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Armed for reality
The president's foreign policy shift

By Robert Kagan
Sunday, December 13, 2009

With his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Barack Obama signaled that the world had better get ready for a tougher, less forgiving, more quintessentially American approach from a man who certainly gave the soft touch a try.

The shift in rhetoric at Oslo was striking. Gone was the vaguely left-revisionist language that flavored earlier speeches, highlighting the low points of American global leadership -- the coups and ill-considered wars -- and low-balling the highlights, such as the Cold War triumph. Obama pointedly reminded his European audience of America's central role, with "the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms," in helping to "underwrite global security" since World War II. Instead of treading gingerly around the issue of democracy and the imposition of our values on other peoples, he squarely rejected the "false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development." He went further than he ever had in arguing that for the United States, advancing democracy is not only a moral but also a strategic imperative, because "peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear." Nor did he shy away from the Manichaean distinctions that drive self-described realists (and Europeans) crazy, insisting that "Evil does exist in the world" and can neither be negotiated with nor appeased.

The Oslo speech was important not just because it broke rhetorical ground. Obama was following in a great tradition of hawkish Democrats fighting wars both hot and cold: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy, as well as that one-time Democrat, Ronald Reagan. More important, though, the speech heralded a course adjustment, a different approach by the Obama administration to the problems that have bedeviled it this year.

Obama's lengthy discussion of war, and his defense of America at war, obviously grew out of his months-long deliberation over whether to send more troops and expand the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. The speech revealed a man who has armed himself with all the necessary moral and practical arguments to justify his decision for as long as necessary. He would not be the first president to make the transformation from skeptic to champion of a war. Look at the many speeches Woodrow Wilson gave when he was trying to stay out of World War I -- and then read the thunderous, moralistic justifications he gave once he decided to enter it. Previous opposition did not hinder Wilson's vigorous efforts to secure victory, and it need not hinder Obama's.

But Afghanistan was not the only policy shaping the president's new thinking. The Oslo speech should also be seen as a turning point in Iran policy. It is the end of Phase I, his tireless and unreciprocated efforts at engagement, and the start of Phase II, "increased pressure," sanctions that can "exact a real price" and are "tough enough to actually change behavior." Obama even ad-libbed an answer to critics who had accused him of ignoring Iran's repressed opposition. To Iranian protesters asking whose side he was on, Obama responded: "they have us on their side." Whether this portends new support for the Iranian opposition remains to be seen, but it may be the first sign of a shift there, too.

Then there was the greater emphasis on democracy and the more pointed criticism of those governments that deny basic human aspirations for freedom and dignity. Was this a product of the president's unhappiness with his recent Chinese hosts? Or his frustration with Russian arms negotiators? Or his displeasure at both nations' reluctance to join in sanctions against Iran? The speech hinted at frustration with partners who have delivered less than he had hoped.

It is only natural that President Obama should respond to unexpected or shifting circumstances by reevaluating his approach. Events in Iran, Afghanistan or China do not occur in isolation. You cannot expect a president to escalate a war without it affecting his broader attitude toward the questions of war and peace. You cannot expect Iran's spurning of his good-faith offer to have no effect on his broader perception of the strategy of engagement. For Obama, as for all of us, these events, these decisions and these lessons affect our broader perceptions and understandings, about the way the world works and about America's proper role in the world. Obama's current understanding was on display at Oslo last week. People at home and abroad should take notice.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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