So Obama, change isn’t easy

The US President promised a new kind of foreign policy. A year on, it’s proving hard to achieve

By Tim Marshall, November 5, 2009

Fifty-two weeks is a long time in politics, but not long enough to turn around the supertankers of American foreign policy. That is especially true when, after taking power, you realise that changing policy can lead you into a course strewn with mines, waiting to blow your tankers out of the water.

Fifty-two weeks ago President Obama’s election victory speech promised that: “Change has come to America”. That is a moot point. What is harder to argue is that America has brought change to the world.

The mood music, the “atmospherics”, did change, albeit briefly. The President stretched out an open hand to Iran, travelled to Russia, and made a speech in Cairo hailed as ushering in a new era. When the applause died down, realpolitick returned to spoil the party.

The tribulations of Afghanistan required, according the President, a huge re-enforcement of American troops with more to come. He has been forced to endorse an Afghan president who “won” re-election after fraud on an industrial scale. In Pakistan the Americans have increased their airstrikes, moved Special Forces into the North-West Frontier, and encouraged President Zardari to declare war on the Taliban. All this may have been necessary, but it is not the type of change envisaged by Obama’s supporters.

When Obama went to Russia, Prime Minister Putin was visibly unimpressed. A few weeks later, despite the President scrapping missile defence in Eastern Europe, the Russians still were not on board on Iran.

When the applause died, realpolitick returned to spoil the party

Across the Arab world, people began the 52 weeks with a hope for change that became an expectation after the Cairo speech. The President said the plight of the Palestinians was “intolerable” and called West Bank settlements “illegal”. Subsequent pressure on Israel was feeble. Prime Minister Netanyahu knew the issue could be kicked into the long grass as the Iranian crisis heated up. The Arabs were incredulous at the risibly transparent photo taken in New York of Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority and Obama.

The Nobel award drew attention to the fact he had achieved little and drew gasps of astonishment in the West Bank and Gaza. Last weekend’s visit by Hillary Clinton only re-enforced the idea that the President has changed nothing in the peace process other than seeing more settlement houses built and growing radicalism in Gaza.

Iran was perhaps the toughest foreign policy to turn round. Successive presidents, going back 30 years, have failed to engage the Iranians on anything more substantial than secretly selling arms to the regime in return for freeing American hostages in Beirut. Obama has played his few cards well, proffering an “open hand” to the Iranians knowing full well he might be, as he has been, rebuffed.

The Iran nuclear question has been a slow-burn story for several years — now it is beginning to spark. Most countries want complete transparency from Iran by the end of the year. But the Iranians are still playing for time. This week their ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh said “We are ready for the next round of technical discussions.”

They aim to head off sanctions by guiding another supertanker, Russian foreign policy. The Russians appear to think still that bogging down the Americans is more important than preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb.

If Russia blocks UN sanctions then Obama, and Israel, have tough decisions to make. Take the military option, try unilateral sanctions, or make a decision to do nothing. Israel may not wait. The Americans are busy ensuring that their strategic petroleum reserve, is topped up — that does not mean they are planning for war, but they are clearly planning in case of war.

None of this is necessarily Obama’s fault — ask yourself what the situation would have been like under a McCain presidency. Answer — pretty similar. Which is why, when it comes to foreign policy, the promise of change was always oversold. America has presidents and it has interests.

Last updated: 5:02pm, December 10 2009


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