- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009


After President Obama’s first seven months in office, concerns are growing about his administration’s uncertain foreign-policy start. Republicans — especially neoconservatives — have pounced on the Obama team’s supposedly weak responses to threats from dangerous regimes in Iran and North Korea and its “appeasement” of major powers such as China and particularly Russia.

Conservative realists are troubled by the apparent incoherence and ineffectiveness of U.S. policy and have somewhat different prescriptions. Nevertheless, in foreign policy as in domestic policy, the administration’s poor performance is increasingly unifying its critics.

Mr. Obama has established himself as an international communicator, but the president’s charisma, tone and personal story go only so far. Ultimately, substance rather than style will determine how other nations and peoples deal with and view America — and, despite some impressive speeches by the president, the substance of U.S. foreign policy so far has been weak.

This is not because the Obama team does not understand the importance of what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to call “smart power.” They seem to. But smart power is only a tool, not a strategy. Without a comprehensive strategy and an overall hierarchy of priorities to provide guidance in reconciling different and sometimes even conflicting objectives, it is almost impossible to make hard choices.

The Obama administration inherited this unhappy legacy — the inability to make difficult choices — from the two previous administrations but must overcome it. Even a sole superpower like the United States cannot expect to accomplish everything it wants, especially when faced with a major economic crisis and constrained by expensive military commitments.

International politics are complex and, unsatisfying as it may be, sometimes very unfair. Trying to ignore contradictions between American interests and values, or arguing that the United States is entitled to do whatever it considers right without regard to the costs, either leads to a Jimmy Carter-style foreign policy of well-intentioned fecklessness or a George W. Bush-style policy of reckless absolutism.

It is no surprise to find similarities between the Obama administration and both the Clinton and Bush periods. Since the early 1990s, foreign-policy thinkers in both parties have engaged in a post-Cold War triumphalism that has blinded them to new international realities.

Thus, before Sept. 11, 2001, senior officials failed to give priority to the growing threat of Islamic extremism. Other officials, meanwhile, preoccupied with the process of expanding both the membership and mission of the NATO alliance, failed to appreciate how their actions encouraged anti-American nationalism and authoritarian trends in Russia.

Notwithstanding Mr. Obama’s assertion, Afghanistan was indeed a war of necessity in 2001 but after eight years, it is increasingly a war of choice. The administration’s open-ended commitment to nation-building — and its inability to recognize that al Qaeda rather than the Taliban is the real threat to American security — raise troubling questions.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech considerably elevated expectations in the Islamic world about America’s approach to terrorism and the Middle East peace process without any subsequent explanation of the way forward, let alone action. The administration has thus far succeeded primarily in angering Israelis over its rhetoric on settlements without showing genuine resolve and may significantly disappoint the Arabs, too.

On Iran, the administration is correctly treating the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the clerical regime as a paramount threat to regional stability and American global interests. Everyone recognizes that Russia has a critical role to play in heading off this outcome. But why then did Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others in the administration pick a fight with Russia over NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia? Neither is ready for membership, nor is NATO willing to offer even the first step of a membership action plan in the foreseeable future.

Why would the president promise punitive sanctions against Iran if engagement fails — something that depends on Russian acquiescence in the U.N. Security Council — and simultaneously allow his administration to irritate Moscow needlessly over a nonissue?

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton’s recent advances toward India, including offers of sophisticated weapons, will hardly win enthusiastic support in Beijing, where the United States wants help pressuring North Korea and Iran and where China’s perspectives are not identical to America’s, though neither nation wants nuclear weapons in the hands of Tehran or Pyongyang.

More generally, Mr. Obama’s big-government, huge-deficit policy at home — combined with a tepid response to predictable protectionism in the Democratic Congress — has fed apprehension and skepticism of U.S. leadership, unnerving governments and private investors in American securities in China, Germany and many other leading economic powers. The president’s personal preoccupation with domestic issues such as health care at the expense of foreign policy doesn’t help, either.

As time elapses, Americans and others will increasingly judge the Obama administration on its accomplishments rather than its rhetoric; Mr. Obama can talk the talk, but does he walk the walk? Republicans can and should hold the president accountable but will not succeed if they cannot bridge their own differences to present constructive criticism and clear, thoughtful alternatives based on a realistic appreciation of U.S. interests, capabilities and options.

Passionate but intellectually muddled and unrealistic attacks on the administration’s foreign policy will not succeed politically or practically. By contrast, a tough and thoughtful critique could serve the nation and the party well.

Richard Burt is a former ambassador to Germany and assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the Reagan administration. Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Nixon Center and publisher of the National Interest.

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