A year after coming to office, President Barack Obama has reopened diplomatic lines of communication, but still has little to show for his efforts on the toughest US foreign policy questions.
While former president George W Bush’s foreign policy was driven by the necessities of the “war on terror,” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the new administration would begin “a new era of engagement.”
Whether dealing with the global economic crisis or the climate change summit in Copenhagen, Obama has demonstrated his conviction that the United States cannot solve international problems alone.
He has also worked to repair relations with Russia, engage in “strategic dialogue” with China and pledged the United States will no longer engage in torture and will respect the United Nations. Obama’s personal popularity has bolstered the impact of key international speeches, including his address to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo and his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo.
But the US president has also risked the wrath of critics by extending a hand to US adversaries including Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. “He has put Washington back in the international negotiating business,” wrote Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in The American Interest magazine.
“Obama has also cleared the international air of a lot of anti-Americanism,” he added. “His words have prepared the ground for the subsequent application of real American power. The problem is that the power shoe still hasn’t dropped.”
Three foreign policy issues have dominated Obama’s agenda: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran’s nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The first of the three remains deadlocked as a result of Israeli government intransigence and Palestinian divisions. After a long year of futile efforts, Washington has reportedly offered its own peace plan for consideration.
But it has failed to convince Israel to halt settlement construction, and has seen little progress towards creating a strong or unified Palestinian side able to pursue negotiations.
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, Obama made good on a promise to pursue dialogue with Tehran, only to see his overture rebuffed.
Iran’s intransigence in the face of US engagement has ultimately strengthened international support for new sanctions against Iran, experts said.
Tehran has not only refused to negotiate, but even announced it would build more nuclear sites.
In dealing with the war in Afghanistan, Obama eventually announced he would boost the number of US troops in the country and has also sought to strengthen relations with Pakistan, even as he ordered an increase in the number of US air strikes against militants in the country.
He faces rising US casualties in the war, and the difficult task of dealing with an Afghan government that came to power after fraud-tainted elections. On all three policy questions, Obama has weakened the impact of his new approach by maintaining more-or-less similar tactics to his predecessor George W Bush, said Amjad Atallah, a policy expert at the New America Foundation.
Even in Afghanistan, where you see the most difference (because) the neo-cons never cared about Afghanistan, the policy is very similar to the Bush administration’s strategy for Iraq: surge and withdraw,” he told AFP.
Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, former president Jimmy Carter’s diplomacy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski praised Obama for having “completely reconceptualised US foreign policy with respect to several centrally important geopolitical issues.” He cited Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, his decision to treat China as a “geopolitical partner” and his desire to be a “fair-minded and assertive mediator” in the Middle East peace process.
But he noted that Obama’s efforts have so far “generated more expectations than strategic breakthroughs.” Ultimately, he added, “how Obama handles these three urgent and interrelated issues — the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian dilemma and the Afghan-Pakistani conflict — will determine the United States’ global role for the foreseeable future.”
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