The Obama 'change' in American foreign policy emphasizes realism, engagement and negotiation; multilateralism, “smart power,” and collective, concerted attacks on global issues. While the new approach is apparent in the President’s exceptional rhetoric, it may embrace expectations for others that will prove unrealistic. Nowhere is it being tested more severely than in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Whether presidential addresses in Cairo or Prague, or in the UN General Assembly, both the words and the symbolism are dramatic breaks with America's post-Cold War triumphalism. President Obama has elided characterizations of America as the “indispensible nation" and dispensed with the illusion that preemptive war would result in a grateful populations embracing American-style democracy overnight.
An American president chairing a UN Security Council meeting and focusing on nuclear non-proliferation and environmental protection signifies a new respect for once scorned international institutions—as does emphasizing both at the UN General assembly and at the G-20. Recasting the relative roles of developed and emerging economies in the G-20 acknowledges the realities of interdependence displayed in sharp relief by the global recession; as well as the economic co-dependency of China and the US. The bitter trans-Atlantic rhetoric triggered by the Iraq War has been replaced by the usual engagement and normal wrangling. Russian relations may yet be 'reset' following the President’s decision to replace the Polish and Czech ground-based missile shield with seaborne radar and missiles, and the Russian willingness to consider more intrusive sanctions against Iran following disclosure of its new nuclear processing plant near Qom.
Obama’s African roots, his visits to the continent, and his apparently genuine commitment to supporting sustainable development in the world’s poorest regions are widely perceived to be more than mere well-meaning rhetoric. A joint focus with Mexico on drug violence and illegal immigration, the gradual thawing of relations with Cuba and a more measured approach to domestic developments in countries such as Honduras and Colombia have ironically led Hugo Chavez to declare to the UN General Assembly that he no longer sniffs “sulfur” in that global chamber.
But reality still intrudes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet agreed to freeze West Bank Jewish settlements—drawing a hair-splitting distinction between freezing and restraining; casting doubt on progress on a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. The brazenly manipulated Afghan presidential election undermines what little credibility and legitimacy the Karzai regime had—just when it is needed most. And Iran, with its ruling clerical and political elite now split after months of debate and demonstrations following its presidential election, may prove even more intractable in the negotiations with the Security Council and Germany over its nuclear programs—perhaps ultimately persuading the Israelis to strike.
Hans Morgenthau, a leading 20th century Realist, emphasized that great powers should never place themselves in a position from which they could not advance without grave risks, or from which they could not retreat without serious loss of face. That is the crux of the U.S. problem.
In the current Afghan strategic review, we see Obama’s approach to leadership clearly: encourage a vigorous examination of objectives and means, identify alternatives and participate in their evaluation and discussion as a lead up to presidential decision. But his eventual decision will also be constrained by his March speech which emphasized “…a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Does this mean rooting out Al-Qaeda wherever they reside? Defeating the Taliban and preventing its return to power? Nation-building in Afghanistan? Ousting a corrupt Karzai regime? Attempting a new "cordon sanitaire" and allowing whatever may happen in Afghanistan to happen so long as Al-Qaeda is not involved?
Regardless, Pakistan must continue to consolidate its internal stability and security following the successful ouster of the Taliban from Swat if it is to play a role in stabilizing Afghanistan and eradicating Al-Qaeda strongholds in the borderlands. But can Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari retain both focus and the loyalty of the military and intelligence services? Or will he be willing again to cede large portions of territory to the Taliban for a safe haven?
Eight months into his term, the President knows that his words alone cannot suffice, and that tough decisions—as with the anti-missile defense—must be made. Nowhere is this more clear and urgent than in U.S. policy on the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Regardless of what he decides, Obama can be assured that his critics on the left will be unhappy, and his Republican opponents on the right will revert to even more vitriol in the run-up to the 2010 Congressional elections; adding foreign policy issues to the exaggerated polemics and distortions that are debasing and degrading our civil discourse.