Why Washington Worries
Obama has made striking moves to fix U.S. foreign policy—and that has set off a chorus of criticism.
As George W. Bush's term came to a close, he had few defenders left in the world of foreign policy. Mainstream commentators almost unanimously agreed the Bush years had been marked by arrogance and incompetence. "Mr. Bush's characteristic failing was to apply a black-and-white mindset to too many gray areas of national security and foreign affairs," editorialized The Washington Post. Even Richard Perle, the neoconservative guru, acknowledged recently that "Bush mostly failed to implement an effective foreign and defense policy." There was hope that President Obama would abandon some of his predecessor's rigid ideological stances. But, the Post warned, "it won't be easy to undo what Mr. Bush has done."
In fact, though consumed by the economic crisis in its first 50 days, the Obama administration has nevertheless made some striking moves in foreign policy. Obama announced the closure of Guantánamo and the end of any official sanction for torture. He gave his first interview as president to an Arab network and spoke of the importance of respect when dealing with the Muslim world—a gesture that won him rave reviews from normally hostile Arab journalists and politicians.
Hillary Clinton has racked up more miles in a few weeks than many of her predecessors as secretary of state did in months, mixing symbolic gestures of outreach with substantive talks. The administration has signaled a willingness to start engaging with troublesome regimes like Syria and Iran. Clinton publicly affirmed that the United States would work with China on the economic crisis and energy and environmental issues despite differences on human rights. She has also offered the prospect of a more constructive relationship with Russia. Obama said he was open to the prospect of talking to some elements of the Taliban in an effort to isolate its hard-core jihadis.
These are initial, small steps but all in the right direction— deserving of praise, one might think. But no, the Washington establishment is mostly fretting, dismayed in one way or another by most of these moves. The conservative backlash has been almost comical in its fury. Two weeks into Obama's term, Charles Krauthammer lumped together a bunch of Russian declarations and actions—many of them long in the making—and decided that they were all "brazen provocations" that Obama had failed to counter. Obama's "supine diplomacy," Krauthammer thundered, was setting off a chain of catastrophes across the globe. The Pakistani government, for example, had obviously sensed weakness in Washington and "capitulated to the Taliban" in the Swat Valley. Somehow Krauthammer missed the many deals that Pakistan struck over the last three years—during Bush's reign—with the Taliban, deals that were more hastily put together, on worse terms, with poorer results.
Many normally intelligent commentators have joined in the worrying. Leslie Gelb, the author of a smart and lively new book, "Power Rules," says that Hillary's comments about China's human-rights record were correct, but shouldn't have been said publicly. Peter Bergen of CNN says that "doing deals with the Taliban today could further destabilize Afghanistan." "It's change for change's sake," Gelb writes ruefully. Ah, if we just kept in place all those Bush-era policies that were working so well.
Consider the gambit with Russia. The Washington establishment is united in the view that Iran's nuclear program poses the greatest challenge for the new administration. Many were skeptical that Obama would take the problem seriously. But he has done so, maintaining the push for more effective sanctions, seeing if there is anything to be gained by talking to the Iranians, and starting conversations with the Russians. The only outside power that has any significant leverage over Tehran is Russia, which is building Iran's nuclear reactor and supplying it with uranium. Exploring whether Moscow might press the Iranians would be useful, right?
Wrong. The Washington Post reacted by worrying that Obama might be capitulating to Russian power. His sin was to point out in a letter to the Russian president that were Moscow to help in blunting the threat of missile attacks from Tehran, the United States would not feel as pressed to position missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic—since those defenses were meant to protect against Iranian missiles. This is elementary logic. It also strikes me as a very good trade since right now the technology for an effective missile shield against Iran is, in the words of one expert cited by the Financial Times's Gideon Rachman: "a system that won't work, against a threat that doesn't exist, paid for with money that we don't have."
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world.