Obama Using Deadlines to Forge Foreign Policy

By Jim Hoagland
Monday, July 20, 2009

President Obama's surge in Afghanistan has a year to show that the increase in U.S. forces and aid can turn the tide there. It is not an open-ended commitment of American troops and money.

Iran needs to respond to Obama's offer of engagement before Sept. 24, when the Group of 20 major economies will meet in Pittsburgh. If Tehran does not accept, the United States will ask Russia, China and other key countries to go the United Nations and impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

That summit is also the moment when Obama will assess progress toward new Middle East peace negotiations by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states. They can deal with each other, or with a displeased American president.

This is how I read public and private statements that senior U.S. officials -- including the president -- have made in recent weeks to foreign leaders and the American public. What emerges is a clear picture of the making of foreign policy, Obama-style.

If conflicts can be halted by setting deadlines and crisply reaching decision points, this president may have a lock on the Nobel Peace Prize for years to come.

Critics will say that I am actually describing a process for putting off tough decisions. Here's why I disagree: In nearly six months in office, Obama has established a set of strategically conceived deadlines to deal with the most urgent challenges he faces, turning international summits and other leadership meetings into policy trampolines that propel him and his ideas forward to the next test.

Not surprisingly, this approach draws heavily on his greatest success, the amazing 2008 election campaign. If there is a danger, it is not that Obama is a procrastinator. It is that he is bunching too many decisive moments together and not leaving himself room to work with unexpected events.

The administration has not publicly fixed a timetable for a reassessment of U.S. commitments in Afghanistan. That would encourage the Taliban and al-Qaeda to sit tight and wait for Western troops to leave.

But U.S. commanders, who must identify and respect the thin line that separates a battle-hardened army from a battle-exhausted one, indicate that they realize they have 12 months from the national Afghan elections on Aug. 20 to show Obama and the American public that they can do this job. After that, a faltering U.S. effort would become a major issue in the 2010 congressional elections.

Such political controversy is already erupting in other NATO countries where public opinion has concluded that keeping combat units in Afghanistan is futile. No military wants to fight wars under such conditions.

"We can't continue to reinforce failure," Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the outgoing NATO commander, bluntly told a meeting held by the Atlantic Council in Washington recently. "There are a number of things as an alliance we should never do again in this kind of struggle."

Allies such as Canada and the Netherlands, which have taken disproportionately heavy casualties, now mentally measure their Afghan commitments in months, not years. And a sharp increase in British combat deaths this month in Helmand province has ignited a surprisingly divisive debate in London over Britain's ability to stay the course.

Against that background, Obama's year of living watchfully with the surge is a sensible measure. Iran, however, will not let him wait nearly that long.

The next diplomatic trampoline for Obama is the G-20 summit, which he will host and hopes to use to forge new multilateral approaches on Iran and Middle East peace, as well as on global economic recovery. The president came back from Europe this month with what one senior U.S. official described to me as "Russian and G-8 buy-in" to that concept.

"If the Iranians have not responded by then, the world should make clear to them they cannot stall indefinitely," says an official who knows Obama's thinking. "The summit is also the right moment for a global assessment of how much progress has been and can be made between Israel and the Palestinians."

Pittsburgh will be a moment of truth particularly for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom Obama has wooed in the hope of getting Moscow's support for imposing new U.N. sanctions on Iran. If it is not forthcoming, Obama's credibility will suffer.

Obama's cool summer of preparation leads inexorably toward a hot autumn of decision. It is only then that we will learn whether this president has prepared himself, and the world, as thoroughly for the possible failure of his initiatives as he has for their success.


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