Updates, Live

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Fresh Guts Versus Washington As Usual

Obama’s gut tells him the world demands new policies, but Washington politics keep him stuck in the conventional. Roger Cohen in today's NY Times:

I had very high hopes for Barack Obama. I still do. He’s smart, curious, informed — and he has a sense of humor, if only he’d display it more. But he inherited a nation in a funk and, one year into his presidency, he’s not found a way to lift the mood. Americans feel mired.

At a fundamental level, that funk is about a power shift. The United States is not what it was. It got attacked and the response has proved draining in blood and treasure. Anger accumulated, frustrations and debt grew. America’s 20th-century role is unraveling, albeit slowly, but its 21st-century role is not yet born.

Like it or not, we are witnessing the relative decline of the West. It’s going to be a long, slow movie but I don’t think the plot is going to reverse itself.

This transition prompts a couple of reactions. One is To heck with the world. Many Republicans (and Sarah Palin comes to mind) are in this my-way-or-the-highway place. The other is: Let’s adjust to the new reality through outreach and a new modesty. Obama is somewhere in that zone.

The thing is the president needs some results. I see him caught in a kind of halfway house. His gut tells him the world has changed and demands new policies but Washington politics keep him stuck in the conventional. His first year on the world stage has offered innovative speeches but largely unoriginal policy.

I suspect he’s not yet confident enough to have the courage of his convictions. Or perhaps he just needs more grown-ups in the White House. The transition from a very successful campaign to power is still a work in progress. If I get another mass e-mailing from the White House about what Obama’s movement needs next, the response will be ugly. That’s not how you govern.

The issue is change. Obama has spoken of a new foundation. It’s needed within and without, where the vital centers of growth have shifted to China, India, Brazil. But change is not about speeches. It’s about conviction and courage. I don’t see it happening for the moment — not with respect to Beijing, or Tehran, or Jerusalem, or Havana, or ... Well, the list could go on.

In the 1950s, as he watched his country getting embroiled in the conflict that would become the Vietnam War, a U.S. official observed: Whether the French like it or not, independence is coming to Indochina. Why therefore do we tie ourselves to the tail of their battered kite?

Obama is still hitched to too many battered kites.

There was the $6 billion-plus arms sale to Taiwan, which predictably enraged Beijing. No re-imagined relationship with China is going to emerge as long as Beijing views Washington as meddling with its core strategic interests in this way. How Obama thinks he can double U.S. exports by 2015 while provoking China is a mystery. How he expects any meaningful cooperation on Iran is equally hard to fathom.

When I was in China last month, I asked the Foreign Ministry about Iran policy. I got a pretty clear written response: We think sanctions would not fundamentally solve the problem. There are still diplomatic means that we can try regarding the nuclear issue.” The Foreign Ministry told me China stood strongly behind nonproliferation but called for patience in “resolving the Iranian nuclear issue in a comprehensive and peaceful way.

That’s a very considerable distance from Obama’s tone in his State of the Union address, where he lumped Iran with North Korea (being so utterly different, they should not be paired) and warned Iranian leaders that they will face growing consequences. That is a promise.

What did I say about a halfway house? Obama wants a new relationship with China but he’s stuck with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. He seeks a new relationship with Tehran but is relapsing into the old, sterile sanctions-threatening pattern at a moment of great political fluidity in Iran when American saber-rattling is counterproductive. It is outreach that has unnerved the Iranian regime; threats serve the hard-liners. I’m with Chinese patience for now.

In the Middle East, where he wants to redefine America’s relationship with the Muslim world, and advance peace between Israel and Palestine, Obama finds himself listening to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent vows to keep some settlements in the West Bank for eternity. He has been unable to change the dynamic of ever widening estrangement between Israelis and Palestinians. I’ve seen no big new ideas, just a cool acquiescence to the Netanyahu’s nyets that help make two-state solution one of the weariest phrases on the planet.

The only area where Obama’s actions have been more eloquent than words is in the elimination last year of Al Qaeda fighters — far more than in 2008, the president said. This is a new but so far undeclared Obama doctrine: large-scale targeted killings. It’s cheaper and more effective than ground invasions but raises issues that can’t be passed over in silence.

New foundations are needed. But they can’t be built in halfway houses.

(Zoon Politikon)



Post a Comment

<< Home