Barack Obama and Foreign Policy by Biography

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THE PLANK NOVEMBER 19, 2009

Barack Obama and Foreign Policy by Biography

The Washington Post writes today about the limits of Obama's biography in foreign policy. The paper's story notes that Obama talked extensively about his biography and personal experiences in Asia, then asks:

But is his biography-as-diplomacy approach beginning to show its limits?

Obama does not fly home with any big breakthroughs or any evidence that he has forged stronger personal ties with regional leaders. Even at the ground level, there was no Asian equivalent of the Cairo speech -- when he spoke to the Muslim world in the summer, invoking his father's Islamic heritage.

During the presidential campaign, Obama's narrative helped catapult him into the Oval Office as a leader who could bridge racial and regional divides. Since becoming president, he has used that message to greatest effect abroad -- talking about his African roots in Ghana and infusing remarks about race relations in Latin America with his own experience, among other examples.

At home, critics have accused him of being self-indulgent by viewing the world through such a personal lens. The question that may soon follow, however, is whether his "only in America" tale will yield the cooperation he seeks from foreign leaders, rather than just popular goodwill and curiosity.

Fair questions, and ones about which own Leon Wieseltier has been frustrated for some time. I sympathize here, but it's also important to differentiate between two points.

The first point is that a wide gap exists between the expectations and the reality of what Obama has delivered. It's true that Obama mania blinded sensible people to some long-entrenched limits of domestic and foreign policy. Hillary Clinton was on to something when she cracked wise about those celestial choirs.

But that complaint is often blurred together with another one, which blames Obama personally for a lack of tangible U.S. foreign policy achievements since January. His empty-handed departure from China is a good case study. Okay, he didn't achieve breakthroughs on global warming and Iran sanctions. But you just can't snap your fingers and win concessions from a nation with enormous financial leverage over us. Sure, Obama soft-peddled human rights while there. But while you can argue with that calculation, it's a matter of strategy that has little to do with the beef about his biography-centric foreign policy. I would like to see someone credibly argue that a President McCain or President (Hillary) Clinton or President Romney would have come home with a bagful of "deliverable" goodies. (The same goes for Arab and Israeli leaders deadlocked on the peace process.) It's not Obama's fault that America's global power is at a low ebb. And while repairing it will take a lot more than charm, a little charm doesn't actually hurt. As David Axelrod told the Post, "One of his strengths on the world stage is that he is breaking down the sense that America and America's leaders don't have any understanding of or identification with the rest of the world." Better than the alternative, right?

So, give the man some more time. Obama has major decisions ahead on issues over which he has more control: Afghanistan, Iran, and where he will finally draw the line on Israeli settlement policy. Judge him by those landmarks, not the hollow staged diplomacy of the past few days.

 

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posted in: the plank, world, cairo, the washington post, america, asia, latin america, china, ghana, islamic republic of iran, david axelrod, hillary clinton

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