The Big Decisions to Come

By David Ignatius
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Six months on, how is Barack Obama doing in foreign policy? Some leading experts give the new president high marks for improving America's battered image abroad, but they warn that the hard work is still ahead.

Obama's first priority was boosting America's standing in a world angered by the Bush administration's arrogance and unilateralism. Obama rightly saw this as a major national security threat, and he used his charisma to change that image in a hurry.

And to a large extent, Obama has succeeded. "We have taken off the table reflexive anti-Americanism as a reason not to deal with us," says Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. "We're not shimmying in the end zone. But we are a long way from where we began."

Obama's success in defusing anti-Americanism wins plaudits from Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for Republicans Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. "Obama had to tackle the mood first, and I think he has done a brilliant job," he says. "The change around the world is dramatic."

Similar praise comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser for Democrat Jimmy Carter. But Brzezinski adds the caveat that changing America's image is the easy part. "They made a good start by setting a new tone. But it's too early to say if they have sufficient steadiness and determination to implement it." Scowcroft expresses a similar concern: "I'm worried because I don't see much happening [on substance]. It's all still mood-setting."

The problem ahead for Obama's foreign policy is a bit like that (sorry to say) of a subprime loan. The initial buy-in has been cheap and easy: The world is relieved to hear a new American voice, and Obama has raised expectations that he can fix tough problems. But there's a big "bubble" payment ahead, when America and its partners have to make costly decisions. And here, there may be insufficient resources to pay off Obama's obligations.

This danger -- of a mismatch between expectations and delivery -- is evident on the four major challenges Obama is confronting: the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Obama has boldly pushed Israel to freeze settlements as a way of prodding the Arabs to make reciprocal concessions and get the ball rolling toward a peace agreement. But the Arab side is wary of U.S. incrementalism and wants Obama to offer a "big bang" by enumerating the framework for a Palestinian state. If Obama takes this decisive step, he will lose Israeli support; if he doesn't, he'll lose the Arabs.

On Iraq, Obama is pushing ahead with his plan to withdraw troops. When the White House got nervous last month about the slow pace of political reconciliation among Iraqis, Emanuel proposed sending Vice President Biden as a special emissary. That raised the visibility of the issue, but it's still unclear -- especially to Iraqis -- how involved America will be in containing chaos in that still-fragile country. The gut-wrenching decisions are ahead.

Iran is the administration's biggest challenge, and here its vision has been clearest. Obama wants to engage Iran's leadership in discussions about its nuclear program, even after the uproar that followed the June 12 elections. Emanuel argues that with a divided and disoriented Iranian leadership, "engagement and pressure are not polar opposites, but engagement is a form of pressure." Fair enough, but what happens when Iran says no to U.S. demands to curb its nuclear program?

Afghanistan is already being called "Obama's Vietnam," and it's a topic on which the administration is divided. Biden is skeptical that more troops will subdue the Taliban insurgency there, and he wants a review this fall of U.S. strategy to discuss whether goals should be narrowed. The Centcom commander, Gen. David Petraeus, thinks a real evaluation won't be possible until next summer. There's a policy battle ahead, with the hard choices still in the balance.

A final challenge for Obama is getting the foreign policy process right. So far, it has been a somewhat confusing, ad hoc system in which every hot spot gets a special envoy, and the principals -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Jim Jones -- sometimes are treated as ceremonial doormats.

The White House rejoinder to such criticism is to say: Look at results. In six months, officials argue, they have turned around America's image; the proof is in the pudding. True, but so far we have been tasting the appetizers. We haven't really taken the first bite of that pudding yet.

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