In foreign policy, Obama learns on the job

David Ignatius
Opinion writer May 10, 2012

President Obama begins his reelection campaign with something almost nobody would have predicted four years ago: a sense of success and political advantage in the ­foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats.

The tight, wary control that was often apparent when Obama discussed foreign policy in his first two years has been replaced by an easier informality. The pre-scripted phrases and the gaze into the middle distance, as if he were reading a teleprompter, are mostly gone, too, at least in private, aides say.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

He conveys the sense that managing foreign policy is an iterative skill, which he has learned through trial and error. This former antiwar activist and community organizer certainly didn’t run for president so that he would have the authority to kill people. But that’s just what he does every time he authorizes a drone strike against an al-Qaeda target.

The Obama team seems almost dismissive of the foreign-policy savvy of his likely Republican rival, Mitt Romney. They see Romney as out of his depth on this subject, making gestures to his neoconservative supporters and talking tough, no matter the issue — almost in a caricature of the chest-beating unilateralist.

The White House doubts Romney is serious in these positions — and suspects that if the Republican challenger should actually become president, he would have to jettison his uber-tough stance. Does Romney really intend an open-ended commitment of current troop levels in Afghanistan? Does he really want a trade war with China? Even if Romney imagined taking these positions in the White House, his corporate patrons would quickly pull him back.

The trickiest test for Obama this year is Iran. He thinks the Iranians may be moving toward the confidence-building measure the “P5+1” group has proposed, which would involve sending Iran’s small store of 20 percent-enriched uranium outside the country in return for fuel rods and medical isotopes enriched at that level, from abroad. And if Iran agreed to stop enriching above 5 percent, that would effectively mean closing its facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, which was built for higher levels of enrichment.

There’s still a lot of haggling ahead. Obama doubts the Iranians will decide to accept this package soon enough to delay the oil-related and other sanctions that are scheduled to take effect June 28 and July 1. But if a deal can be reached over the summer, he thinks that would be enough to convince Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Iran’s “zone of immunity” for building a weapon had been delayed — making an Israeli attack unnecessary.

Still ahead would be a broader negotiation in which the West would use Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s edict that his country doesn’t plan to build a nuclear weapon as the basis for a comprehensive and verifiable agreement.

On Syria, the other Middle East tinderbox, Obama knows that Kofi Annan’s peace effort is failing because of the former U.N. secretary general’s inability to halt violence and begin the transition from President Bashar al-Assad. Obama knows that Russia is the key to avoiding a civil war, but he doesn’t think the Russians will commit to oust Assad unless they’re convinced that he can’t govern and that only a new government will contain extremism in Syria. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama thinks parts of the Syrian opposition would be worse than Assad — and he worries that the protracted struggle is empowering precisely these people.

Obama is hoping to do business with Putin, whom he sees as the ultimate transactional leader. The White House has had indications since last weekend that Putin would skip the Group of 8 meeting this month and doesn’t seem perturbed, recognizing that the Russian leader has big problems to address at home. The two leaders will meet at the Group of 20 meeting next month in Mexico.

What’s striking about Obama’s management of foreign policy, as the campaign season opens, is that he knows what he knows. To take one delicate example, he understands that China depends on good relations with the United States during its bumpy time of leadership transition — and he knows it’s important not to gratuitously embarrass the Chinese leadership.

Obama is beginning to think about what he would do in a second term, and it’s a predictable list — addressing climate change, reducing nuclear weapons, reviving the Palestinian peace process, managing the “Arab Spring” constructively and improving development assistance for Africa. But it isn’t so much the specific things he wants as the one big thing he has learned: how to make decisions in the Oval Office. This sense of having learned on the job is what he’ll try to sell the country come November.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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