Voice

The Iceman Leadeth

The cool diplomacy of Barack Obama.

After British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visits Washington this week for consultations at the White House, and U.S. President Barack Obama ultimately leave office, it is unlikely you'll find the two of them vacationing together. While the Tory PM and his American counterpart have developed a comfortable working relationship that is actually somewhat warmer than many had predicted given the political distance between the two, these guys aren't pals. But Cameron shouldn't dwell on it. Obama doesn't have a lot of pals among the members of the world's leadership club.

Obama doesn't dream up clever nicknames for his international buddies, as George W. Bush did. The PM will never be "the Cameronator" or "Mr. Horses and Hounds" in this White House. Nor should he expect the kind of late-night phone calls from Bubba that were a hallmark of the Bill Clinton era and made the Clinton-Blair relationship such a close partnership. And the kind of soul-mate, connected-at-the-heart-by-a-Laffer-curve, mind-meld of the Reagan-Thatcher years is out of the question.

At issue is whether Obama's cool is an impediment -- or an asset. Although he is, to use a term favored by my daughters' kindergarten teachers, "slow to warm," he is also famously even-keeled in the face of pressure or difficult circumstances. He hasn't much liked the lecturing and condescension of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he manages his emotions well and, I'm told, it is only after the pedantic, arrogant Israeli prime minister leaves the room that Obama feels free to express his emotions to some of his very small circle of close colleagues. ("No drama" caricatures aside, Obama has certainly shown his inner circle that behind the scenes he is frequently capable of losing his temper and, more frequently, of sharply communicating his displeasure with staffers who frustrate him with lack of preparation or an inclination to try to draw him into their petty agency politics.)

Interestingly, it looks like the Republican Party is going to present him with an opponent who is just as chill. As one senior Democratic Party observer put it, "2012 could be the year of the icebox vs. the refrigerator." Mitt Romney is no hot-blooded back-slapper either. According to an article in this past Saturday's New York Times, Romney had chilly relations with the Massachusetts legislature that parallel those of Obama with Capitol Hill. Neither man has particularly warm relations even with the leaders of his own party.

Obama, of course, has one strength that has thus far eluded Romney. He can turn on the heat and stir up the passion with crowds. In this he is like a lot of great actors, somewhat remote in their personal lives but capable of incandescence on the stage or screen. The contrast between the rock star Obama of the 2008 campaign and the cooler, behind-the-scenes real man was a bit confusing to global leaders during the first two years of the administration. Although clearly a brilliant guy and always very well briefed, he was difficult to connect with, some complained, and in some cases, so businesslike that he seemed brusque, leading to concerns about what this entailed for U.S. relations. From Cameron to Germany's Angela Merkel to Latin American leaders who interacted with him at the first Summit of the Americas he attended, there were doubts and even unhappiness. One now out-of-office Latin American head of state lamented the loss of the easy connection he had with Bush. When Time's Fareed Zakaria recently asked Obama about his closest international relationships, the example he offered of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to many observers to be a reach, further proof of Obama's remoteness. And most recently, here at Foreign Policy, GOP gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie suggested that the president's "cold and aloof" character made Obama vulnerable to Republican attacks, charging that his lack of closeness with Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki had somehow undercut U.S. relationships with those countries (neglecting to consider whether in fact it was Karzai's corruption and obduracy and Maliki's drift toward strongman status and, for that matter, Iran that might have posed bigger problems for these relationships).

But gradually, people have come to see Obama more for his actions than his sometimes too-businesslike demeanor. He has shown courage in his decisions to go after Osama bin Laden and Muammar al-Qaddafi. He has shown tenacity in his pursuit of a negotiated solution in Iran and his patience with the slow progress in Libya. He has shown vision in his pivot from the Middle East to Asia. He has shown flexibility in his ability to reassess policies from Iraq to Afghanistan to global financial markets. He has shown a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved, whether during climate talks or tough discussions with the Israelis. What's more, gradually, he has built constructive working relationships founded on a clear sense of professionalism and candor, be it with Cameron, Sarkozy, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, or, in fact, Erdogan.

Furthermore, the president has done what many wise leaders do and surrounded himself with top officials who complement his strengths -- deepening relationships, working them behind the scenes, offering warmth and an attentive ear where he can't or doesn't have the time to do so. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has masterfully and tirelessly shouldered much of the burden in this regard, but so too have Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the administration's two secretaries of defense, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. Collectively and quietly, they have changed the character of America's relationships with the world. The warmth Bush showed for his friends was always undercut by the alienation produced by his us-or-them policy stances (though it must be acknowledged that Gates, together with Condi Rice and Steve Hadley, made valiant and increasingly effective efforts to undo the damage of Bush's first term). What Obama has done is not just restored America's reputation with the tenor of his rhetoric and the substance of his speeches, but he has also turned his seeming aloofness into an American strength.

We've seen it before: For every Bill Clinton or Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has also had effective and even great presidents of considerable reserve, starting with the country's first one. Indeed, drawing on the sang-froid Obama has shown in approving covert, high-risk missions like the one that took out bin Laden, it is increasingly possible to see his remoteness as many of his top military leaders have, not so much as a defect or quirk but rather as the kind of calm, self-possessed "right stuff" of a Chuck Yeager. The reality is that the United States doesn't need a back-slapping president who is chums with other heads of state. In fact, in a world buffeted by crises and fraught with complexity, having a top guy who is unflappable and effective seems to be working considerably better than Americans' recent experience with having one who is a jovial, likeable frat boy oblivious to the havoc he wrought wherever his deeply held convictions took him.

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David Rothkopf

Iran Is the Great Distraction

Why Obama and Netanyahu are having the wrong conversation this week.

Iran has called America the Great Satan. Israel has called Iran an existential threat. For both the United States and Israel, whose leaders are meeting Monday to discuss how to handle Tehran's nuclear program, Iran should be called the Great Distraction.

By focusing on Iran, indeed by having some among Israel's top leaders seemingly obsessed about it, Israel is ignoring (or seeking an excuse to ignore) the real existential threats on and within its own borders -- demographic, social, and economic. By allowing Iran to occupy too much bandwidth, American leaders have also taken their eye off the ball. There are far greater national security threats and opportunities that require attention right now, from fixing the broken U.S. economic model to exploring the potential for a sound energy policy in order to both strengthen that economy and dramatically reduce the leverage and thereby the relevance of regimes like the one in Tehran.

This is not to suggest that Iran's nuclear program is not a cause for concern. Every available means short of an all-out war should be used to stop Iran from getting the bomb. But even with regard to Tehran's dangerous and expanding weapons efforts, the approach to addressing the problem shows a misplaced focus.

Israel speaks of the threat of a nuclear Iran as though it were something new and destabilizing. It is not. At the same time, the greatest threat it does pose is not being effectively addressed, while lesser ones are.

Iran is hardly the first of Israel's enemies to seek or even possess nuclear weapons capabilities. For the entire Cold War, Israel, as a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East, was vulnerable to nuclear attack from the Soviet bloc. Iraq and Syria, of course, sought nuclear weapons capabilities, and some of the countries that supported them in that endeavor remain a threat. One country that has represented such a proliferation threat in the broader region and is at least as great a state sponsor of terrorism as Iran is Pakistan -- a country with many more weapons than Iran could have for decades and one that is far less stable.

Senior Israelis have also correctly pointed out, as did Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief in March 1's New York Times, that one cannot stop a country with sufficient economic and industrial resources from getting a bomb within a matter of a few years from making the decision to have one. Even a successful raid on Iran is likely to only delay that country's acquisition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, any failed raid is likely to only strengthen the Iranian regime, inflame the region, and, potentially, reveal in ways damaging to both the United States and Israel the limits of Israeli power.

The greatest threat associated with the Iranian nuclear program is that it might trigger a regional arms race that would be deeply destabilizing and would dramatically increase the risk of a weapon falling into the wrong hands, the use of such weapons, and an acceleration of weapons acquisition in middleweight powers worldwide. (Indeed, one mistake the Israelis have made in seeking to mobilize action against Iran has been not to emphasize this larger threat more.)

If a nuclear arms race is the greatest threat, then doesn't logic dictate that this should be the top priority for policymakers seeking to contain the problem? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton long ago called for a security umbrella in the region. Putting teeth into this proposal could amount to getting countries threatened by a nuclear power in their midst to agree to respond collectively, backed up by the United States, to any such threat. Not only would this create meaningful deterrence, but it might also help extract promises from participating states not to go nuclear. Indeed, were they to do so, they would be expelled and become not a beneficiary but a target of the program.

Such an approach, particularly should it involve the participation of more than one or several of the world's leading nuclear powers, would address both proliferation and containment simultaneously. Given the clear ineffectiveness of the toothless current global nonproliferation regime and the inability to revise and refine it effectively, such an agreement -- smaller and with members with a pressing need to join in -- would be welcome. Indeed, were it successful, perhaps it might also create the opportunity to initiate a phased-in process of eliminating such weapons as did exist -- in the region and worldwide.

A world without nukes might seem far-fetched, but it is both the expressed policy objective of the president of the United States and the only way to ultimately solve the proliferation problem. As Obama suggested with his famous Prague speech, the only safe number of nuclear weapons states is zero.

If containing the proliferation threat is the dimension of the Iran nuclear standoff that deserves the most attention, both Israel and the United States ought to recognize the risks associated with ignoring the bigger threats that loom for each of them.

Israel's demographic clock is ticking, and its future as a Jewish state is threatened by the growing size of the Palestinian population on and within its borders. It also must recognize that the shifting political sands of the region surrounding it have fundamentally altered its security situation. Not only is Egypt likely to be a less dependable stabilizer, but the outcome of turmoil in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere may produce volatility that creates new risks. Further, the United States is losing interest in the region and has both the reasons and the resources to become less so in the future. Meanwhile, the countries whose presence in the Middle East is growing as they become greater and greater consumers of the region's oil -- China and India -- simply do not have the same historical, cultural, or other strategic ties to Israel.

Consequently, for Israel, the urgent business at hand is neither Iran nor even haggling over the specifics of its borders with a potential Palestinian state -- it is the recognition that the state already exists and that Israel's future depends heavily on both Palestine's economic viability and the degree to which it evolves as a productive economic partner of Israel's.

As for Americans, we will not be secure if we fail to address our fiscal vulnerability, the weakness of our job-creation machinery, the withering of the American dream of social mobility, and the American ideal of fairness and opportunity for all. One opportunity is staring us in the face: Blessed with peaking energy demand and massive, newly viable oil and gas reserves, the United States can grow dramatically less dependent on the turbulent Middle East. (We just need a little perspective. We debate, for example, having a higher gas tax to pay for infrastructure and energy exploration, but the past decade's misguided Middle East policies will have cost us trillions when they are done. That's some big gas tax.)

So, while Iran is a danger, it is not the greatest danger. And while it deserves our serious attention, these other threats -- from proliferation to the peace process, debt and competitiveness to energy -- demand even more focus and creativity. By resetting our priorities, both Israel and the United States, together with our allies around the world, can more effectively preserve our security, contain any potential Iranian threat, and at the same time advance not only our broader national interests but those of the region and the world.

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