Reading Obama’s book over the last couple of weeks, one of the things that struck me was his grasp of foreign policy.
It wasn’t so much that he had a plethora of innovative solutions to foreign conflicts/rogue states, or a brilliant new theory on international diplomacy. What is clear from his writing though, is that Mr Obama possesses not only a very good understanding the world as it is, but also understands that in foreign policy, image is King.
We don’t need a debate to conclude that Bush has made a mess of America’s image. In the last eight years, Bush has made America just about as popular as Iran. Obama on the other hand, has probably increased the popularity of America threefold simply by getting elected. The man is a master at communications and image-crafting. If anything, it is this skill that was primarily responsible for his election, and is probably the most significant difference between presidents 43 and 44.
Number forty-three has made a number of intensely difficult decisions over the last eight years. On a fundamental level though, most of those decisions are quite logical (minus iraq, yes) – surveillance, fighting the taleban, negotiating with Pyongyang, for example. Bush though, had two problems; he went to extremes and he had no clue how to explain or portray his decisions. On the basic level of national security see, neither Obama nor any other American president could have afforded to differ very much, or risk being labeled an appeaser or weakling. As Newsweek writes, “The flaw of the Bush-Cheney administration may have been less in what they did than in the way they did it.” So don’t expect earthshaking change in policy, per se.
On the topic of acting unilaterally in self-defense, for example, Obama states that “we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security.” – that sounds awfully like W. The truth is, most American presidents would state that without blinking an eyelid, even though the statement above basically justifies the Iraq war.
Or take surveillance. Obama, in fact, voted for amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – one that allows a continuation of warrant-less wiretapping, albeit with more judicial oversight. And while it is difficult to conclude the extent to which surveillance has prevented a second terrorist outbreak in America, it is in truth a very logical, and necessary step to prevention. So, whilst it remains an uncomfortable truth, it is a reality that a world with terrorism must face up to.
Later in his book, Obama says this on the need for multilateralism: “Why conduct ourselves in this way? Because nobody benefits more than we do from the observance of ‘international rules of the road’ “. It is not the multilateral slant that is worth noting here, but the reason for the multilaterism – he understands multilateralism must be adhered to not merely because of its ideals, but because it will benefits the US as well. He understands that world public opinion really does matter, because foreign governments are also at the mercy of public opinion back home.
So I don’t think we can expect a world of difference in the ‘what’ of obama’s foreign policy. There will be a difference in the ‘way’, though. Take the horror that is Gaza at this moment. We know that Obama is pro-Israeli. Yet notice the silence from Obama over the current Arab-Israeli conflict? He knows shooting his mouth of in a show firm support will simply lose the middle-east battle he’s trying to win (and the rest of the liberal minded world too). And while I confess I don’t know what he will do when Jan 20 comes and he is forced to take a stand, Obama has already done something that hasn’t really been an option for Bush – showing restraint.
Barack Obama’s greatest gift remains his ability to work the media. It requires a discretion of speech, a penchant for good impressions and the ability to juggle polarazing demands. These, I happen to think, are not unlike the fundamentals of diplomacy and foreign affairs. Thus, for all the pre-election criticism of inexperience and a weakness in foreign affairs, Barack Obama may just turn out to be a foreign policy genius.