As we continue to look back at Obama’s first year; here is Eliot Cohen’s thoughts on his dismal foreign policies. Mr. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. The article was published in the Wall Street Journal. Taking the Measure of Obama's Foreign Policy - WSJ.com
If the first year of President Barack Obama's foreign policy were a law firm in Charles Dickens's London, it would have a name like Bumble, Stumble and Skid.
It began with apologies to the Muslim world that went nowhere, a doomed attempt to beat Israel into line, utopian pleas to abolish nuclear weapons, unreciprocated concessions to Russia, and a curt note to the British to take back the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. It continued with principled offers of serious negotiation to an Iranian regime too busy torturing, raping and killing demonstrators, and building new underground nuclear facilities, to take them up. Subsequently Beijing smothered domestic coverage of a presidential visit but did give the world the spectacle of the American commander in chief getting a talking-to about fiscal responsibility from a Communist chieftain.
The lovely town of Copenhagen staged not one, but two humiliations: the first when the Olympic Committee delivered the bad news that the president's effort to play hometown booster had failed utterly, before he even landed back in the U.S.; the second when the Chinese once again poked the U.S. in the eye by sending minor officials to meet with Mr. Obama, as they, the Indians and Brazilians tried to shoulder him out of cozy meetings aimed at sabotaging his environmental policy. Even smitten foreign admirers—in the case of the Nobel Prize, some addled Norwegian notables—managed to make him look bad.
It was nonetheless a year of international displays of presidential ego, sometimes disguised as cosmic modesty ("I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war"), but mainly of one slip after another. The decision to reinforce our military in Afghanistan came after an excruciating dither that undermined the confidence of our allies. Mr. Obama's loose talk of withdrawal beginning in 18 months then undid much of the good in his decision to send troops.
Some of these follies stemmed from the inevitable glitches of a new administration settling in—the foreign-policy equivalent of the White House social secretary failing to keep party crashers out. Some of them resulted from sheer naivete, much from the puerile vendetta Mr. Obama waged against the previous administration's record, a bad rhetorical habit that fogged the brains of people who should know better. One hopes that his advisers, and the president himself, recognize the weight of the query reportedly posed last April by the most formidable contemporary leader of a free country, Nicolas Sarkozy: "Est-il faible?" (Is he weak?). If a year from now world leaders think the answer is "yes," the U.S. will be in deep trouble.
In at least one way, Mr. Obama resembles his predecessor: He has enormous self-confidence. But where George W. Bush's certainty stemmed from moral conviction, Mr. Obama's arises from a sense of intellectual superiority. Given the centrality of his intelligence to his own self-perception, how might he use it to redeem a record of, at the moment, fairly unrelieved failure?
Much of foreign policy consists of a rough and ready game of adaptation to unforeseen, occasionally awful events. Indeed, Mr. Obama has been fortunate that his first year in office did not witness a real foreign-policy crisis. We have yet to see how he will meet that test. But there are large questions that require some high intellectual effort that he might consider tackling.
The first is explaining to the American people, and indeed to the world, what kind of war we are waging against Islamist movements. Neither Mr. Obama nor the predecessor he still complains of have been able to get beyond the trope of "extremists who have perverted a great religion." J. K. Rowling has given her readers a more thorough understanding of Lord Voldemort than the West's leaders have given their populations of whom we fight, what really animates them, and what the challenges that lie ahead will be. In particular, Mr. Obama has not articulated an effective policy of dealing with enemies who are neither criminals nor soldiers. Instead, he has tried to walk down both sides of a street at once, trying some in courts and keeping others in Guantanamo (or, in the future, a Gitmo North in Illinois) for handling by military tribunals.
The second problem is Iraq, the war that the president opposed, but the success of which is a matter of cardinal importance. The U.S. must have a broad policy for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Such a policy should—must—work Iraq into a broader pattern of relationships. The emergence of a free Iraq offers great opportunities. A relatively stable, representative and secular Iraq would help counterbalance Iran, support moderate regimes such as Jordan, and fuel a world economy that, however climate conscious, will need oil. Simply to talk about "responsibly leaving Iraq to its people" is, in fact, irresponsible. Iraq will need care and attention to stay on its current fragile trajectory to success, but it is also an opportunity not to be neglected.
Part of un-Bushism as foreign policy has been a self-inflicted muteness by this most articulate of politicians on the topic of democracy, freedom and human rights. American foreign policy has always been a long and difficult dialogue between realpolitik and our values, our pursuit of our own interests, and our deliberate efforts to spread freedom abroad. Saying that the U.S. will "bear witness" to abuses and brutality around the world is, in effect, to say that we will send flowers to funerals. Mr. Obama needs to say something considerably more serious. In the case of Iran, for example, he could make it altogether unambiguous that we stand with those risking their lives to confront and, if fortune favors them, overthrow a dangerous, indeed evil regime.
Finally, all the globalist talk of this past year has obscured the importance of our alliances, which are evolving, but above all, need tending. New and rising allies—as different as the United Arab Emirates and Colombia—need to be identified and described as such. But more importantly, they, as well as old allies, need to hear from the U.S. president the importance we attribute to them and a conceptual description of how they fit into our policy.
It's a large agenda, but then, Mr. Obama likes to give speeches. And it still leaves plenty—articulating the need for and meaning of American primacy, for example—for 2011.
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