Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Obama Subtle, or Naive?

Here's a demonstration of what makes the Economist such a successful newspaper in a world which isn't being good to most of the news media. Obama is soon to complete his first year as president, and it's possible to make two contradictory cases about his ability to manage the world, which the Economist proceeds to do:

Each time, the doubters say, Mr Obama’s delicate overtures are met with ambiguity or contempt. Since he engaged Iran, it has continued to temporise and dissimulate over its nuclear programme. When Mr Obama abandoned a missile-defence system in Europe, he appeared to extract a pledge from Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, that his country would support sanctions if Iran is recalcitrant—only for Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, repeatedly to say he sees no need. Although America has pledged $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over five years, the army seems reluctant to take on the Taliban who drift from northern Pakistan into Afghanistan—indeed, the conditions riding on the grant were spun by the Pakistani security services into an American “insult” (see article). Yes, Mr Karzai eventually buckled in Kabul, but his readiness to thumb his nose at the world superpower was humiliating.

(This was written before the recent Iranian snub). Meanwhile, other observers thinkObama is doing just fine:

The “clever” camp retort that diplomacy is not about instant gratification. Mr Obama has pulled off the urgent tasks of starting to withdraw troops from Iraq and resetting America’s dysfunctional relations with Russia. He has boosted the G20 as a new global forum. This week Israel announced a partial settlement freeze. With health-care reform under his belt, he will soon be able to turn to world affairs with his status enhanced. Besides, you could hardly accuse Mr Obama of timidity. In three speeches in Prague, Cairo and Accra, he set out a new foreign policy that rejects the Manichean view of his predecessor. He means to negotiate deep cuts in nuclear weapons, make peace between Arabs and Jews, engage Iran, heal the climate and establish America as the strongest and most upright pole of a multipolar world. Yes, this work lies ahead, but how much can you ask in a year of war and recession?

Personally, I'm in the doubter camp, and have been ever since I decided, in October 2008, not to cast my expat vote at all in the presidential elections. I couldn't bring myself to vote against Obama, but since I saw no reason to think he understood the world, I couldn't vote for him, either. In the meantime the best I can say is that on the Israel-Palestine topic he's done damage, and in facing Iran he has probably caused considerable damage, though both topics deserve posts of their own. Later today he will give an important speech about Afghanistan, which is the immediate reason the Economist offered their take; they're still undecided but think we'll soon know:
In the coming weeks he could prove the doubters wrong. He could lead the way towards a brave deal on the climate. He could press Iran to negotiate over its nuclear programme before his own end-of-year deadline—or secure Russian backing for sanctions. He could agree to cut nuclear arms with Russia. He could bully the Palestinians and Mr Netanyahu to agree to talk. And he could get Mr Karzai and Pakistan to show that they mean to make Afghanistan governable. Even part of that list would set up Mr Obama as a foreign-policy president. But if there is no progress, then Mr Obama will be cast as starry-eyed and weak. He himself recognised the danger of that in one of those golden speeches: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

Since Obama will remain the most important individual on the world scene for at least another three years, I'm still eager to have him complete his crash course in world events, grow up, and prove himself an historic figure of reconciliation and healing,so that I can admit I was all wrong about him.


Anonymous said...

'Clever'- the best argument for that so far? Obama's Olympic effort. Everyone saw it fail. Poor Obama. No Chi-town Olympics in 2016.

Then, in 2020-

Could still happen. Obama started out wanting to be mayor of Chicago. He could be a great one. Could still happen.

Hasn't yet, of course.


Anonymous said...

In the end, what matters is whether the man gets beneficial results. So far, he's logjammed the peace process, failed to slow the Iranian advance toward nuclear weapons, convinced American allies in many nations that the US isn't serious about protecting them so they'd better find alternatives, ... .

I think that history will record this year as a failure. One hopes that this administration (including Obama himself) learns from the experience. If not, the situation in the middle east will continue to deteriorate and American allies will drift to other patrons.

Alex Bensky said...

I was not just a nominal Democrat; I was elected to a party office (precinct delegate, the lowest political office there is), was on the county executive committee, chaired a state platform subcommittee, deputy director of a state presidential primary campaign...I was a real Democrat. As last fall wore on it became increasingly easier to contemplate not voting Democratic for the first time in my life and in the actual event it was a lot easier than I thought it would be.

I sincerely hoped Obama would surprise me and he has; I didn't think his domestic policy would be this foolish or that his foreign policy would carry quite this potential for catastrophe.

So at the end, Yaacov, I had no trouble voting against him and alas, no regrets. My cousin Emily said incredulously, "You voted for Sarah Palin?" and my response was, "You voted for Joe Biden?" Whatever Palin is, she isn't a fool, and Biden is.