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Obama administration relies on diplomacy by timetable

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President Barack Obama is imploring Democrats to show him the energy and motivation that helped carry him to power in 2008. He told a spirited Philadelphia rally that his agenda is at stake in next month's elections.

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 11, 2010

Barack Obama's foreign policy so far has been dominated by process -- and its most notable product has been deadlines.

The president's biggest achievements so far are not results but the would-be means to deliver them. His administration hasn't produced an Israeli-Palestinian peace -- but it has brought the two sides to the bargaining table. It hasn't stopped Iran's nuclear weapons program -- but it has orchestrated new sanctions to force Tehran to negotiate. It hasn't extracted the United States from Afghanistan -- but it has put in place a strategy that is supposed to make that possible.

It has done all this with painstaking diplomacy, with highly orchestrated internal and external consultations -- and at times with stumbling trial and error. It has also set a remarkable number of clocks ticking.

One clock is measuring whether U.S. troops will be ready to begin handing off security to Afghanistan's army by July 2011, when the first withdrawal of American troops is to take place. Another paces Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as they try to conclude a "framework agreement" by next September, when the one-year timetable Obama encouraged them to establish will expire.

A third follows Iran's nuclear program. The administration said last spring that Iran was two to five years away from producing a bomb. If Iran does not soon begin to negotiate seriously with the United States and its Security Council allies, or take some confidence-building steps away from producing weapons, that time frame will begin to overshadow the sanctions policy.

A final clock governs Iraq -- where Obama has promised a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. Will Iraq be fully ready to defend itself by then? No one knows -- and yet the timetable is already locked in.

Obama's foreign policy record hardly figures in this fall's midterm election. That's at least in part because of its inconclusiveness: It has neither failed nor produced tangible outcomes. A year from now, thanks to the timetables, the record should be in -- just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.

This is not entirely a coincidence; after all, as Bob Woodward reports in his latest book, Obama told one senator that he established the July 2011 Afghanistan deadline so as not to "lose the whole Democratic Party." That, however, doesn't mean his clocks will prove beneficial. More likely, they are setting him up for failure.

Success may not be possible in Afghanistan -- most of Obama's civilian advisers, according to Woodward, have already written it off. But what's interesting is that those who still believe in the counterinsurgency policy, such as Afghan commander Gen. David Petraeus, are careful to say that success will require many years of commitment, not a handful of months. If Afghanistan looks much better by July 2011, not just the skeptics will be surprised, but the optimists as well.

Obama's first timetable, of course, was for Iraq -- his plan to withdraw troops in 16 months put him into contention in the 2008 Democratic primaries. By the time he took office as president, two years later, Iraq had changed utterly, and Obama's 16 months had come and gone. The president nevertheless adopted a similar, 18-month timetable for ending U.S. combat operations. He stuck to it despite Iraq's political impasse and its increasing instability this summer -- causing some Iraqis to question whether U.S. policy amounted to anything more than a timetable.

Next comes the December 2011 date for full withdrawal. If Obama sticks to it, he will put the nascent U.S. "strategic partnership" with Iraq's new regime at risk -- and hand an advantage to Iran.

In the Middle East negotiations, counterproductive timetables are multiplying. The one-year deadline for completing talks seems to have derived from a two-year deadline established last year by Obama's envoy, George Mitchell. Meanwhile, Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank has expired, prompting the administration to press for a new 60- to 90-day deadline.

Once again the timetables are disconnected from a strategy. Is it possible that Netanyahu and Abbas can agree on the borders of a Palestinian state in less than 60 days and end the settlement debate? No. But then, what will happen when the next deadline arrives? Discussion will be forced on yet another timetable.

Process is always important to good policy -- and yes, the Bush administration sometimes demonstrated what can go wrong when there are no deadlines. Yet in the Obama administration, the timetable is becoming an end in itself. It reflects a president who is fixed on disposing of foreign policy problems -- and not so much on solving them.


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