Hail to the ´not now´ president (LA TIMES OP-ED) By Aaron David Miller 05/07/12)
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On key foreign policy issues, from Iran to Syria, President Obama is
opting for a cautious approach. And that´s just fine.
If you´re looking for a two-word summary of how the administration is
approaching some key foreign policy issues, from Iran to Syria,
there´s no better description than "not now."
Barring some unexpected turn that forces the president´s hand, there
will be no October surprises. What you see now is what you´re going
to get through November: a cautious approach on the issues of the day
that avoids bold, unilateral action.
And that´s just fine. The last thing America needs right now is an
ill-advised diplomatic blunder or military intervention. In the world
Barack Obama inherited, presidential discretion in foreign policy
really is the better part of valor.
Context matters. And whatever the president´s original risk-ready
instincts when it came to transformative foreign policy initiatives,
they are now fully under control. Obama came into office with the
goal of altering the trajectory of the nation´s foreign policy. But
after flirting with engaging the mullahs and the Syrians and pressing
Israel on settlements, the administration came to its senses.
Obama settled into a less reckless, less ideological approach than
his predecessor. But it was one very much consistent with Bush 43´s
policies. The war on terror intensified, Gitmo remained open,
sanctions on Iran toughened and relations with the Israeli prime
minister settled down. It was no love-fest, but neither did it have
the tensions of the president´s earlier campaign to push a
The president´s approach to national security issues — including the
bold operation to find and kill Osama bin Laden and the
intensification of the drone war — made him look tough. Even Bush
43´s speechwriter, Michael Gerson, called Obama´s Nobel Peace Prize
acceptance speech "manly." And his orderly but earlier-than-scheduled
withdrawal from Iraq made him look politically savvy.
Obama has emerged as a smart, risk-averse foreign policy president.
His instincts are well suited for the times. The public is tired of
costly quagmires abroad and instead is focused on domestic issues.
The Republicans Party is having a hard time finding a way to attack
him on foreign policy and is relegated to drawing distinctions
without much difference on issues such as Iran and Syria. To be sure,
the handling of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Obama´s
crowing about getting Bin Laden on the one-year anniversary of the
raid that led to his death suggest the president isn´t immune from
stumbles. But he´s proved deft and competent, guided by a smart,
deliberate and cautious style.
And so emerges the "not now" president. If there´s any doubt, look at
U.S. policy responses toward Iran, Syria, the Arab-Israeli issue and
North Korea. The goal is process, not outcome; deliberate, not bold
initiatives; and multilateral, not unilateral action. The
administration may be prepared to do something on any of these issues
after November; it´s just not going to happen now.
Iran is the clearest example. No president could ever tell an Israeli
prime minister not to defend the nation, but Obama made it as clear
to Benjamin Netanyahu as any U.S. president could that a unilateral
Israeli strike would be a very bad idea.
For Obama, an Israeli attack would mean higher oil and gasoline
prices, roiled financial markets, regional tensions, a stalled
American recovery and more attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And
for what? At best, an Israeli strike would buy a year or two until
Iran´s nuclear program would be back on track, this time with more
international legitimacy and support from the Russians and Chinese.
For Obama, handling Iran these days means tougher sanctions, buying
time and space, restraining the Israelis and seeing if the five-
nation talks with Tehran can produce a deal. More likely, there will
be no big deal on the nuclear issue this year, but no war either. And
not getting into another military conflict abroad is a good thing for
a president who´s focused on extricating the United States from two
of the longest wars in American history.
Ditto on Syria. Despite the brutality of the Assads, Obama is moving
slowly, cautiously and multilaterally. A few neocons, some liberal
interventionists and a couple of U.S. senators are urging more
aggressive action, but the president has avoided even the appearance
of the slippery slope of military intervention. That could change if
the killing reaches new levels. But Obama will go to great lengths to
avoid another open-ended military commitment.
The president also has de-escalated his war with Netanyahu. Israeli
settlement activity continues. There are no negotiations with the
Palestinians, and it´s unlikely there will be any. If Obama is
reelected, he may choose to try to press the Israelis on peace
issues. But right now, it´s just another one of those "not now"
To Obama´s critics who argue that the president is sacrificing
American interests and leadership with his "not now" approach, I´d
say give me a realistic alternative. Yes, the president is making a
virtue out of necessity because on these three issues, the only
options run from bad to worse.
The "yes, we can" president confronts a "no, you won´t" world, and
he´s handling it pretty competently. Sometimes getting out of the way
of history is better than getting run over by it. You want big, bold
diplomacy, talk to me after November. Just not now.
Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator
in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author
of "The Much Too Promised Land: America´s Elusive Search for Arab-
Israeli Peace." (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles Times 05/07/12)
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