Foreign Policy has two perspectives on Fareed Zakaria’s latest piece in Newsweek. Both are interesting critiques of both Zakaria and the Obama foreign policy.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the Obama administration’s plans to talk to adversaries — Iran, Russia, Syria, the Taliban, etc. But we’ve heard preciously little about how the administration intends to create conditions of strength that are the requirement for diplomatic success. Everyone knows Obama is willing to talk. The question is what new leverage he will bring to bear to make that talk effective. Will we use the military forces we are withdrawing from Iraq to exert greater pressure on Iran? Are we asking our European allies to take any bold new steps on financial coercion? What exactly is Russia willing and able to do to change Iran’s decision-making? So far, answers to questions like these have not exactly been forthcoming, and in their absence, it’s not at all off-base to think that talking without leverage could harm U.S. interests. (And all of this is assuming that Iran hasn’t just said, screw it, we’re getting the bomb, and damn the torpedoes, which opens up a whole new world of problems.)
A more balanced perspective on Bush — some positive, some negative — would pave the way for Fareed to offer a more balanced perspective on Obama. I agree with Fareed that some of the critiques of Obama have been exaggerated, almost as exaggerated as, well, the conventional wisdom on Bush. But surely in a column calling for a reasonable perspective on Obama’s foreign policy performance, Fareed could have found space to at least discuss some of the missteps and rookie mistakes: perhaps a mention of the ham-handed personnel decisions (like this one or this one) or the needless insults to allies (such as this one or this one). If these are dismissed as minor peccadilloes, how about a candid admission that, as Fareed himself recommended, Obama has more often than not continued Bush’s foreign policies while claiming to make bold dramatic changes?
In the end, I don’t think that the Obama Administration cares all that much about foreign policy. Obama is not a foreign-policy oriented President. He’s much more concerned with the U.S. economy, which is (rightly or wrongly) popularly conceived as much more important than what’s going on abroad. Obama’s view of American power is not fully formed. He had almost no foreign policy experience when he took office, and he’s displayed little interest in foreign policy now—other than largely staying the course from the Bush Administration.
Obama’s idea is that if somehow everyone gets together and talks somehow everyone will come to a consensus. That model barely works in faculty meetings, and it won’t work in international diplomacy. Iran will not give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Why should they? The US can talk all they want, but there’s nothing we can offer that will give Iran a reasonable incentive to stop. The Iranians are doing what a rational state would do in their shoes: develop a nuclear deterrent to Israel. That they may be insane enough to use that deterrent is a problem, but even if the Iranian regime were perfectly rational, they’d still be developing nuclear weapons.
There’s no “consensus” there. Iran wants nuclear weapons, we want to deny them the opportunity. There’s no amount of carrots that can dissuade them otherwise, and the Iranians know damned well that Barack Obama does not have the political will to stop them. They have no fear of President Obama, and there’s no reason they should fear him. That is a problem for us.
On the other hand, I suspect that Tehran is frightened of Binyamin Netanyahu. He will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and he’s the only world leader who would do something to stop them. But even that seems a less than likely circumstance.
What should Obama do? He has to face facts: the world is not a peaceable place. If he chooses to negotiate it must be with the full understanding that negotiation may be pointless. That means understanding that players like Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela may not have any interest in so much as throwing us a bone. That means being willing to be both smart and tough. All the tough rhetoric in the world is worthless. Nobody fears Vladimir Putin because he talks tough, they fear Putin because he’s perfectly capable of killing dissidents, invading countries, and playing hardball to get what he wants.
That doesn’t mean that Obama should emulate Putin, but that does mean that he needs to learn to play hardball. That means being willing to engage Central Asian states on the same terms that Russia does: and they’ve become far better than us at offering tasty carrots and brutal sticks. We can’t pretend that Tashkent works the same way as Washington D.C. It doesn’t, and we have to learn to play by the regions rules.
Obama has shown some promise—he has been less radical in foreign policy than some had predicted. But he still has a long way to go. He can’t keep alienating allies like he did with his shameful performance with Gordon Brown. He has to face the realities of a harsh and unforgiving world. Obama has the benefit of being intelligent and articulate, which counts for a lot. But it will never be enough, and unless the world fears him just a little, America will never truly be respected.