Permissible Arms

The political barometer

Posted in united states by Karaka on 10 May 2010

George Packer’s assessment of Obama’s foreign policy words and actions gets my pick for read of the day.

Over time, the President and his officials have acquired a more supple voice, finding a better balance between engagement and criticism. In January, for example, Clinton delivered an important speech on freedom of the Internet, a blow aimed at Beijing, among others. Obama has begun to speak more frequently and forcefully about what he calls “universal rights,” emphasizing that they are not an American invention. But the perception has been established: this Administration will devote its energy to repairing relations with foreign governments, and will not risk them for the sake of human rights. Where the stakes are low, as in the West African nation of Guinea, the Administration speaks out against atrocities, with positive effect; but where there’s a strategic interest, as in Ethiopia, which has jailed dozens of journalists and opposition politicians, the policy is mainly accommodation.

Obama never placed democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy. He campaigned on three initiatives—withdrawing from Iraq, redoubling in Afghanistan, and reëngaging with friends and enemies alike. He has expressed admiration for the foreign policy of the first President Bush and his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and, on one level, Obama fits their mold of classic realism: wary of moral posturing, he analyzes the world country by country, calibrating American interests accordingly, without trying to impose a single abstract doctrine everywhere.

It’s been interesting, in a not particularly surprising sort of way, to watch Obama slowly shift to a less idealistic and more grounded set of policies. I think it has as much to do with the aides that advise him as the political realities of America’s friends and enemies. The groundspring of support he received in 2008, both domestically and internationally, perhaps buoyed public opinion that his administration would be able to enact more sweeping changes than have actually happened. Or are likely to happen.

This is not to say that Obama has been unsuccessful in his fairly moderate foreign policy goals; but I suspect that, internally, his crowning achievement would be considered the halting of nuclear proliferation, and reduction (or at least the promise of reduction) of nuclear arms throughout the world. If he can get a clean landing on that one, even Israel-Palestine might not look so bad.

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