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Obama's foreign policy spine

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

For a world that feared (and in some cases, cheered) the prospect of American decline, this holiday season has been bracing. It showed that despite U.S. political and economic difficulties, President Obama is still able to rally support at home and abroad for a strong foreign policy.

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Obama's Christmas-week legislative successes capped a two-month period in which his foreign policy team strengthened key alliances, from East Asia to NATO. After Obama's humbling in the November elections, world leaders were talking in stage whispers about the erosion of American power, and of Obama as a weak and inattentive president. Those worries haven't disappeared, but they are allayed by his recent successes.

The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility - and he'll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.

Donilon's advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones's deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.

"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.

What has been notable about the recent foreign policy moves is that they have allowed Obama to show some backbone, a quality that Europeans, in particular, feared was missing. This firmness has been especially evident in contingency plans for North Korea.

The White House cites eight specific foreign policy gains over the past two months. The list begins with the president's trip to India in November, when he was still reeling from the Democrats' midterm defeat. That cast an aura of failure over the trip, but in retrospect it looks a bit more positive: In New Delhi, Obama managed to strengthen ties with India without upsetting Pakistan, a neat trick.

Next came South Korea. Although Obama was drubbed for not getting a free-trade deal before his arrival, his refusal to make last-minute concessions to Seoul made the final deal reached in December much better, and won it bipartisan support. It's arguably the most important free-trade pact since NAFTA.

A third success was the Lisbon summit in late November. This was the crowning diplomatic achievement of the late Richard Holbrooke, who managed to coax NATO to support a 2014 timetable for transition in Afghanistan. This bolstered the allies and helped fuzz Obama's July 2011 date for beginning withdrawal, which was perhaps his biggest foreign policy blunder - undercutting his troop surge even as he announced it a year ago.

The December Af-Pak review, the fourth item on the list, followed on the Lisbon frame. Obama's achievement here was to avoid a potential political land mine. A White House aide had explained that the president's goal was "fine-tuning, not changing the channel." He bought some time with a bland status-quo document that spoke of progress but called it "fragile and reversible."

Then came the three big theatrical events in December: the formation of an Iraqi government; the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; and ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. In all three, Obama succeeded by working closely with his diplomatic and military advisers, especially Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Finally, and least noticed, was the test with North Korea. While saying little in public, the administration mobilized for the possibility of war if North Korea continued its provocations. Obama cautioned Chinese President Hu Jintao in a phone call three weeks ago that because North Korea is a nuclear nation, its recklessness threatens the United States. The White House thinks the Chinese got the message - and warned Pyongyang.

Sadly, the president's biggest disaster was with his signature issue, Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obama was undone partly by his growing political weakness. I suspect that a stronger but still quixotic Obama will remount that horse next year.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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