Obama’s hardest choices lie ahead

TEL AVIV – It was only natural that Barack Obama, a president whose election was one of the most revolutionary events in American history, should fill his first 100 days in office with a breathtaking, all-embracing agenda. These are times of trial and upheaval that call for such daring.
US. President  Barack Obama.
US. President Barack Obama.

TEL AVIV – It was only natural that Barack Obama, a president whose election was one of the most revolutionary events in American history, should fill his first 100 days in office with a breathtaking, all-embracing agenda. These are times of trial and upheaval that call for such daring.

Strikingly energetic and self-confident, Obama has set out on a titanic journey to remake America’s economy and redress a broken and dysfunctional international system.

It is perhaps especially in Obama’s domestic policy – the shift to a more social-democratic tax system and universal health care – that one can best see the new president’s ideological drive.

But emphasizing the reduction of social inequalities does not sit easily with America’s profoundly individualistic ethos, and the attempt to “Europeanize” the nature of the social contract between the state and its citizens might yet crash against the constitutive principles of the American system.

When it comes to salvaging America’s collapsing financial system, Obama has been far more interventionist than any European government.

For once, the faltering Czech presidency of the EU reflected a European consensus when it defined Obama’s astronomic financial stimulus as a “road to hell.”

The unprecedented explosion of America’s fiscal deficit raises the risk of high inflation in the future – exactly the kind of scenario that Europeans want to prevent at all cost.

Obama’s foreign policy agenda has been no less audacious than his domestic undertakings.

After eight years of American unilateralism that left behind a broken transatlantic alliance, resuscitated the specter of a cold war with Russia, and saw the Middle East decline into a doomsday politics, Obama’s injection of new thinking to endemic problems is extremely welcome.

The organizing principle in the new president’s foreign policy is one of not having principled, ideological guidelines. Essentially, his approach to international issues is pragmatic, and, in departing from his predecessor’s penchant for machtpolitik, Obama has pledged always to exhaust diplomacy first.

But Obama might soon realize that most of his predecessors started as believers in international cooperation, until events forced them to fall back on a strategy of confrontation.

Not even George W. Bush seemed to be committed to any particular doctrine in foreign affairs before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, drove him to unleash his ill-conceived “global war on terror.”

The real test of Obama’s strategy of dialogue and cooperation will come only when it fails, and tough choices will have to be made. Repairing old alliances is vital not only for the exercise of American power, but also for Europe’s empowerment as a global player.

Yet America’s European allies administered Obama’s first setback. They applauded him everywhere on his recent trip to Europe, but sent him home almost empty-handed, resisting the idea of a coordinated fiscal stimulus and, after years of preaching multilateralism, turning down his call for more European troops for Afghanistan. For many in Europe, it was easier to live against Bush than to make sacrifices with Obama.

Obama also pushed the “reset button” with Russia, and suggested that he might freeze Bush’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The expectation was that Russia would join the United States in putting pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

But this has not yet happened. Nor was North Korea impressed by Obama’s warnings that America might shoot down its rocket if they went ahead with their launch in defiance of the United Nations.

Shielded behind a protective China, Kim Jong-il launched his rocket anyway, and the US refrained from action.

Iran is another front where Obama might be forced to recognize the limits of his conciliatory approach. He has waived America’s long-standing demand that Iran stop uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations, and he has sworn off any idea of regime change.

But the Iranians are the subtlest negotiators to be found anywhere, and will make certain that their nuclear program outpaces the negotiations. If that happens, then what?

Nor is it clear what Obama really means by saying that he recognizes Iran’s “rightful place in the community of nations.”

If this means a special status at the expense of other Middle East powers such as Egypt or the Gulf states, Obama might run into strong opposition from America’s traditional allies in the region.

It is right and refreshing that Obama has made clear that America’s aspiration is to lead, not dominate. But even an exercise in modesty and realism requires strong alliances, with partners ready for sacrifices.

Nor would old enemies and competitors like Russia and China readily abandon the benefits of spoiling American plans. It is when this becomes crystal clear, and also when some worn-out foreign-policy paradigms, such as the fetish of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fail once again, that real choices will have to be made.

Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of war, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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