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Look Homeward

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 19, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- And now a little heresy from your friendly foreign affairs columnist for President Obama: Stay focused on fixing the American economy. Avoid pleasant distractions created by dealing with foreign leaders and crises without congressional interference. Stay out of the honey-tree trap of commander in chiefism.

Most of all, Mr. President, in this tone- and template-setting moment, remember that shots fired in anger abroad on your watch are no different than they were under George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. They are generally not personal, and not a test of your manhood, whatever your critics and supporters say in their self-perpetuating efforts to tear you down or build you up.

This is true for pirates off the Somali coast, drug-cartel gunmen in Mexico or the woman-beating fanatics of Pakistan's Taliban. They are problems that need to be dealt with, often with counterforce, and where possible outside the Oval Office.

As you know, many problems of the past eight years sprang from the intensely personal approach of your predecessor to foreign policy and his neglect of domestic affairs. Bush's broken interagency process kept subordinates from agreeing on even second-tier foreign policy decisions. That made him the Decider. However crisp your meetings, however sound the "strategic guidance" you give at their end, there are simply not enough hours to decide everything.

Your aides will want to tempt you to play power chess on a global scale -- urging you to bypass or replace national leaders who balk at grand U.S. designs. Muttering about ditching Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai was rampant at the White House during your Afghan strategic review, and one of your senior analysts now tells think-tank audiences that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari should step aside and let Nawaz Sharif, his chief rival, take power.

Pushing that as a U.S. decision would open Pandora's box for the rest of your presidency -- especially since Sharif seems no more capable or honest than Zardari. You do not want to emulate John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in South Vietnam, or Jimmy Carter in Iran. Micromanaging leadership changes abroad becomes all-consuming -- while the rest of the presidential agenda goes to hell. The sunk-cost fallacy applies to presidents, too.

So be economical with your personal investment in volatile situations. You have a capable secretary of state in Hillary Clinton. She probably still yearns for the 3 a.m. crisis calls. Give her more of the spotlight and the authority while you help Tim Geithner, your overwhelmed Treasury secretary. Help him help us.

Your change in Cuba policy (a welcome but too small, overly defensive step toward ending a nonsensical embargo) and the expanding U.S. role in combating drug-cartel violence in Mexico will have no doubt featured in your private talks with President Felipe Calderón and other Latin American leaders during your trip this way.

But my guess is that you will have heard a lot more about the hollowed-out U.S. banking system and its threat to a North American recovery. I certainly did on my trip to this capital, which reflects the hard-won prosperity and relative stability achieved over the past 30 years. A recession that endures into 2011 could become a greater danger to Mexican society than the bloody drug wars that feature so prominently on U.S. television, a senior Mexican official recently suggested. And your own campaign slams at NAFTA still need to be dispelled here. What you do on the economy will count abroad more than any other factor.

Don't get me wrong, Mr. President. You need to be knowledgeable about and personally involved in the grand strategy and implementation of foreign policy. The U.S. government doesn't function without presidential leadership. Besides, I don't want you to put me or Tom Friedman out of work.

But also be aware that the heady moments -- basking at the Group of 20 summit in the accomplishment of getting the French and Chinese leaders to accept a semantic compromise, or being credited by your aides for showing nerves of steel in the Somali pirate drama -- can mislead you into thinking it will always be thus. We in the media will do our best to persuade you of that, treating your briefers' puffery as revealed gospel -- for a while.

And then we, and events, will turn. (It is always a race to see which goes first.) Image is reality in campaigns, but not in governing. So one last bit of deviancy, Mr. President: Start disbelieving your press clippings now. You sure won't want to believe them then.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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