Obama's kinder, gentler foreign policy

Though much of the focus of Barack Obama's first six weeks in office has been on his trillion dollar economic stimulus and deficit-busting budget proposals, the administration has nonetheless given us some insight into the nation's new foreign policy. If you are someone who believes that the world remains a dangerous place, it is anything but comforting. Many who voted for Obama undoubtedly believed that some of his more radical foreign policy positions during the 2008 campaign were rhetoric designed to appeal to the left-wing base of the Democratic Party -- those who believe that the Iraq War was a grievous error and that the "war on terror" is a Bush construct designed to assert U.S. imperialism abroad and usurp civil rights at home. Unfortunately, his first month as president shows that Obama intends to be largely consistent with the promises he made during the campaign. His first order of business after taking office was to sign an executive order closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where a number of the most dangerous Al Qaeda terrorists -- including the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- is now housed. He also banned the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, limiting our ability to question terrorist detainees to the strict rules of the Army Field Manual. In making these two decisions as a first order of his new Administration, Obama was making clear that he intends to place values -- specifically the democratic ideals of due process and human rights -- at the very forefront of U.S. foreign policy. In closing Guantanamo and banning forms of interrogation that the left views as torture, Obama said "Living our values doesn't make us weaker. It makes us safer, and it makes us stronger."

It is not a stretch to believe that those who are now formulating foreign policy in the Obama Administration believe that the importance of being true to our values warrants a substantial redefining of how America extends its power to the rest of the world. For generations, our foreign policy has been based on the concept of realism and "realpolitik" -- the notion that power should be projected on the basis of our national interest, and that power (as opposed to international law or the United Nations) is the principal currency in international affairs. Realpolitik is, above all else, a practical concept; since power considerations dominate, it often leads to choices that in hindsight seem less than principled. One example that liberals like to use is U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran -- just a decade before the U.S. itself went to war against the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. The U.S. supported Iraq not because we thought that Saddam Hussein was the "good guy", but because he was seen as less dangerous than Iran, and a potential tool to overthrow the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Such "situational" principles drive liberals and idealists crazy, of course, because the left generally sees the world through a lens that doesn't lend itself to the pragmatic use of American power. Liberals have always been more idealistic about how the possibility of peace-through- negotiation. Power -- especially of the military variety -- should only be used in the most extreme cases of self defense, and then only as a last resort. And when we do use military force, we should do so in a way that is consistent with our values. Realpolitik is now valuespolitik.

Valuespolitik is entirely consistent with how Barack Obama views the world -- and appears now to be the underlying principle of our new foreign policy. At the center lies the promise of negotiation -- of finding some shared basis of interest and understanding that can lead to first engagement and then reconciliation. Here are a few examples:

-- In some of his first comments to the media as reported in the New York Times, Obama stated his "determination that the United States explore ways to engage directly with Iran", even as he confirmed Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons and is supporting terrorist groups destabilizing Iraq and the Middle East. In this same article, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is quoted as saying “(that) there is a clear opportunity for the Iranians to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community", and stated that "there could be some form of direct communication between the United States and North Korea."

-- According to a recent piece by Claudia Rossett in Forbes, the President's hand-picked Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke (has) "been talking about Iran's reach into Afghanistan not as part of the problem, but as part of the solution. Despite allegations, some by NATO officials, that Iran has been helping Taliban "extremists"--as Obama labels the terror-dedicated Taliban -- Holbrooke opined recently on an Afghan TV station that Iran (yes, the same Iran run by the totalitarian mullahs who applaud Palestinian suicide-bombers, jail and torture dissident bloggers, and execute children and homosexuals) has a "legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors."

-- Rossett also notes in her Forbes article that despite overwhelming evidence of the Iranian-backed terror nest that Gaza has become, the U.S. seems less interested in ending the terrorist reign of Hamas than in bankrolling its territorial base. “Reports earlier this week, citing an unnamed U.S. official, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to attend a funding conference in Cairo next week where she will pledge $900 million in U.S. aid for Gaza. At a Tuesday press briefing, a State Department spokesman confirmed that while details, including the exact amount, are still being worked out, a whopping pledge is indeed in the offing: It'll be, you know, several hundred million."

The pattern that emerges from these examples is that valuespolitik assumes that interests between the U.S. and the rest of the world can somehow be aligned in a way that will result in a more secure geopolitical situation – and that we can achieve this while not compromising our own democratic values. In Obama's view, valuespolitik is achieved principally through direct engagement and negotiation. Never mind, of course, that the United States and Europe have been negotiating with Iran for the past several years on their nuclear weapons program, offering all manner of economic incentives to encourage the Iranians to join the peaceful international community. The result of all this talk has been that the Iranians are now closer than ever to achieving both a nuclear warhead and the means of delivering it.

The failure of past efforts at negotiation doesn't sway our new president, however. Barack Obama genuinely believes that he is the one the international community has been waiting for; that his unique ability to communicate -- and the power that Clinton, Holbrooke and others will have speaking on his behalf -- can bring Iran, North Korea and even Hamas in from the cold. Some would call such a belief naive, others would call it hubris. I would call it both. But whatever you call it, this strategy lies at the center of the Obama foreign policy.

Thinking about Obama's foreign policy reminds me of an old story about Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. LBJ was the consummate deal maker and believed that given an opportunity, there wasn't anyone he couldn't convince to see things his way. As the situation in Vietnam deteriorated and protests began heating up at home, LBJ offered to Ho Chi Minh a "Great Society" program for Vietnam, using American dollars to give the Vietnamese people food, shelter and prosperity. “A TVA for the Mekong Delta” he liked to say. It was all part of a fundamental belief that everyone has a price. Jack Valenti, a Johnson aide once recounted LBJ saying to him: "If I could just sit in a room with Ho Chi Minh and talk to him, I think we could cut a deal."

What Johnson failed to realize is that Ho Chi Minh was never going to accept a permanent partition of his country into North and South, and that North Vietnam would never cease their struggle for a unified, independent Vietnam. It just wasn't open to negotiation.

One guesses that this would be an instructive lesson for Barack Obama in dealing with Iran and other Islamic fundamentalists. The goal of Iran is the destruction of Israel and the West. The goal of Al Qaeda and Islamic radicals is the death of all non-believers and the establishment of a world caliphate based on Islamic law. These are not deal points to be negotiated away. These are fundamental beliefs that defy bargaining. No focus on shared values can lead to success, for we have no values in common.

And this is the core weakness of valuespolitik. While negotiation can achieve certain gains on the margins, it has the effect of blinding our policy to the true, non-negotiable threats that face us. And we pursue it at our own peril.