Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy in this election year might be best summed up by William F. Buckley’s famous promise: to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Wherever war rages, crisis looms, or a truculent strongman glowers, the message from the White House has been the same: “Give me space.”
Those were the instantly emblematic words captured by a rogue microphone when Obama met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on March 26. They were followed by an assurance that “after my election I have more flexibility.” The next day Obama defensively protested that he was talking about arms control negotiations, and “I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before a presidential and congressional elections.”
But the Russian government is hardly the only nuisance Obama is trying to put off. A week before meeting Medvedev, Obama phoned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has been off most diplomatic radar screens since he abandoned an attempt to have Palestine admitted to the United Nations last fall.
Why the sudden presidential outreach? A gloomy Abbas has been toying with possible ways to reclaim global attention — such as shutting down his own government. So a bland White House statement, reporting that “the two leaders agreed on the necessity of the two-state solution … and for all sides to refrain from provocative actions,” was surely incomplete. Can there be any doubt that the phrases “after the election” and “more flexibility” also came up?
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been getting the same treatment. Having set up a March 5 Oval Office meeting with Obama as a potentially fateful discussion of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Netanyahu found himself masterfully outmaneuvered. Obama’s combination of promises to act when needed and public assurances that that moment was still a year or more away sent Netanyahu home with a tough argument in his cabinet for ordering an Israeli attack — at least for a few months.
And so it goes. Civil war may rage in Syria, with thousands of deaths and a potentially major effect on U.S. strategic interests. But Obama is determined to do nothing that would take away his stump speech boast that the “tide of war is receding.” In the negotiations with Iran that began Saturday, the administration is focused on a time-buying deal that will stop the most dangerous Iranian nuclear activities and further deter Israeli military action — while leaving the underlying problem to be solved later.
Obama’s delay defense can be dated to Feb. 29, when the State Department announced a bargain to trade 240,000 tons of food for a pledge by North Korea to freeze its missile and nuclear weapons programs. Diplomats talked up the dubious possibility that Pyongyang was ready to make peace with the outside world. But the more pragmatic objective was obvious: a few months of peace and quiet.
That brings us to the weakness with Obama’s strategy: It hands control over events to the likes of 28-year-old Kim Jong Eun. Sure enough, the reprieve Obama thought he had purchased in north Asia expired after only 16 days, when North Korea announced the long-range rocket launch that took place early Friday. The agreement turned out to be a trap. Now that the Obama administration has withdrawn the promised food aid, the regime will have a cue to carry out the nuclear weapons test that many experts are now expecting.
In Syria, too, delay may prove disastrous. As the senior State Department official for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, told Congress on March 1, “it’s important that the tipping point for the regime be reached quickly, because the longer the regime assaults the Syrian people, the greater the chances of all-out war in a failed state.” Yet in the following six weeks Obama has been passive, delegating Syria to the feckless diplomatic hands of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Some 1,000 more Syrians have been killed; last week’s “cease-fire” is crumbling. At this rate, the “all-out war” Feltman predicted will be underway long before November.
As for Iran, if Tehran accepts Obama’s bargain, the momentum the administration has managed to build up behind sanctions, and the resulting pressure on the Iranian economy, will be broken. If the regime then cheats, or refuses to negotiate a more lasting solution to its pursuit of nuclear technology, Obama will end his term with Iran closer to a an atomic bomb than it was in 2009.
And if Iran won’t agree, and the talks collapse? Then Obama’s effort to stop history until November will once again depend on a man who probably would like to see him lose the election: Netanyahu. That’s the problem with asking for “space”: It tends to get filled by others.
Jackson Diehl wrote this for The Washington Post.