Freedom From Fear

Now that he's accomplished the central aim of George W. Bush's foreign policy, Barack Obama can finally get started on his own.

I was in the audience in Washington on Aug. 1, 2007, when candidate Barack Obama gave the speech in which he famously declared, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets [in Pakistan], and President Musharraf won't act, we will." I didn't consider that bit of bluster the headline; I was much more struck by his insistence that in the post-9/11 world, "we are no longer protected by our own power." Shows what I know. The campaign aides I spoke with in the ensuing days were tremendously frustrated that the real message of the speech had been lost in a noisy debate over whether Obama was trying to swagger his way to the nomination.

Now, almost four years later, and long after Gen. Pervez Musharraf left office in Islamabad, Obama has made good on his pledge, sending a team of Navy SEALs across the border into Pakistan to take out the highest-value target of them all. And suddenly, for the first time since taking office, Obama has the hard glitter of the warrior -- like George W. Bush in his "mission accomplished" moment, only without the bomber jacket and the hokum. It's a bizarre irony for a candidate who once said, "I want to go before the United Nations and say, 'America's back!'"

The great despair of Obama's foreign policy advisors in 2007 was how relentlessly he was pegged as the "soft" candidate. Obama opposed the war in Iraq, advocated nuclear nonproliferation, and cherished the U.N. -- so he was soft. He was willing to talk to America's adversaries without preconditions and Hillary Clinton wasn't -- so she was tough. The very terms reeked of the Cold War mentality that had shaped Hillary and her generation, and then lived on way past its sell-by date.

Obama's advisors said at the time that he understood American national security now depended less than it used to on military power and more on how America behaved, and was seen to behave, in the world. Ending torture was thus a matter not just of morality but security. At the same time, Obama had no compunction about killing terrorists, even on neutral soil. He wasn't harder or softer than Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush; he was something new in the world. "The difference between a revolutionary foreign policy and a conservative foreign policy is profound," as Sarah Sewall, a counterinsurgency expert at Harvard and a key foreign policy advisor, told me then.

Well, you'd have trouble seeing that just now, wouldn't you? The president has been revealed as Jack Bauer, trampling on the niceties of law in pursuit of justice -- or as "Cool Hand Barack," as Maureen Dowd has christened him. He said he wouldn't quibble over international law when it came to America's security -- and he didn't. Of course getting Osama bin Laden, by whatever means, was a deeply satisfying victory. But it's very strange to contemplate that the one promise Obama kept from that paradigm-setting speech was the one in which he offered to break the rules rather than to restore respect for them.

Okay, that's not quite fair. Candidate Obama promised to wind down the war in Iraq and ramp up the war in Afghanistan, and of course he has done both. But those decisions were scarcely transformational; a third-term Bush might well have done the same. Perhaps the most important promise he has been able to keep is to "turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action," as he said in the 2007 speech, by engaging adversaries as well as allies. He has ended torture, but he has not closed Guantánamo or stopped the odious practice known as rendition. A combination of the budget crisis and a recalcitrant Congress has prevented him from making good on his vows to double foreign aid by 2012 and from substantially increasing "the numbers and capabilities of our diplomats, development experts, and other civilians." He has moved much more timidly towards nuclear disarmament than he had said he would.

Of course, Obama has had a lousy run of luck -- but now his luck has changed. The raid on bin Laden's lair has accomplished something beyond the disposing of Public Enemy No. 1: It has freed Obama from having to prove his toughness. He can advocate "soft" policies without being seen as soft. Having broken the rules with such eclat, he can now safely argue for the rules he believes in.

What does that mean in practice? I put the question to a senior White House official, who e-mailed back, "We are actively thinking about exactly that question but have not yet come to any conclusions." In a subsequent phone conversation, he speculated on the effect of the raid on other powers: "To the extent that people thought we were in decline or indecisive or preoccupied with internal matters, they'll have to revisit that." That's probably true, and it can't be bad to make China think twice about whether the United States is in decline -- though the Chinese will probably draw their own conclusions about that from our deficit and growth rate. And in any case, spooking economic competitors hardly counts as fulfillment of Obama's transformational promise.

You can see why Obama's aides would be as perplexed as they are inspired by the opportunity presented by the killing of bin Laden. Obama still won't have the money to engage in large-scale nation building or dramatically improve public health in Africa. He still can't get a nuclear test-ban treaty through the Senate. Neither Hamas nor Israel will prove any more willing to make peace with one another than they were last week. Obama could use bin Laden's death as a pretext to accelerate the departure of troops from Afghanistan, as a great many critics of the war have suggested, but he seems to genuinely believe that U.S. forces must remain in Afghanistan over the next three years in order to prevent the Taliban from taking over and offering a new base of operations to al Qaeda and other jihadists. (Still, the president may be under increased pressure to use the strategic review this summer to leave Afghanistan faster than currently planned.)

But all of this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The whole hard-soft formulation rests on fear: fear that a remorseless enemy is taking our measure, and must not find us wanting. The Bush administration mercilessly exploited that national mood in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to underwrite its bellicose policies and demonize its critics. Obama understood that well; in that 2007 speech, he called for an end to "the color-coded politics of fear."

Those politics didn't end with Obama's election; look no further than the fear-mongers who shouted down the effort to try Guantánamo detainees in civil court. But even if bin Laden's death doesn't put an end to al Qaeda, let alone the larger jihadist threat, it does give Obama a chance to lift that suffocating mantle of fear. It gives him the chance to say that Islamic fundamentalism is a threat like other threats the United States has faced and will face, and that he will take the measures required to deal with it as he does with other threats -- all without facing the damning charge of endangering the national security.

Maybe he can even give the very idea of "threat" a rest. Obama can remind the American people of the opportunities that lie before them. In retrospect, the Cairo speech of June 2009 offered a false dawn -- but now the real dawn of Arab liberation, with all its attendant dangers and possible drawbacks, has arrived. The fear that the Arab street revered bin Laden has proved baseless; the targeted murder of al Qaeda's leader by American special forces acting in a Muslim country has barely provoked a peep. Obama can embrace the forces of change less hesitantly than he has, can push harder in stalemated countries like Yemen and Bahrain. He can look beyond the Middle East to talk about enhanced relations with the rising powers -- especially the democratic powers -- of Asia and Latin America. He can confront head-on the all-important issue of America's global competitiveness. He can talk about his old friend the U.N., and maybe even spare a helicopter or two for peacekeeping forces. Obama can, as he said in August 2007, "turn the page."

John Angelillo-Pool/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Hope Dies Last in Damascus

Will Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on his citizens finally put an end to a decade of wishful thinking about the Syrian president?

Last month, as Syrian security forces were shooting demonstrators in the streets, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a modest defense of President Bashar al-Assad, noting that "many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer." Clinton would probably like to have that one back -- first, because she was shanghaing innocent legislators into defending a controversial White House policy, and second, because she was putting "Assad" and "reformer" in the same sentence.

But Clinton was hardly alone in ascribing the best of intentions to the Syrian dictator. Earlier this week, British Foreign Minister William Hague took note of several speeches in which Assad made vague and windy promises, and declared, "It is not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms." Not too late? Do we need any further clarity about Assad's designs?

Why do people continue to believe that Bashar Assad is somehow different from other Arab autocrats, or for that matter from his father Hafez? There seem to be several reasons. First, Bashar feels like the most plausible of Western interlocutors. Like Gamal Mubarak or Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, he is a Westernized and well-educated offspring of a thuggish leader. Unlike them, he took over his country on his father's death -- in 2000 -- and showed the gumption and acumen to survive in a ruthless environment. His wife is beautiful and speaks perfect English. Bashar, who is very well aware of the effect he produces, was wont to drive his Western visitors around Damascus, dilating on his hopes for Syria's future and warning darkly of Islamic plots. "Bashar and his wife are very seductive," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You meet with them, and you're just amazed." Bashar will promise to let Lebanon stand on its own two feet, or to stop supplying Hamas with weapons. "And then," Tabler says, "it never happens."

Second, Assad really could make such a difference if he were the figure people wish him to be -- and he always seems to come so close to delivering. In 2008, Assad engaged in very serious negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights; both Israel and Turkey, which brokered the talks, said that they were on the verge of a breakthrough when Israel launched the war on Gaza, making further talks impossible. Sen. John Kerry, who has acted as a White House interlocutor with the Syrians, has made repeated trips to Damascus hoping to restart the talks, and has gone to great lengths to defend Assad because he believed that Syria held the key, or a key, to Middle East peace. Now he has made himself look rather foolish with his talk of how "generous" Assad has been in making minor concessions such as permitting the purchase of land for a U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

It is a mark of how central Syria is to the West's geopolitical calculations that everyone had their own perfectly good reason to believe in Assad's pragmatism. In the fall of 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent his top foreign policy advisors on a secret mission to Damascus. France had broken its ties with the country in 2004, when Syria was implicated in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Sarkozy and his aides hoped that ending Syria's isolation would persuade Assad to loosen his stranglehold over Lebanon. In fact, Sarkozy got nothing for his troubles save deep resentment from Lebanon's leaders, and announced soon thereafter that he was breaking off the talks.

The big breakthrough never happened -- yet everyone kept hoping, and trying. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a former French diplomat with long experience in Syria, says, "It's like a quadrille. Everyone has been changing partners 10 times -- France, U.S., U.K., Turkey. And at the end everybody is slipping back to the wall." France slipped away, and then Barack Obama's administration stepped up. For the White House, Syria offered a test case for its signature policy of engagement. The George W. Bush administration had refused to deal with Syria, even in the midst of the country's promising talks with Israel. And Syria had tightened its alliance with Iran, and continued shipping weapons across the Lebanese border to Hezbollah. So why not try talking? The White House nominated an ambassador to Syria in early 2010, sent mid-level officials to test Assad's willingness to move away from Iran and Hezbollah, and gave its blessing to Kerry's own diplomacy.

Over the course of two years, Obama got just about what Sarkozy got -- nothing. Yes, Syria smoothed its relations with Iraq and opened an embassy in Beirut. But Assad continued to supply Hezbollah with ballistic missiles and continued to meddle in Lebanese politics, allowing Hezbollah to topple that country's elected government, whose chief allies were the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis thought they had a deal with Damascus to keep the so-called March 14 coalition in power in Lebanon -- and then they, too, slipped back against the wall.

Assad seems to have finally run out of dance partners; both Kerry and the White House have sharply denounced the regime in recent days. But there is a new reason to believe in Assad: The consequences of his fall could be calamitous. Filiu says that "Bashar could be a safeguard, a talisman, to exorcise the ghost of sectarian strife" -- Iraq-style bloodletting -- "which is something every Syrian is thinking about 24 hours a day." Filiu still believes that Bashar has the "capacity" to reform, but he concedes that there are no signs that he has "the will" to do so.

You can't help feeling that Western policy toward the Syrian regime has been guided by a kind of geopolitical wish-fulfillment, in which hard-headed "engagement" masked a dubious faith in Assad's capacity and will. Or maybe it's fairer to say that the upside of engagement was so great and the downside so small that everyone kept plugging away long after they should have given up. As Andrew Tabler says, "Policy involves a tremendous amount of reverse engineering" -- figure out a policy, and then line up the facts to fit in.

But there's a broader point here about engagement itself. One of the themes that emerges from Ryan Lizza's rather murky account of Obama's foreign policy in the New Yorker is the dawning recognition of the inadequacy of engagement as a controlling metaphor for foreign relations. The Obama White House spent its first few years in office trying to soothe the dudgeon raised around the globe by the Bush administration's bellicosity and high-handedness. The administration's theory was that it could make real gains by dealing with other countries on the basis of "mutual respect and mutual interest," to use a favorite Obama formulation. The "reset" with Russia, for all its limits, has vindicated this theory. Engaging Khartoum may have helped ensure the peaceful referendum on Southern Sudan this past January.

But there are also plenty of recalcitrant regimes that will pocket the respect without changing their behavior. Iran is the most obvious example; China may be another. And the Arab Spring has offered a stiff lesson in the limits of engagement. Private admonishments had no effect on Arab tyrants, and the administration has learned -- again and again -- that it must choose between siding with regimes and siding with citizens. And in fact there is a real cost to "engaging" with tyrants: Whether you intend to or not, you send a message of acceptance to the regime and of indifference to the plight of the citizen. That price is sometimes worth paying, or at least unavoidable (think: Saudi Arabia). But often it's not. In this case, the Bush administration may have been right.