Obama Is No Jimmy Carter
Barack Obama's European tour has been a public relations bonanza that has not yet reaped commensurate rewards in allied policies. Yet his speeches and answers to questions have revealed aspects of his foreign policy thinking that belie the original scepticism of many who feared his inexperience would result in the naivety and incoherence that plagued the Carter administration. Despite blunders in the appointments process, Obama has shown a wisdom, intellectual clarity and moral humility that Jimmy Carter lacked, and that augurs well for dealing with the tremendous threats to US and Western security.
The blunders in the second-tier appointments process are not likely Obama's fault but those of his aides. Distinguished retired four-star general Anthony Zinni was offered the important position of ambassador to Iraq, which he accepted, only to see the offer withdrawn in the most insulting manner, so former North Korea negotiator Christopher Hill could take it.
More telling, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair nominated Chas Freeman to be head of the Intelligence Review Board. This body issues a politically influential annual intelligence assessment.
However, it was revealed that Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a scathing critic of Israel and a passionate defender of the bloody Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Freeman had funded some of his public activities with money from the Saudi government and had served on the board of a Chinese company.
Moreover, revelation of Freeman's comments after 9/11, insinuating the al-Qa'ida attacks were caused by US policies, led to more criticism. Protests against the nomination came from supporters of Israel and supporters of human rights in China, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Freeman withdrew his nomination, bitterly blaming the allegedly ubiquitous "Israel lobby" for his demise. Yet the spontaneous public opposition of Israel supporters had nothing to do with any organised lobby and Pelosi's opposition also would have weighed quite heavily with the President. Lost in the heat of battle was the question of why, given recent intelligence failures over 9/11 and Iraq, the DNI would nominate a man so politically controversial and so deeply prejudiced to a position that demanded some political neutrality or even just modest objectivity. At least we can guess where Blair stands on certain issues.
Obama's foreign policy initiatives have skilfully embraced soft and hard lines. He has ordered the closing of the prison at Guantanamo, proposed engagement with Iran and proclaimed the goal of eliminating the world's nuclear weapons, beginning with imminent negotiations for reduction of US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The last initiative, even if naively pursued as an end in itself, may also be a shrewd attempt to give moral credibility to US demands that North Korea and Iran not become nuclear weapons states.
In the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has been tough-minded and emphasised the inextricable link between the two countries in the struggle against radical Islamist terrorism. Until now US public support for the military side of the operation in Afghanistan had been weakening. In Europe it is feeble. Yet Obama, after commissioning several policy reviews, has crafted a new policy that increases the US military commitment while also increasing economic and political development aid. New US aid to Pakistan has been made conditional on Islamabad becoming more resolute in suppressing internal Islamist jihadists and stopping Taliban and al-Qa'ida sanctuaries infiltrating Afghanistan.
Obama, concerned with Europe's lack of resolve, told the Europeans that the struggle was theirs as much as America's. September 11 was an attack on the West. Many terrorist attacks in Europe have emanated from camps in Pakistan and Europe is geographically more vulnerable than the US to al-Qa'ida. Obama also made the important point that while an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty might be valuable for other reasons, it would not end the threat from al-Qa'ida. Obama's eloquence may have enthralled European public opinion. However, from European governments Obama has elicited only the promise of several thousand more temporary European troops for Afghanistan's elections.
Obama is a charismatic figure for many Americans and Europeans, in part because of his intelligence and eloquence but also because of his meteoric rise to become the first African-American President of the US. Obama simultaneously embodies the cosmopolitan dimension of the US and the classic American dream of success. Yet in western Europe his charisma has been insufficient to seduce non-Anglophone allies to share the US's military burdens.
Obama's talents, limitedly effective in Europe, will be less effective in the Middle East. The small, Westernised middle classes undoubtedly admire him. The rulers of friendly countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey welcome Obama for his Muslim ancestry and for his attempted outreach to the Muslim world. But much of the victimhood-obsessed Arab and Turkish intelligentsia, and of the less educated masses, are mired in resentment of the West, many susceptible to the hateful propaganda of radical Islamist political movements. That is why Obama's visit to NATO ally Turkey - a country that public opinion polls indicate has retreated from secularism to Islamism and is overwhelmingly anti-American - will likely change US-Middle East political relations only marginally.
In the case of Iran, as with North Korea, Obama faces a hostile, paranoid and ideologically driven regime that fears negotiations as a plot to undermine its attempts to change the entire region and its political order.
That is why Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, responded so gracelessly to Obama's outreach with several crude and unacceptable demands: that the US change its policies towards the Muslim world (leave Iraq and Afghanistan, and abandon support for Israel) before Iran would begin dialogue, let alone negotiations. Within a year Obama is likely to face the agonising decision of what to do about the Iranian regime's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons. Will he carry out his promise, stated in the election debates, to do anything necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? The answer to that question - which may change world politics fundamentally for a generation - is not yet clear.
It depends on his assumptions about Iranian motives, and an array of political and economic circumstances, some not yet foreseeable.
There remains one important note of caution. In reaction to the North Korean missile test Obama spoke of the condemnation of the international community. Yet the feeble reaction of the UN Security Council shows once again that the indignation of the international community does not exist. One hopes Obama's use of the term international community is a rhetorical device, not an article of faith.
The multiple problems threatening the West today seem overwhelming. However, the US is led by a man of exceptional intelligence, political sophistication and serenity. Obama is a man who listens to an array of opinions before making policy decisions and, one hopes, is a man who learns from experience.