Better Late than Never

How naive self-confidence led Barack Obama astray, before prudence brought him back.

Presidents, like the rest of us, only learn that their intuitions about the world are wrong when painful experience teaches them so. Some grip their convictions all the harder and blunder onward. Woodrow Wilson could not accept that neither Europe's leaders nor American politicians shared his vision for a post-war reordering of the world; Lyndon B. Johnson could not admit that he was losing Vietnam; George W. Bush could not see that America's own allies would not sign on to his swaggering Global War on Terror. Others adapt, as John F. Kennedy did when his bellicosity almost provoked World War III.

Neither Barack Obama nor his senior advisors are about to admit in the last weeks of a re-election campaign that experience has forced the administration to reconsider its collective worldview; but it has.

When I interviewed Obama on the campaign trail in the late summer of 2007, he told me that if and when he became the "face" of U.S. foreign policy and power, people around the world would see that America's president understood their plight. Although he was careful to add that none of this would matter unless he made "prudent strategic decisions," Obama believed that his face, his voice, his biography would allow the United States to recast itself and to climb out of the deep reputational hole into which Bush had plunged it. Once he had gotten the world to see the United States in a different light, Obama thought, he could make progress on frozen issues like nuclear nonproliferation or peace in the Middle East. His advisors thought so too, as did many of those who most passionately supported him, not to mention sympathetic journalists like me.

It was this intuition, in turn, that shaped Obama's spontaneous response when he was asked in a debate with Hillary Clinton whether he would meet "without preconditions" with the leaders of states like Iran or North Korea. "I would," Obama said. Clinton said she wouldn't. Samantha Power, then one of Obama's closest advisors, told me that Obama had found the disagreement "galvanizing and orienting." This is who he was: A leader who would disdain diplomatic orthodoxy to address both states and peoples in a way they had not been addressed before. Thus was born the policy the Obama White House came to call "engagement." White House officials sometimes used the term narrowly to refer to Obama's bid to open talks with rogue states, above all Iran; sometimes they used it more broadly to describe diplomacy with rivals like Russia and China, and sometimes it was used almost metaphysically to describe the president's very personal outreach to the world.

In March 2009, Obama sent a New Year's message to Iran proposing "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." He demonstrated his bona fides by addressing the country as "the Islamic Republic of Iran" -- a subtle signal, according to Dennis Ross, the former White House official in charge of policy towards Iran, that the administration accepted the regime and was not contemplating regime change. Obama continued to hold out hope for a breakthrough, which is one of the reasons he at first declined to criticize sharply the grossly rigged Iranian elections of June 2009. Then he spoke out more bluntly, and the Iranians rang down the curtain.

Did Obama really believe that Iran would respond to his deferential blandishments? A senior White House official says that while the administration did, indeed, hope that engagement would work, the "theory of the case" was that "if we can demonstrate that we're not the problem," and Iran was, the president would be able to assemble a strong coalition to impose tough sanctions on Tehran. And that is precisely what happened, though of course it hasn't yet changed Iran's behavior. If Plan A was based on Obama's special brand of magic, Plan B rested on prudent strategic decisions.

Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009, was in many ways the high-water mark of engagement writ large -- the transubstantiation of face, voice, and personal narrative into diplomacy. The president offered a "new beginning" to the Muslim world based not on new policies but on a new posture of respectfulness and mutuality, and on a personal understanding that came from his own history in the Islamic world. He asked Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a similar act of mutual recognition. The transaction he invoked was psychic or spiritual rather than material: Just about the only tangible thing the president offered his listeners was a "summit on entrepreneurship."

The Cairo speech produced a brief burst of enthusiasm in the Muslim world, followed by disappointment. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, points out that one of the goals of the speech, and of Obama's broader diplomacy at the time, was to induce Saudi Arabia and other "moderate" states to normalize relations with Israel -- if Israel agreed to freeze settlement construction. There was no movement toward normalization. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians struggled along at a low ebb and then wheezed to a stop. And no one in the Arab world attributed the great awakening of 2011 to Obama's modest exhortations for regional states to "maintain your power through consent, not coercion." Something was wrong with the theory of the case.

This was, in effect, Obama's Wilsonian moment. At the time, Robert Kagan wrote that Obama seemed to believe, like Wilson, that "nations will act on what they perceive to be the goodwill, good intentions or moral purity of other nations, in particular the United States." Obama himself was the incarnation of that goodwill. In fact, the behavior of states, as Obama discovered, is governed overwhelmingly by a calculus of national interest. Public opinion does matter, far more than ever before. But what Obama's Arab public wanted to know was how he would pressure Israel into accepting a two-state solution, or what he would do to dislodge the tyrants who ruled their lives. Obama's "salaam aleykum" was pocketed, and ignored.

As one former senior administration official says of Obama, "He had an image of himself as a bridge builder that worked quite well at the Harvard Law Review and in the campaign. I do think he wildly overestimated his own personal power in foreign policy. He had that experience of going to Europe during the campaign and being accorded a hero's welcome -- that's an understatement. I think he mistook public adulation for the ability to change national calculations." It's clear, in retrospect, that Obama, like so many American presidents, entered office with too little respect for the world's intransigence and too much for his own persuasive powers.

But the consequence of Wilson's, Johnson's, and Bush's stubbornness or naiveté was catastrophic; not so Obama's, whose misreading of the world did not set back nonproliferation in Iran and may only have inflated hopes on Middle East peace. And perhaps because he is a more supple figure than they, he adapted to the world as he found it. By the end of 2010, the White House had announced that it would no longer pursue active talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama had received a rebuff at climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, and he no longer seriously pursued the subject. By 2010 he had gotten all he could on nuclear nonproliferation and let the subject lie. Even when he agreed to join the coalition invading Libya in January 2011, he was the last one on board. Obama's Wilsonian era lasted at most two years. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, no devotee of Obama, describes the president as the fastest learner in the Oval Office since George H.W. Bush and, before that, Kennedy.

The Barack Obama of 2012 is preoccupied with ending inherited wars and suppressing terrorism and the threat of Iran -- and, of course, the threat of Mitt Romney. Obama's challenger has done his worst to describe the president as a liberal softie and his engagement policy as a strange brew of cynicism and naiveté. But Romney is not getting much traction. Obama is still the face of American power -- but it's a very different face.

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Terms of Engagement

Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?

The Republican candidate gave us a tantalizing hint this week of what his foreign policy might actually look like -- but does he have the guts to actually do what we think he thinks?

The other day, Mitt Romney gave a speech about foreign policy that he seemed to actually believe. In a quite revealing address to the Clinton Global Initiative on the subject of foreign aid, Romney offered a distinctive explanation of the Arab Spring as a mass movement for economic, rather than political, rights. He spoke of how Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 sparked the demonstrations which led to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had been provoked by the seizure of "his only real capital equipment," his weighing scales. "I'm a simple person," Romney quoted Bouazizi as crying out to the Tunisian police officer. "I just want to work. I just want to work."

Work, Romney went on, almost poetically, "does not long tolerate corruption," nor "the brazen theft by government" of economic products. Substitute the word "liberty," and one could have been listening to George Bush on the motive force of human endeavor. People want meaningful work.

You may disagree with Romney's interpretation of events, but you can scarcely doubt his sincerity. Indeed, we already knew about the depth of Romney's commitment to the liberating power of work thanks to Mother Jones, which recently published a recording of a speech he gave to donors. Romney explained to a crowd that America is afflicted by a culture of dependence in which almost half the country considers itself "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." Romney sees himself as the spokesman for the free-market virtues of self-reliance and self-discipline. That  plutocratic contempt for life's non-winners may not be altogether compatible with democracy, much less electoral success -- but it is what Romney believes.

Until now, Romney has had trouble finding anything to say about foreign policy which seems to spring from his basic intuitions about life. His major foreign policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, consisted chiefly of flattery to the vets and his usual vaporous and disingenuous claim that, unlike President Barack Obama, he was not "ashamed of American power." He accused Obama of political posturing on Afghanistan, but called for withdrawing American troops by the end of 2014 -- just like Obama.

In fact, the hallmark of Romney's foreign policy critique has been self-contradiction. He has insisted that Obama has "abandoned the Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, but also described the democratic election of an Islamist as president of Egypt as a calamity for which Obama is responsible. Romney himself doesn't seem to accept Bush's magical faith in liberty, but can't bring himself to say so. The only unifying theme of his foreign policy critique has been opportunism. Oh, and "strength." And not apologizing. Of course, Romney seems to have very few fixed convictions about anything: he was for health care reform before he was against it, for abortion rights before he was against them, and so on.

But now we have the 47 percent, and the heroic tale of Mohamed Bouazizi. Romney's own life experience has led him to view economic freedom as the summum bonum -- one which liberal interventionist polices have denied to all too many people. We know what this dictates on domestic policy: tax cuts, deregulation, and a drastically shrunken state. And now we finally know something about how would it shape a Romney foreign policy. In his speech at the Clinton event, Romney observed that the overwhelming fraction of resources now flowing to developing nations come not from foreign aid but from private sector investment. Traditional aid has thus become marginal, and Romney vowed to reorient American assistance to "access the transformative nature of free enterprise." He proposed signing "Prosperity Pacts" with nations prepared to remove barriers to free markets.

The speech was greeted with deathly silence by an audience that probably contained very few Romney voters. But Romney was certainly right that traditional aid has not been very effective, that outside assistance won't help much in countries with bad economic policies, and that aid will work best by leveraging private investment. A blogger for the Center for Global Development, a liberal group which supports increased aid, praised Romney for the proposal. The New York Times editorial board even found something nice to say.

The proposition that aid should be the handmaiden to private sector-led growth is scarcely the unfamiliar idea it once was. The same insight led President Bush to establish the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which directs American assistance to relatively well-governed countries. The Obama administration has consistently sought to increase funding for the MCC. Liberals have long since accepted that old-fashioned aid doesn't work, just as they have accepted that welfare can lead to dependence. So Romney is shadow-boxing once again, rhetorically separating himself from an administration approach which, in fact, he largely accepts. But the CGI speech leaves the impression that he would  prefer a more modest policy, since the "assistance packages" he had in mind would be limited to "developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights."

One could easily imagine a much more ambitious Romney approach -- and one more in line with his governing philosophy. If trade can do much more than aid to promote growth in poor countries, then of course rich countries must lower trade barriers just as poor countries must. You could cut foreign aid -- as a President Romney would almost surely do -- and more than compensate for the effect by increasing exports to the United States from the affected countries. And for a free-market ideologue like Romney, free trade is as much an intuitive principle as low taxes. Alex MacGillis of The New Republic recently unearthed the video of a 2009 speech in which Romney made a profoundly cogent and passionate case that lowering trade barriers with China, and with the rest of the world, would be good for American and good for others. Watching it, I thought for the first time: This is a really smart guy.

But of course MacGillis's point is that this would never happen: the Mitt Romney of 2012 accuses Obama of failing to protect American workers from Chinese trade violations, and promises to be much tougher. There's no political mileage right now in free trade. It's striking that Romney never sounds as intelligent making the protectionist argument as he did in the 2009 speech -- no one sounds very bright when they are arguing against their own beliefs. And that, of course, is why Romney rarely sounds convincing when he talks about the Arab Spring or Syria or Afghanistan or democracy promotion. He's speaking for effect, rather than from conviction.

At next month's foreign policy debate, Romney is sure to be firing at Obama from all possible directions, as he has throughout the campaign. It's unlikely to do him much good, since voters stubbornly refuse to view Obama as weak and irresolute on foreign affairs. Romney might do himself a service -- he'd certainly do voters a service -- if he stood in one place and made a limited but coherent case. He could argue that America will have better luck promoting capitalism than democracy, not because the one is more important than the other but because it is easier to teach. He could argue that the United States should be prepared to work with autocratic countries which nevertheless offer protection to property rights and the private sector. He could stand up for free trade. Of course, if Romney thought that America wanted to hear astringent truths, he would have been telling them. Still, pandering hasn't worked very well for him either. If he's going to lose, he might as well lose with conviction.

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