Capturing the views of 300 million isn’t an easy task, so we Americans have evolved a simple solution for solving political problems; we oversimplify everything. Literally every problem, challenge, obstacle, and opportunity facing our democracy is folded, compressed, and shoved into one of two boxes; liberal and conservative. That most domestic problems do not fit neatly into one of those oversimplified boxes should be obvious. Trying to shove the policies, priorities, and predilections of the world as a whole into our two neat little boxes is absurd.
But shove is one thing we Americans are exceedingly adept at; it is a strength when we are shoving the Nazis out of power. At other times, the tendency to shove causes many more problems than it resolves, and so it is that we come to our democracy’s uncertain view of President Obama’s foreign policy. Other presidents in our history liked to shove; this president prefers to have conversations. Teddy Roosevelt endorsed the notion of speaking softly while carrying a big stick. Until recently, many Americans believed that President Obama believed in speaking often and pretending like the stick didn’t exist.
Many of those views changed when Osama Bin Laden met his Waterloo. This President, much of the American people found, was not above getting his hands dirty when the moment was right. The intelligence gleaned from the raid on Abbottabad may be more substantial than we could have hoped for, but the move was largely symbolic. Symbolism, however, is something that we the people are very good at understanding. President Obama’s decision points and symbolism on foreign policy are as subtle as his speech-making is grand. Teasing out the Obama Doctrine has taken time, but its true shape is now easy to see.
President Obama, as in his domestic policy, is very much in favor of a little progress over none at all. He strives for a little conversation over none. He sees the value in communication cues over outright responses. Early in his presidency, he was criticized for ignoring the statements of Hugo Chavez, and referring to Iran as a “small” country. But this President was telling the world that Iran and Venezuela were not the Soviet Union; the president need not respond to every grandiose pronouncement uttered by two-bit strongmen. From the earliest moments, this President established the importance of appropriate communication and complete preparedness.
Call it, “Listen carefully and carry several sticks of varying sizes.” Pull the bulk of combat troops out of Iraq while ramping up the war in Afghanistan. Sanction the regimes in Iran and North Korea, but avoid direct military action. Communicate intentions regarding Tunisia and Egypt, but take direct action in Yemen and Lybia. If President Obama was a football team, he wouldn’t be a rigid, system-driven squad like Oklahoma’s teams were under Barry Switzer (successful as they were); he would be a flexible, gameplan to opponent group like the New England Patriots.
Different strokes for different folks…it works for presidents and foreign policies. What this approach doesn’t do well is make the American political punditocracy and core voting groups happy. Anti-war liberals don’t like the violence. Anti-hunger liberals don’t like the exclusion of Darfur from the hit list. Anti-corporate liberals don’t like the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the hit list. Anti-something or other liberals are sure that the wrong violence is being used on the wrong people, but can’t consistently define the who or what they want.
Conservatives well, they just don’t like this President. That is to say Washington conservatives (and they hate that label) don’t like this President regardless of what he does. Many of the conservatives I know have been relieved (I think it is a fair word) that he has not pushed for draconian military cuts; they were also surprised and pleased when the President authorized the successful attack on Bin Laden. Then came President Obama’s speech on the Arab Spring, and things returned to normal.
President Obama reiterated his vision for the Middle East, pushed back against the strong-arm tactics of some of the region’s leaders, and controversially, pushed the parameters of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations back to an earlier time. He took an aggressive posture with regard to Israel because he could, and because he felt it warranted. But as with many of his other decisions, his moves were not made with an eye towards popularity. The middle ground in foreign policy is, most assuredly, the road less traveled. We have spent decades packed into “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” boxes; President Obama seems to be laying the groundwork for an “anti-Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” box.
Whether it works is a question for the years to answer. Other presidents have taken paths both more and less aggressive than Mr. Obama. Results have hardly been definitive for either choice. The real question for the future will be; “How does the middle of the road work?”
The rest of the world, and The Rational Middle, will be listening…