After a flurry of early activity, the Obama doctrine is taking shape
We're only 50 days in, but it's not too soon to discern a refreshing thread of logic in the president's foreign policy
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 March 2009
The US did not become a different country on 20 January, they say; its interests have not changed overnight. It's true, they concede, that in its second term the Bush White House did become more "realist", opening up lines of communication with the likes of Iran. The difference, says the new team in Washington, is that while the Bush folk were "forced" into realism after seeing their ideological dreams in ruins, "this is our starting point". What no one denies is that there is a clear advantage for the US in the rest of the world believing that a profound change has come about. Which is why Joe Biden's declaration that the US is pressing the "reset button" has become the current catchphrase of US diplomacy.
A benign assessment of the Obama record so far would see two other early traits. The first is a readiness to speak the truth. Asked by the New York Times last week if the US was winning the war in Afghanistan, he replied tersely: "No." After the Bush years, when those who followed the evidence were dismissed as dullards imprisoned in the narrow-minded confines of the "reality-based community", such candour is a relief.
Second, there are some signs of imaginative thinking. Deploying the veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process, George Mitchell, to the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of those ideas that seems obvious - but only because it makes so much sense. The same goes for allocating the Afghan-Pakistan, or "Afpak", file to hardball maestro Richard Holbrooke.
But plaudits surely go to Obama's direct appeal to Medvedev, with its echoes of John F Kennedy's resolution of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Just as JFK agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey if the Soviet Union took theirs away from Cuba, so Obama implicitly made a similar offer to Russia: you get Iran to back down, and I'll remove my interceptor missiles and radar stations from Poland and the Czech Republic. If such an initiative were to work, the knock-on effects would be multiple. Take one: Israel has long hinted that if its friends were to make the Iranian threat go away, it would respond by moving forward on the peace track. For a long while that was assumed to mean military action against Iran. But if Obama's Russia gambit were to succeed - and the critics claim Gates started work on these lines a year ago - the goal of an Iranian nuclear freeze, with all its ancillary benefits, would be achieved without a shot being fired.
And this surely is the current Obama doctrine: the emphasis on what candidate Obama, nearly two years ago, called "tough-minded diplomacy".
In this conception, almost no one is off limits. Obama spoke last week of reaching out to those moderate elements of the Taliban that can be reached, much as dialogue with assorted Sunni militias eventually brought progress in Iraq. But while it is the prospect of dialogue with America's enemies that generates headlines, no less important is the relationship with America's friends. Pressed to define the doctrine of the administration he serves, that senior official says it's the "recognition of the necessity and efficacy of collective action".
I'm told that this was the thrust of Biden's message to Nato's North Atlantic Council in Brussels yesterday: not some kind of "wussy multilateralism", with lots of cosy meetings and platitudes, but a "results-oriented" desire to get things done - and the belief that that only happens when the world acts in concert.
To be sure, these are only the early signals in the early days. But from a president with his hands full, they are encouraging.