Nobel offers time to assess, for now

Posted Oct. 14, 2009, at 5:57 p.m.

Barack Obama’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize is both deserved and not deserved.

Ardent supporters are hard-pressed to come up with many major accomplishments; yet even critics — Rush Limbaugh and the Taliban excepted — will acknowledge that he has restored respect for the United States on the world stage.

His singular achievement has been to shift the course of American foreign policy from one of arrogance and unilateralism to pragmatism and collaboration with allies in tackling the formidable challenges facing the international order.

Personally, I would have preferred that the Norwegian committee had awarded this year’s prize to Iranian dissidents or to U.S. military forces.

The Nobel does offer a timely opportunity to review the president’s foreign policy record as he approaches a full year in office. It is, like the Nobel decision, both a promising start and premature to go far beyond that, especially on the most critical issues.

Certainly, the most important and pressing issue is how to proceed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pundits and politicians babble, but the strategic review under way is both essential and reflects the strengths of the president’s team. Their disagreements may take time to work out, but the crucial step is to settle on the most effective, long-term strategy.

Skeptics fear a Vietnam-like quagmire, but the stakes in the region, especially in Pakistan, warrant decisive action — one way or another. Gen. Stanley McChrystal may not need 40,000 more U.S. troops, but switching to a purely counterterrorism approach will not contain al-Qaida and the related Taliban threat to both countries. The argument seems to be between counterterrorism (light footprint and drones) and counterinsurgency (lots more troops, strengthen governance and serious economic development). My personal view is that it must be a combination of the two — plus quiet diplomacy to gain greater contributions from NATO allies and bolster Pakistani leaders.

A leading expert on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, argues that the intelligence required to conduct successful, lightning strikes against militants requires a significant troop presence on the ground. While tactical operations of the Sept. 11 plot occurred in apartments and flight schools in Germany and the U.S., he reminded senators recently that “the location and strategic genesis of the 9/11 attacks” was in Afghanistan (and now resides in Pakistan).

Obama is proceeding with the scheduled drawdown, but huge problems remain in bringing stability to Iraq where George W. Bush squandered American treasure in a reckless war that abandoned the real struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The president, with support from Republicans like George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, has made a strong commitment to reducing — and eventually eliminating — nuclear weapons. And his readiness to engage Iran and keep pressure on North Korea has improved possible openings with those rogue states. Yet hard work, and patient, tough diplomacy lies ahead to corral Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and bring North Korea into more normal relationships. New intelligence suggests Iran is far closer to a nuclear capability, with possible Russian help.

Progress on Middle East peace is a hard issue to measure any time. Obama appointed a wise diplomat, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, as a special envoy and his team is working hard. But a stubborn government in Israel, a tenacious Israeli lobby and divisions within the Palestinian leadership pose formidable obstacles. One encouraging sign is an effort to mend relations with Syria.

George W. Bush misjudged Russia; Obama has dealt more realistically with Russia and its ruthless manipulation of energy reserves against countries in the former Soviet orbit. It’s still a broad playing field with both Russia and China, but the administration has developed a more flexible policy that could strengthen United Nations sanctions on Iran.

On climate change Obama’s rhetoric, and shift to a more cooperative U.S. attitude, may have been a key factor in the Nobel decision. Still a very contentious issue, but the U.S. is now seen to be part of the solution rather than in denial.

A main reason for Obama’s promising situation is a brilliant selection of his national security team. Highly experienced, some bipartisan choices (Robert Gates at Defense) undercut Republican opposition; Hillary Clinton at State soothed Democratic critics; and Gen. James Jones, national security adviser helped keep the military community on board.

This diversity of leadership, including a savvy vice president, has not made decision-making easy. But it reflects the confidence of a president who recognized he didn’t have extensive background in foreign affairs. Awards aside, the Obama administration has set the stage for a far more strategic and successful foreign policy that resembles that of another President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush. But the true test of its effectiveness lies ahead, in another six months to a year, if not longer.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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