Barack Obama’s foreign policy is beginning to take shape. Semantically, it’s a sharp repudiation of the policies of the George W. Bush administration. In reality, it’s something like a continuation of Bush policies. Or, if you want to distinguish between the allegedly confrontation-minded policies of Bush’s first term and the more accommodationist policies of his second term — a distinction that I think is exaggerated but has something to it — then it’s something like the second Bush term. With, of course, some differences.
On Iraq, for example, Obama has agreed to maintain large numbers of troops there for 19 months — longer than he promised during the 2008 campaign — and many for some indefinite time after that. That has gotten a few antiwar protesters marching and must have left many of those Democratic voters who ached to see America defeated in "Bush’s war" feeling frustrated — or inclined for the moment to change the subject.
On Afghanistan, Obama has ordered 21,000 more American troops to the theater — including 4,000 troops announced last month — and is continuing unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on unfriendly forces in Pakistan. This is consistent with his long insistence that Afghanistan is the "good war" and with his surprising comment during the campaign that he would strike enemies in Pakistan. But his decision also makes Afghanistan Obama’s war and imposes on him the political necessity of securing favorable results within what voters consider a reasonable time, which Bush failed to do in Iraq.
And then there are those semantic changes. We are no longer fighting a "war on terror." We are instead conducting "overseas contingency operations" and, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, responding to "man-caused disasters." (Napolitano might have used the gender-neutral "human-caused disasters.")
We are no longer holding for indefinite periods "enemy combatants." But we will keep holding indefinitely those we catch on the battlefield who do not obey the laws of war (which is the definition of enemy combatants). We are closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and releasing some of those held there. But the Bush administration released some of those held there, and we will keep holding those deemed dangerous somewhere or other. We haven’t quite determined where that is yet. But the town fathers of heavily pro-Obama Alexandria, Va., have let it be known that they don’t want any held in their jail for trial in the local federal court.
On some matters, the Obama administration is trying to make substantive as well as semantic changes, some out of an impulse, common in most new administrations, to renounce the darn-fool ideas of the jerks in the previous administration. Vice President Joseph Biden promised to push the "reset button" on Russia, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a big, red reset button. Wrong word, the Russian said, in what I’d guess was a bit of disinformation.
The president himself in a video saluted the Islamic Republic of Iran — not words Bush used — on the occasion of a (non-Islamic) new year’s holiday and has ordered diplomatic approaches to that nation. None of this has evoked even a grunt of emollience from the leaders of those countries. But, as Obama said in his news conference, he didn’t expect that, and he believes that in time, persistence will pay off. Well, maybe.
In the meantime, an administration of a party that called for respecting our allies has shown disrespect to some and is not getting much respect from others. The administration, at the behest of U.S. labor leaders, is not pushing the free-trade pact with Colombia, the third-largest nation in Latin America. It has banned Mexican trucks from the United States, in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It has waffled on installing the antimissile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic, which those nations accepted, risking the wrath of Russia. It gave a frosty reception (and some nonplayable-in-the-United Kingdom DVDs) to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and granted a quick Saturday meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva. It sent a policy letter to the president of Italy, a head of state who plays no role in policymaking, thus ignoring the pro-American prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
These are rookie mistakes, perhaps, and probably mendable in time. But as Obama embarked on his first presidential tour in Europe, he seemed to face a reception considerably less enthusiastic than he got from the ecstatic crowd in the Tiergarten in Berlin last summer. Economic stimulus packages like America’s? Most European leaders are not interested. Military assistance in the "good war" in Afghanistan? Sorry, our troops are occupied elsewhere, and many of those already there must observe rules of engagement considerably more restrictive than those of the NYPD.
So this new administration, like others, is running into reality. Much of the Obama foreign policy seems sensible, and, well, every administration makes some mistakes. But I wonder whether it will turn out to be a political asset. Continued military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan could disillusion left-wing antiwar voters who flocked to the polls in 2008. And to the extent that the Obama term is the Bush second term, recall that after his confrontationist first term, Bush won re-election, while after his accommodationist second term, his party got clobbered.
But prediction in these times is perilous, though not as perilous as the unknown dangers we may face ahead. Good luck, Mr. President.