few new ones in the spirit of the usual retrospectives of an American president’s first year in office.

The consensus seems to be that Barack Obama and his team have achieved something important, namely a “reset” of America’s international image, but have done less than what they promised. However premature it may be to reach such a verdict, Obama’s actions strike some as overly tentative, even ambivalent—the implication being that he is still learning on the job.

He probably is, as should even the most experienced chief executive. Issuing annual report cards on his handling of foreign policy, issue by issue, may overlook this point, as well as three others: American presidents are rarely able to get all they want; Obama hardly assumed office with a clean slate; and America’s relationship with the rest of the world amounts to much more than the decisions and actions of a single American president, especially after one year.

Moreover, both Obama and his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, have spoken often of the long term and, to repeat a Washington cliché, of keeping their focus on the important as well as the urgent. But just what is the “long term”? And how does a president focus upon it while also dealing with the massive daily workload, not to mention a 24-hour news cycle?

Many presidents have resorted to tinkering with the bureaucracy under their command as a way of signaling mastery of the agenda. To understand the “why” of policy, then, one must first understand the “how.” At times tinkering has been done for them by way of policy entrepreneurs—well known examples are Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney and, as recently alleged, David Petraeus. But the savviest presidents find a way to manipulate the system in their favor. Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did it by fomenting interdepartmental rivalries and centering foreign policymaking in the White House; Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush did it by relying heavily upon their staff and a few selected cabinet officers; Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did a bit of all three, while Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps unique among the so-called imperial presidents, did it by inventing an elaborate staff system for the classification, review and implementation of decisions. This system was dismantled by Kennedy who, like Bill Clinton, preferred an informal, “seminar” method of deliberation.

A year’s retrospective gives some indication of Obama’s thinking in these areas inasmuch as it reveals his policy priorities and a stab at establishing an apparatus he likes. There is no doubt that it is concentrated in the White House and that Obama prefers to be involved heavily at all levels. Yet this does not seem to be reflected in the appearance of rivalries one step below, as it usually is by this time.

Much of that has to do with the personalities in the room. There is no Kissinger, Caspar Weinberger or James Baker in the Obama administration. Hilary Clinton has surprised many people by cultivating a rather passive public persona at the State Department as the administration’s “good solider.” She has not led a single major diplomatic initiative, despite having given a few very good speeches, appearing more surefooted and undertaking, like Obama, a great deal of travel.

Robert Gates at the Pentagon seems to relish an almost grandfatherly, wise-man’s role as he oversees, as is hoped, a gradual termination of two messy military interventions. He has denied earlier claims that his tenure would be temporary. But he looks and sounds tired, and almost wistful, while Obama’s public relations with the uniformed military fall somewhere between the uncomfortable and the unctuous.

Other cabinet members rarely speak publicly about foreign policy. What a contrast this poses to the Clinton administration when everyone from Madeleine Albright to Robert Rubin (and Larry Summers) to Bill Richardson to Ron Brown had an important foreign policy to sell in multiple time zones. Or to the George W. Bush administration when Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and others appeared almost weekly on television as policy competitors.

Obama’s team by contrast seems from all outward appearances to be at once buttoned-down and informal, very much like the man himself. It has neither the vertical clarity of Reagan’s during his second term nor the freewheeling diffusion of Kennedy’s. It is something of a composite: of formal structures, with Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones paying particular attention to wholesale re-wirings; and of informal and flexible arrangements which reportedly are run at the retail level by Jones’ deputy Denis McDonough. In the background—or, at times, the foreground—are a number of special presidential operatives: Stephen Bosworth, Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator John Kerry, and Bill Clinton. Nearly all of their roles have been carefully restricted.

Of course, all of the above could be very different in private, but that is for future historians to uncover.

One effect of tinkering has been to create a sense of cautious optimism among some foreign policy watchers and of anxious disappointment among others. In other words, a split record. For all that Obama’s election reversed public opinion trends around the world, there is no guarantee that the trends will stay positive. It is hard to imagine that Obama will say or do anything to anger international public opinion so much as his predecessor did, but one must also acknowledge, particularly in Europe, that “Obamania” is by no means fixed. Most committed anti-Americans remain so, and regard Obama as a dupe or a puppet. Most committed pro-Americans don’t necessarily adore Obama so much as they are relieved to see an American president who does not repeatedly embarrass his country and its friends. Nearly everyone else is on the fence, and will remain there for the foreseeable future, that is, if and when another crisis hits.

Speaking of friends, it has been noted that, from his earliest days in Chicago politics, Obama was prone to embrace or co-opt his enemies while keeping his friends at arm’s length. To some extent, he has given this impression internationally. He has appeared dismissive of his European colleagues, either by inadvertence, poor staff work, personal bias or some combination thereof. If intentional, it is not clear what Obama has to gain by his attitude other than enforcing the idea that the United States may have permanent interests but that its foreign policy is based on more than friendship alone. Still, the care and feeding of important alliances require much greasing of palms and slapping of backs. One has come to expect this. Anything less, ironically enough, looks un-presidential.

By contrast, in Asia Obama has appeared almost obsequious, going so far as to declare himself the “first Pacific president”; here too, it is not clear what has been won by such overt kowtows to China, India and Japan.

Getting the tone of statesmanship right clearly takes time, but time has been kind to Obama so far. There has been no major setback on his watch during the first year of his term. He has had breathing room, which he claims to have made the most of, notably with regard to his policy in Afghanistan.

Here, for all that Obama’s disgruntled supporters on the Left have waved the bloody shirt of Vietnam, it is not entirely self-evident that this particular analogy was the most salient for him. Obama may regret having championed Afghanistan as the neglected, good war during his campaign, but he seems to realize that other precedents besides Vietnam—particularly the “limited” Korean war, the first Gulf War and past interventions in Afghanistan itself, as well as Iraq—are just as relevant insofar as they contained or minimized the external contagion of intricate local conflicts, or failed to do so. As with the other cases, regional diplomacy is especially important, as the United States has underscored by its deepening co-dependent relationship with Pakistan and, in particular, the Pakistani army.

If Obama’s latest plan for stabilizing Afghanistan is to succeed by the 2011 deadline he imposed, it probably can only happen if the Pakistani army manages to pacify both sides of the Durand line without triggering a new civil war that spreads across Afghanistan’s borders, particularly to the north. If they can do this, Obama will be able to claim success. Even more so if the Pakistanis deliver him a few senior al Qaeda heads in the interim.

For now this is wishful thinking. Yet it underscores an important distinction that many commentators overlook, namely, the one between declaratory and actual policy. The two may coincide in some cases, but that cannot be known at the present time.

What is known is that the pacification of “Pashtunistan” matters more to the U.S. than the survival of the current Afghan and the Pakistani governments per se. Also known is that the effort to bring stability to both Afghanistan and Iraq (which fell off the front pages in 2009 but was by no means a done deal) continues to underscore Iran’s central position in this part of the world and, by extension, the degree to which the United States and its allies are able and willing to influence its behavior. The latter, however, is an open question; and one suspects that things may look very different in a year’s time, especially if the tempo of unrest within Iran continues to rise.

Other “crises”—Palestine, Korea, Yemen, Somalia and so forth—continue on slow boil in American politics, as they have done, no doubt with setbacks to come, but hardly earth-shattering ones, barring, of course, any major events over which the United States has little initial control.

So much for the presidential in-box. Moving from the operational to the doctrinal, it is important to mention the new rhetoric, with less being said, at least by Obama, about hard power, soft power, “smart power” and so forth, and more about responsibility, particularly with regard to the limits of policy and the capacity for empathy across borders (“standing in the other guy’s shoes”). This kind of presidential language has not been heard so consistently since the days of Eisenhower, and the similarities between the two (including the Kansas heritage) are noteworthy. If they are to have historic significance, then one can imagine the Obama presidency as seeking, like Eisenhower’s, to give America a second chance after the open-ended and risky commitments of its predecessor in the face of what were perceived to be grave threats to the American way of life. Obama seems to be saying, as Eisenhower did in 1953, let us take a step back and figure out what needs to be done, how to do it, and where to set the nation’s priorities without overreaching or shooting ourselves in the foot.

Taking a step back reminds one of the axiom which holds that the American “homeland” cannot be safe so long as the homelands of other major powers are under threat. During the twentieth century, most of these nations were in Europe, and it was there, with much American help, that the closest thing to a collective security community was constructed and sustained during the second half of the century. For decades, people have wondered if something similar were possible in the other two most contentious regions of the world, namely, Northeast Asia and the Middle East. The idea of either place resembling today’s Europe any time soon seems hardly serious. But surely this has to be the central strategic aim of American foreign policy in the years to come while keeping Europe—namely, its relations with Russia, Turkey and other nations in Europe’s “near abroad”—on the path toward peace, security and prosperity.

Only when all three of these regions have achieved something like a secure political foundation will meaningful progress on such global challenges relating to the environment, governance, economic growth and nuclear proliferation be possible. This does not mean attempts at meeting these challenges should wait; indeed, they can provide the essential catalysts and later glue for regional collaboration. But they cannot succeed without it, lest globalization usher in the perfect anarchical society Hedley Bull described so long ago. A clear hint of this was seen recently at Copenhagen.

Does the tri-regional strategy mean a new role for the United States? Not necessarily. One recalls the statement attributed to James Baker around the time the Soviet Union disappeared: the post-Cold War mission of the United States, he said, was to “stack the deck” so that its inevitable loss of superpower status could be as peaceable and painless as possible. There is something to this idea if one regards the record of the first Bush administration as series of carefully calculated interventions designed to tie up loose ends while repairing the foundations of multilateralism. This was followed by Clinton, who tried to do the same in places like Haiti and the Balkans, although much of his tenure could be characterized by a not-so-benign neglect of the biggest challenges. That, in turn, was followed by the second Bush’s “forward,” “transformational,” almost Wilhelmine reaction which tended, among other things, to provoke a counter-policy around the world whereby other powers came to doubt the reliability and competence of the United States, and to talk about cultivating their own gardens. Meanwhile America’s own political and economic system suffered some nasty effects of laissez-faire leadership. If this was a deliberate strategy to stack the deck by indirectly forcing others to pull up their own bootstraps, it was too clever by half.

America now faces a situation to which neither benign neglect nor grandstanding will suffice to distract it from its central task of underwriting a peaceful international system. For all that the “new world order” took on a slanderous meaning in certain quarters during the 1990s, it still seems to be what much of the globe wants.

This takes us back to re-wiring. The global America that Obama personifies is very much a work in progress. Its relations with the world need as much order as its relations in the world need broadmindedness. Obama has done much so far to change the tone of the latter. One can only hope that he will succeed with respect to the former as he pursues what looks to be a rather pragmatic foreign policy of continuous adjustment. But 2010 is likely to force his and America’s hand; and the thoughtful, deliberate executive may come to find greater use for the inspirational mover of the masses who so dominated the headlines little more than a year ago.

Kenneth Weisbrode

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009). He is a writer for the History News Service.

Reprinted with permission from the History News Service.

Published by the LA Progressive on January 13, 2010
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