The Compass

« Sometimes I Don't Get the Israelis | Blog Home Page | Japan's Nuclear Option »

Obama's Apologies

This is a pretty striking analysis from AP's Steven Hurst on Barack Obama:

While historic analogies are never perfect, Obama's stark efforts to change the U.S. image abroad are reminiscent of the stunning realignments sought by former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. During his short — by Soviet standards — tenure, he scrambled incessantly to shed the ideological entanglements that were leading the communist empire toward ruin.

But Obama is outpacing even Gorbachev. After just three months in power, the new American leader has, among many other things:

_ Admitted to Europeans that America deserves at least part of the blame for the world's financial crisis because it did not regulate high-flying and greedy Wall Street gamblers.

_ Told the Russians he wants to reset relations that fell to Cold War-style levels under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

_ Asked NATO for more help in the fight in Afghanistan, and, not getting much, did not castigate alliance partners.

_ Lifted some restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel to their communist homeland and eased rules on sending wages back to families there.

_ Shook hands with, more than once, and accepted a book from Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-American leader of oil-rich Venezuela.

_ Said America's appetite for illegal drugs and its lax control of the flow of guns and cash to Mexico were partly to blame for the drug-lord-inspired violence that is rattling the southern U.S. neighbor.

_ Said that "if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence" — neglecting to mention U.S. health care, education and humanitarian relief efforts in Latin America.

Leave aside the absurd moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the U.S. - I take Hurst to mean that both Obama and Gorbachev inherited countries that were on unsustainable trajectories and sought to right the balance. But notice what's missing from his list? Actual policy changes. There is one, and a relatively minor one at that. The rest is a change in rhetoric.

Perhaps this rhetoric is a down payment on more substantive policy changes to come. But it's important not to lose sight of fundamentals here.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner has more:

Looking at what Obama has done to date, I'd suggest that his foreign policy doctrine comes by way of Charles de Montesquieu -- crudely put, useless conflicts weaken necessary conflicts.

To elaborate: the United States suffers from an overextension of its foreign policy obligations. With a weakened economy and a drop in U.S. standing, it is both costly and fruitless for the administration to continue policy conflicts that yield little beyond pleasing those invested in the policy status quo.

It looks like Obama and his foreign policy team have prioritized what issues they think are important -- righting the global economic ship, China, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, nuclear nonproliferation come to mind. Those are the issues where the United States will stick to its preferred policy positions and be willing to accept no deal rather than a bad deal.

One other issues -- Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, trade policy, human rights, democratization, missile defense -- Obama's team sees little to be gained from continuing past policies that have borne little fruit. Furthermore, by adjusting U.S. policy on these issues, the administration conserves resources, goodwill and focus for the first list of issues.

I think this is right and it explains one of the reasons that many conservatives are so aghast at the rhetoric. It's less specific Obama policies they object to (although there are obviously a number of legitimate policy objections) but to the very notion of priority-setting. Obama is repudiating the uni-polar moment crowd and so they're naturally unhappy.