/ 11 March 2009

After flurry of early activity, Obama doctrine takes shape

If ever the world would have forgiven a man for not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, it would have been now. No one would blame Barack Obama if he focused exclusively on the economic crisis, pushing the foreign policy in-tray to the back of his desk. After all, there’s only so much even a Messiah can handle.

But last September, when a panicked John McCain suspended his campaign to return to Washington and deal with the financial turmoil, Obama refused to follow, explaining that ”Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time”. In that spirit, he has advanced a programme of Rooseveltian ambition at home — while not forgetting that his job description also demands he be the lead actor abroad.

It’s not been easy: there are reports of flashes of irritation, as well as streaks of grey on the presidential head. By all accounts the president often looks like he needs a cigarette. Badly.

For all that, he has crammed a slew of foreign policy moves into his first six weeks, any one of which would have made big news in normal times. Instead, in the age of global economic meltdown, they have had to fight for more than fleeting media attention.

Most visible have been the big declarations, whether announcing the beginning of the end of the Iraq war, avowing that ”the United States of America does not torture”, or ordering that Guantánamo be closed. In just the last week, we’ve had secretary of state Hillary Clinton dispatching officials to Syria as well as inviting Iran to talks on the future of Afghanistan — extending a hand to two states previously consigned to outer darkness. The start of the month brought the revelation that Obama had written a secret letter to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, hinting at a deal in which Moscow would lean on Iran, urging it to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, in return for the US scrapping its planned installation of a missile defence system in Russia’s eastern European backyard. A gesture to cap it all: the Obama administration has moved to ease trade and travel restrictions with Cuba.

So there’s no shortage of activity. The question — 50 days into the administration — is: what does it all amount to? Is there a common thread of logic running through these moves, one that we might describe, however prematurely, as the Obama doctrine?

The first unifying theme, sounded minutes after he took the presidential oath, is a repudiation of the legacy of his predecessor. Obama is determined to signal to the world that he is the unBush. Some on both the left and right have suggested that this is more symbolic than real, that in fact the basic lineaments of US policy remain in place. Obama will keep rather a lot of troops in Iraq until the end of 2011, just as the Bush administration planned to; he has intensified US involvement in Afghanistan, sending 17 000 more troops; and Robert Gates, George Bush’s defence secretary, remains in post under Obama.

Put that to the Obama team, and they don’t wholly deny it. The US did not become a different country on January 20, 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”.

To be clear, this is not guitar-strumming hippy dovishness, as the escalation in Afghanistan confirms — though one senior administration official warns against overinterpreting that move. It is a ”time-buying exercise”, he says, ensuring things don’t get worse on the ground while the White House undertakes a strategic review of the entire Afpak region, from where, it argues, every major al-Qaeda attack since 9/11 has emanated.

That same official explained it to me like this yesterday: ”The Bush administration hindered its own efforts by tying one hand behind its back. Diplomacy is a tool, but they viewed it with such suspicion, as if those who pursued it were somehow weak. This is about being wise.”

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 the US’s enemies that generates headlines, no less important is the relationship with the US’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. — guardian.co.uk