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Obama at one year: new realism in foreign policy

Less ideological than Bush, Barack Obama pursues a more traditional approach to foreign affairs, marked by a narrower definition of US interests.

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Others are even more unequivocal about how Afghanistan has defined – and boxed in – Obama’s foreign policy.

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“Afghanistan offered Obama the opportunity to articulate a distinctive approach and he muffed it – by his decision to add more troops he’s essentially endorsed the long war,” says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and Vietnam veteran who teaches international relations at Boston University. Mr. Bacevich, who lost a son in the Iraq war, says he sees strains of “traditional American internationalism” in Obama’s foreign policy, including the idea that “America should lead the world, but that it does so most effectively when it adheres to a collaborative approach and to the international norms it helped create.”

But he says those impulses won’t matter now, because Obama “has decided to fight violent anti-Western jihadism with more war, giving more US troops the task of bringing significant change to an Islamic country.” And what flows from that decision, he concludes, “now becomes the focal point of his foreign policy.”

It’s a harsh assessment that stands as a kind of warning to Obama. Indeed, some foreign-policy experts say Obama’s long deliberation and preoccupation with “getting the Afghanistan decision right” suggests a president well aware of the war’s potential for becoming his quagmire. Obama “wanted a formulation that allows a measure of stability without Afghanistan becoming a bottomless pit that jeopardizes his presidency,” Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations says. “That’s why he kept going back to the drawing board.”

Other issues, including Iran and Obama’s goal of reaching a world of zero nuclear weapons, may turn out to be better measures of this president’s attempts to balance a realist foreign policy with aspirational goals. Kupchan, for one, says Iran should not define Obama’s foreign policy any more than Afghanistan.

But he says Iran has allowed Obama to apply an approach that says “pragmatism and outreach and a focusing on solving problems can lead to new levels of global cooperation.”

Ultimately, that cooperation may not include Iran. Indeed, the window of outreach to Tehran appears to be closing, with Obama speaking more frequently of applying new international sanctions to deter it from building a bomb. Yet if the outreach to the toughest cases like Iran “means greater cooperation on this and other issues from the Chinas and Russias of the world,” as Kupchan says, that could end up an even bigger prize.

Throughout history, only a handful of US presidents have proved to be transformational in foreign affairs. Obama may not be one of them, in part because of the challenges facing America today. But if he can navigate the Afghanistan quagmire, he might still be the 21st century’s Richard Nixon in foreign policy, with a little Woodrow Wilson thrown in.

He could reimagine America’s relations with new global powers, guided by modest hopes for forging a better world.

Call it realist idealism. ρ

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