Friday, February 13, 2009

Obama's foreign policy: tone changes but policies continue

Obama announces his foreign policy continuity team in December
From left: Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano, Bob Gates, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones and Susan Rice

The much-hyped bipartisanship in Washington seemed to end almost before it began with sharp party lines being drawn around the economic stimulus program this week. In foreign affairs, however, the odds are that President Obama's Administration -- led by a team of mostly pragmatic national security professionals and tough-minded politicians, including Jim Jones, Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton -- will be marked more by continuity with the previous Administration's policies than by radical change.

To be sure, Obama has adopted a new "tone" that conveys a sense of a willingness to consider significant changes in direction (his metaphor of reaching out to adversaries with "an unclenched hand" typifies that new tone). If nothing else, Obama is artfully exploiting other nations' eagerness for for a kinder, gentler America to gain some initial advantage in tackling tough problems, or at least some breathing room. But a close look at the substance of what the Obama team has said about U.S. policies -- so far anyway -- does not point to any sudden or sharp reversals.

Stratfor, the private intelligence service, sees continuity in what Vice President Biden had to say about two key areas at last week's Munich Security Conference of senior leaders from many countries. This on Iran:

The Obama administration’s position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions...Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such talks are identical to the terms under the Bush administration.

And this on Russia:

Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the “reset button” [Biden's widely quoted conciliatory words] on U.S.-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in Central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, “It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administration’s commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed.

Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to end the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing U.S. interest in it, or even any indication of the terms under which it might end.

Stratfor goes on to note that Europeans generally and the French and Germans in particular have been very keen to see the back of George W. Bush and welcome Obama. Yet, as Biden renewed the U.S. call for more NATO involvement in Afghanistan, where Obama intends to expand and refocus the war effort, Europeans were no more inclined to help out than they were when Bush was President. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went out of her way to made it clear that Germany will not send more troops.

Then. of course, there is these facts: Obama has already backed away from his campaign promise to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq more quickly; he has reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Israel; and he appears to be following through actively on his pledge to give higher priority to prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

There will be changes, as there are in every Administration. Some will happen because a new President brings a fresh perspective. Others because Democrats have different domestic political needs than Republicans. More often, changes will occur because the circumstances are altered or because other nations and non-state actors act differently. But the parameters of American foreign policy are set by American interests. Tone and emphasis may differ, but the broad thrusts of policies will be consistent. That is proving to be the case under President Obama.

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