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Jackson Diehl on how Obama's policy is bearing fruit

President Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony Thursday in Oslo.
President Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony Thursday in Oslo. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 14, 2009

President Obama's appearance in Oslo last week gave cause for his critics to remind the world, again, of everything his peace-prize-winning diplomacy hasn't accomplished so far. There's been no tangible result from his attempts to engage Iran, North Korea, Syria and other rogues; no clear progress toward Middle East peace; no new steps toward global disarmament. The war in Afghanistan -- something the Nobel judges no doubt look on with disfavor -- just got a lot bigger.

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Still, the verdict on Obama's policy of multilateralism, engagement and circumscribed American ambitions is very much still out. Its proponents have said all along that it would take time to show results. And -- partly because of the administration's own missteps -- the critics have failed to notice that at least some of those results are starting to come in.

Take the Middle East. Obama looks like a failure because he raised expectations for feats that he couldn't accomplish, such as forcing Israel into a complete settlement freeze and convening final settlement talks by this past September. So he gets little credit for the fact that administration diplomacy has moved a right-wing Israeli prime minister with a long history of intractability to make ground-breaking concessions.

Binyamin Netanyahu tied the Clinton administration in knots during the 1990s, and before his election this year he promised to expand settlements while conspicuously refusing to endorse Palestinian statehood. He is now on record accepting statehood and has announced a freeze on Israeli settlements that goes beyond that of most previous governments -- including that of his dovish predecessor, Ehud Olmert. There is no question why Netanyahu did this: to please a U.S. president who has, wisely or not, made Palestinian statehood a top priority.

Does that mean that Obama may still preside over a Middle East final settlement by the end of 2011, as he hoped? Probably not: The partners he has to work with, for now, are too weak or intractable. But in moving Netanyahu he has incrementally advanced the larger cause. If his administration can continue to maintain the current peace in the region while fostering a stronger Palestinian Authority, it could set the stage for a genuine breakthrough.

Obama took a licking during his recent visit to China because he allowed his hosts to script and censor his public appearances and because Chinese President Hu Jintao offered no indication of bending on any issue. Fewer people noticed when, in the weeks after the summit, China announced a target for controlling its greenhouse gas emissions and voted to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. True, the carbon cut is modest and might have been issued anyway; the IAEA resolution doesn't carry the bite of sanctions. But there's little doubt that on the latter matter, at least, Hu was responding to Obama's diplomacy, which quietly but firmly communicated to Beijing that Iran's nuclear program was a critical interest of the United States.

A third sign of progress followed Obama's announcement of the surge in Afghanistan. Earlier this year NATO governments largely rebuffed the administration when it asked for more European troops to accompany the U.S. reinforcements that were dispatched last summer. Now the same governments have pledged at least 5,000 additional troops, and more may come from Germany or France early next year.

Even on Iran, the administration's diplomacy has made some subtle headway. True, Obama's attempt to open a dialogue with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei fell flat. But U.S. diplomats deftly converted an Iranian request for enriched fuel for a research reactor into a deal to ship most of Tehran's enriched uranium to Russia. The result was a win-win: Either Iran would go forward with the bargain and eliminate most of its known raw material for a nuclear bomb, or it would refuse -- in which case it would have directly rebuffed Russia, which until now has shielded Iran from tough sanctions.

Iran is saying no -- which means that the Obama doctrine will get a crucial test. Much of the administration's diplomatic energy has gone into the "reset" of relations with Russia -- and the main object of that reset, in the U.S. view, has been more cooperation from Moscow on Iran. A senior administration official recently told me that there is, for now, "no daylight" between Moscow and Washington on Iran. If that means Russia will respond to Tehran's intransigence by supporting significant sanctions in the U.N. Security Council early next year, Obama's diplomatic strategy will have an indisputable success to parade. If it does not, it may be the Obama doctrine that gets a reset.


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