JACKSON DIEHL

Stuck in the 1980s

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with President Obama in Japan last week.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with President Obama in Japan last week. (Dmitry Astakhov)

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JACKSON DIEHL
Monday, November 22, 2010

For help understanding the foreign policy headlines of the past week, let's return, briefly, to the spring of 1983, when Barack Obama was a student at Columbia University. What were the burning international issues of that time?

Well, first was the "nuclear freeze" movement, which was prompting mass demonstrations around the world by people worried about the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. Obama published an article about it in a campus magazine in which he invoked the vision of "a nuclear free world."

The Middle East, meanwhile, was still reeling from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon - which was the apotheosis of the Zionist right's dream of creating a "greater Israel" including all of the Palestinian West Bank.

Back to November 2010. The Obama administration is devoting a big share of its diplomatic time and capital to curbing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank - most recently, offering Israel's right-wing government $3 billion in warplanes in exchange for a 90-day moratorium. Meanwhile, it has committed much of its dwindling domestic political capital to pushing a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia through a reluctant Senate.

So has nothing changed in the past quarter-century? In fact, almost everything has - especially when it comes to nuclear arms control and Israel's national objectives. What hasn't changed, it seems, is Barack Obama - who has led his administration into a foreign policy time warp that is sapping its strength abroad and at home.

Start with the New START treaty that Obama has made a priority for the lame-duck Senate, at a time when Americans don't yet know what income tax rate they will pay on Jan. 1. The treaty resembles the landmark U.S.-Soviet arms control treaties that were negotiated in the years after Obama wrote his article - and it would perpetuate their important verification measures.

The difference is that no one stages marches today about U.S. and Soviet - now Russian - strategic weapons, and with good reason. The danger of a war between the two states is minuscule; and treaty or no, Russia's arsenal is very likely to dwindle in the coming years. The threat of nuclear weapons now comes from rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, and maybe from terrorist organizations. Obama believes that U.S.-Russian treaties will lead to better containment of that threat - but that's at best an indirect benefit.

That doesn't mean the START treaty is worthless. The Senate ought to approve it if only to ensure the continued monitoring of Russian missiles. But does it merit dispatching the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense to Capitol Hill for a desperate (and uphill) lobbying offensive? It's hard to see why.

The same might be said about Obama's preoccupation with stopping Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem - a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement. True, almost everyone outside Israel regards the construction as counterproductive, and only a minority supports it inside Israel.

But that is just the point: The dream of a "greater Israel" died more than 15 years ago. Even the Israeli right now accepts that a Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank. The settlements have become a sideshow; the real issues concern how to create a Palestinian state in a Middle East where the greatest threat is not Israeli but Iranian expansionism. What to do about Hamas and Hezbollah and their Iranian-supplied weapons? How to ensure that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base? Those issues did not exist in 1983 - and the Obama administration seems to have no strategy for them.

Not all of the administration's foreign policy is anachronistic. Obama's tour this month of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan reflected a cutting-edge concern with rebuilding U.S. influence in Asia and forging alliances with its democracies in response to a rising China. Iran has been the target of a relatively successful multilateral sanctions campaign, though that has yet to affect its nuclear program. The START treaty with Russia is part of a larger strategy to coax its brutish regime toward more responsible behavior.

Still, this administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy - or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.

Instead there is Obama, who likes to believe that he knows as much or more about policy than any of his aides - and who has been conspicuous in driving the strategies on nuclear disarmament and Israeli settlements. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." Yes, and it shows.


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