Obama's Year One: Pro

When Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park last November, in front of 150,000 people who had assembled to celebrate the triumphant end of his two-year quest to become president, the atmosphere was filled with the hope that had been his campaign’s watchword. His opening remarks captured the moment:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
How long ago that night, and all the emotion that suffused it, now seem. A year into the Obama era, doubts linger about whether America really is a place where all things are possible. The power of its democracy—mired in partisanship at home and assailed on several fronts abroad—is once again being questioned. The aura of hope that Obama carried around with him like a protective blanket is now worn and frayed.

On the right, the president is attacked by a populism that proposes conspiracy theories about his “socialism,” and, more significantly, by fiscal conservatives dismayed that he has run up the largest deficit since World War II. On his other flank, leftwing blogs and magazines hum with the
language of betrayal—pointing to Obama’s retention of some Bush-era security measures and his hawkish stance on Afghanistan. “The Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism,” writes Naomi Klein. The Progressive laments that Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan “represents a huge blunder and a stinging slap in the face of the peace movement.”

The most heated criticism of Obama’s international policy was unleashed after the admittedly surprising decision of the Nobel jury in October to award him its Peace Prize. Skeptics on the right and left alike lambasted the award as a “not-Bush” prize, arguing that Obama’s only achievement since entering the White House was to look and sound different from his predecessor.

It is true that although Obama promised a fresh start in America’s relationship with the world, a new course in which aggression and the threat of force would be supplanted by listening and the offer of dialogue, his interlocutors in the globe’s most intractable hot spots have not shown reciprocal generosity. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, set the tone just one day after Obama was elected. Summoning Cold War rhetoric, he warned that Russia would move its nuclear weapons farther west unless Washington abandoned plans to extend an antimissile shield across Eastern Europe.

Others followed suit. The Israeli government responded to Obama’s promise to begin anew on the Middle East peace process by approving yet more settlement building in the West Bank. The Iranian regime replied to his offer of talks with no preconditions on its nuclear program by pressing on with uranium enrichment. North Korea took a similarly unyielding stance, carrying out its second nuclear test in May, even as the United States presented it with the option of bilateral negotiations.

This nose-thumbing by world leaders has prompted cries of “We told you so!” from the president’s detractors, primarily on the right. But such reactions underestimate how inevitable it was that Obama’s attempt to forge a new relationship between America and the world would be met not with open arms but with suspicious scowls. Medvedev, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il: these are leaders who have come to power during—and been defined by—the period of America’s hegemony as the world’s only superpower. They like to see themselves as resistance leaders preserving a measure of national pride in the shadow of America’s overweening might. So it is no surprise at all that they should respond with the same aggressiveness to Obama that they directed toward Bush. To these leaders, Obama’s offer of a new start is a direct threat. It overturns the geopolitical system that has for years sustained their grip on power.

Because of these reactions from world leaders whom we too facilely assumed would succumb to Obama’s eloquence and charm, and because of the president’s exaggerated carefulness in sorting through the complex problems he faces, Obama has been accused of “dithering” and impotence. But geopolitical arrangements of many years’ standing do not get changed in a day, much as one might wish. Habits are set, suspicions ingrained, dogmas hard to shift. Revolutions and tsunamis aside, the world moves in little steps and judders, not seismic explosions.

In that sense, the signs of progress that we should be looking for under Obama at this early stage are not the kind of events that throw up dramatic banner headlines like “Iran Suspends Nuclear Program” and “China Improves Human Rights.” We should search instead for signs of new beginnings and tenuous efforts to find new ways of doing things. And there are such signs. Take, for instance, Russia. Medvedev may have greeted Obama’s electoral victory with Cold War rhetoric, but by the time of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, he had entirely changed his tone. A week before, Obama had announced that he was dropping plans to extend the antiballistic missile shield to Poland and the Czech Republic—the same system that had inspired Medvedev’s threatening posture the day after the U.S. election. A week later, the United States and Russia joined hands to push through a Security Council resolution on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

The significance of that resolution goes far beyond the size of the two country’s nuclear arsenals. It goes to the heart of the Iran crisis. If Obama’s strategy of applying firm, multilateral pressure on the Iranian regime to force it to back away from its nuclear program is to succeed, then Russia must be brought on board for the imposition of new sanctions. And Russia is far more likely to cooperate now than it was a year ago. That is progress.

In Iran itself, Obama’s radical new approach has also begun to produce results. With hatred toward America receding in the wake of the Bush administration, Iranians were left at the June elections asking tough questions about their own internal democracy, or lack of it, turning their anger inward rather than against the great external enemy. Clearly, in the short and perhaps middle-term, the upheaval in Iran has failed to lead to the change the demonstrators desired, and the painful aftermath of arrests and oppression is still being played out. But in the context of Iran’s complex power structures, in which religious and nascent democratic forces are in constant competition and flux, the longer-term consequences of this summer’s tumult could be profound.

China, too, is crucial to the Iran puzzle. In his November trip to Asia, Obama built on his early efforts to gain Beijing’s trust. That is of vital importance to U.S. policy in a number of regions, like Africa, Iran, and North Korea, not to mention the fact that China is bankrolling the U.S. economy. On the crucial issue of climate change, for instance, the two powers may find a genuine point of convergence that, in turn, provides the understanding from which agreements in other areas flow. In all these arenas there are reasons to believe that, given time, Obama’s new approach may yield positive results. Certainly it is premature to denounce his mission to change America’s relationship with the world as a failure.

But it is also true that two specific areas are putting the Obama administration to the test. In the Middle East and in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Obama has to accelerate his peacemaking efforts if he is to demonstrate that the hope invested in him in 2008 was merited.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem continues to be the weeping sore of U.S. foreign policy. It was one thing for George W. Bush to effectively wash his hands of the peace process, allowing the region to slide into ever more entrenched hostility and despair as he focused U.S. military might on the ill-conceived and poorly prosecuted escapade in Iraq. Obama has no such luxury. He knows that his goal of improving American standing across the Arab world—as set out in his Cairo speech in June—depends on getting the process going once again. He knows, too, that the ill feelings generated by the conflict act as an ongoing recruiting tool for Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda, another reason why Bush’s failure to grapple seriously with the issue was so short-sighted.

So far, Obama’s achievements here have been painfully limited. Indeed, his only accomplishment appears to have been to prompt a thought that until now was quite unthinkable: that America may not have that much influence over Israel. Washington “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama proclaimed in the Cairo speech. How did Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition react to the president’s ultimatum? By carrying on with their construction project.

The explanation for Obama’s astonishing inability to sway America’s historic ally in the Middle East has more to do with domestic U.S. politics than with foreign relations. Obama has been so tied up with health-care reform at home that he has lacked the political capital—particularly among the many pro-Israeli Democrats in Congress, whom he could not afford to alienate for fear that they might defect on health care—to take a robust stance with Israel.

That is an explanation; it is not an excuse. Once he signs the health-care reform bill, Obama needs to turn to the Middle East with a genuine commitment and begin the unpleasant but necessary job of banging heads. He needs to bring settlement building to a halt quickly. Despite the evidence of the past few months, America does have the power to assert its will (its $2.5 billion annual aid to Israel would be a good bargaining chip to open with). Once settlement expansion has stopped, Obama can then move to make equally urgent demands on key Arab states, including that they make diplomatic gestures of goodwill toward Israel, such as inviting Israel to set up trade missions. Once sufficient trust and confidence has been generated on both sides, talks can be brought back online.

If only the way forward were as clear for Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Victor Davis Hanson pointed out a year ago in this journal, Obama came to power claiming that Iraq was the “bad” war and Afghanistan the “good” one. But now they have traded places. The president spent the autumn in a prolonged review of tactics and strategy in Afghanistan. It took so long that his critics yet again jumped to conclusions, calling this period of reflection “amateurism” and accusing the White House of losing the initiative. Given Obama’s track record as a thorough, painstaking, and pragmatic politician, however, his approach to Afghanistan has been utterly in line with his character. He focused not on how long it took to make a decision, but whether he finally made the right one.

Now the decision has been made and it is fair to say that the potential for Obama to become unstuck is real. He has created political problems for himself by being so gung-ho about Afghanistan in the days when it was still the “good war.” That no longer works. As the Afghan war unfolds, Obama must show that he has genuinely learned from the mistakes of history—those committed by his immediate predecessor, those committed by the Soviet Union, and even those committed by the British roughly a century ago. He must show that he truly understands that this is an unwinnable conflict, and that an open-ended prosecution of it is not in America’s best interests.

The president must find a way forward that replaces an all-out ground war with one that uses more honed intelligence and military action to meet specific, winnable goals: pursuit of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, interception of new training camps that al-Qaeda tries to establish in territory American forces have vacated, and support for a viable and credible alternative to Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government. These are hugely difficult objectives in themselves, ones that may yet prove unachievable. It is quite conceivable that there is no credible alternative to Karzai, and that, before long, the United States will have to drop all pretense when it comes to influencing the political future of such a vastly ungovernable country.

The problem is compounded by the instability of Pakistan, which, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons sitting on top of a cauldron of regional and tribal rivalries, has the potential to unravel at any moment. So far, the Obama administration has not been tested—as Joe Biden predicted it would be—in this arena. If and when it is, it will need to prove itself adept at negotiating a fiendishly complicated situation. And there will be no second chance.

Obama is nothing if not a pragmatist, and pragmatists take the path toward the lesser evil. After all, America is in the AfPak region for one reason only: to protect U.S. security. Fighting an endless war that leads to countless American deaths and causes untold political and social upheaval at home and around the world does not, by any definition, accomplish that goal.

So, at the end of his first year in office, Barack Obama has made a modest down payment on his vision of a hopeful and reenergized America that can advance its own interests while also soothing a savage world. The trick will be to make the hefty mortgage payments that will continue to come due throughout his administration.

Ed Pilkington was international editor of the Guardian from 1998 to 2003, national editor from 2003 to 2006, and is currently New York bureau chief.

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