Monday, December 21, 2009

Obama’s Foreign Engagement Scorecard

STATESMAN President Obama brokered a climate agreement in Copenhagen Friday.

He must have the skill and personality needed for brokering compromises. Much of the world does look to the US for leadership, but it is a challenge to translate that to practical results.

If there is a one-word handle that fits the conduct of foreign relations in Barack Obama’s first year as president, it is “engagement.” The Obama administration has engaged with Iran, Russia, Burma, Sudan, North Korea. “Engagement” sounds harmless — something any sensible administration would do (though the Bush administration apparently did far less of it).

But what, in fact, does President Obama have to show for “engagement” itself? And how do you keep score? He has just emerged from Copenhagen having brokered an agreement, however modest, on climate change. Does that count?

There is difficulty in measuring progress, yet less than a year has passed since he took office. It seems very early to make judgments. Of course, that does not stop pundits from doing so.

To some conservatives, engagement thus sounds like a euphemism for “appeasement.” Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues, “There is a perception around the world that Obama is proceeding on bended knee to our enemies, and they’re rebuffing us contemptuously.”

How does this pundit know what perceptions there are "around the world"?

Iran is both the most important, and the most passionately disputed, case. Engagement here would seem to have been a failure — but only if you take the policy wholly at face value. One senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record says that while the offer of engagement was “never just an instrument or a ploy,” and remains on the table, the very public effort to exhaust all available means of persuasion has helped move Europe, Russia and China toward a tougher stance.

Perhaps, then, the ultimate measure of the success of the engagement policy will be the extent to which the good will President Obama has generated will tip the balance in the hard bargaining before his administration — over assistance from allies in Afghanistan, over new approaches to the Middle East and the international economic structure, and, most immediately, in the struggle to reach a meaningful agreement on how to slow global warming — an issue where the global good collides with the most basic questions of national interest. The credit Mr. Obama has earned will have to stretch a very long way.

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