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The Quiet American: How the World Sees Obama

4 minute read
Joe Klein

At this year’s U.S.-Islamic world Forum in Doha, Qatar, speaker after Muslim speaker had nothing particularly awful to say about the United States. The Muslims were, in fact, hopeful about, and slightly amazed by, the new American President. Some even wondered aloud what they could do to help him succeed. Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, listed the significant gestures that Obama had made toward the Islamic world, from the President’s interview with al-Arabiya television network to the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East negotiator. Obama had even made reference to “a hadith, which is something not many Islamic leaders do!” Ibrahim added, referring to the sayings of the Prophet that are not included in the Koran. Then Ibrahim went further: “But will the U.S. find credible partners in the Muslim world? … How do we expect the President of the United States to solve our problems when we do nothing?”

It was a rare slash of candor in the annual winter policy-conference festivities–the worthy caravan of world-class bloviation that migrates from the now soiled majesty of the economic wizards at Davos to the Cold War clutch of the Munich Security Conference, to the think-tanky but heartfelt attempts to reach across the cultural chasm at Doha. These conferences were not much fun for Americans during the George W. Bush years, when a solid plurality of the questions began with “How could you?” But the U.S. election promised a change, and I attended Munich and Doha this year to find out how the world was reacting to the new Administration. I found the world slightly nonplussed–mildly euphoric, if a bit nervous.

The nerves were rattled by the studied opacity of the official American speakers, who are awaiting the Administration’s policy reviews on Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan before venturing anything interesting. The clearest statement of American intent came from Vice President Joe Biden in Munich, in a speech so important that Biden read it word for word, without Bidenic huzzahs–he didn’t say, for example, “Vladimir Putin, Lord love ‘im!” He did say quietly startling things like “We will listen. We will consult.” And “We will strive to act preventively, not pre-emptively.” And “America will act aggressively against climate change.” He offered an unclenched fist to Iran and a willingness to push “the reset button” with Russia.

This clarion statement of international sanity had a curious effect on its audience: stunned silence, as the assembled Europeans and Russians were confronted with a terrifying new reality. They were out of excuses, especially our NATO allies. If the U.S. was done with thoughtless bellicosity, the peaceable Euros might have to respond more substantively to our requests for them to live up to their pledges in Afghanistan. This seemed the underlying tension in Munich–the split between countries whose troops actually fight in Afghanistan and those whose troops do not. It is a breach to watch, one that could cripple the alliance.

The tension splattered into full view once, in an indirect confrontation between the Defense Ministers of Germany and the U.K. The German, a Gandhian archetype named Franz Josef Jung, gave a ridiculously optimistic report about progress in Afghanistan. The British Defense Minister responded elegantly during the next panel, “We need more of a wartime rather than a peacetime mentality at NATO … There’s too much of an obsession with process and prevarication.”

It has become clear that there’s a bit of an obsession with process in the Obama Administration as well, but this is a necessary corrective. Rather than making peremptory judgments, pro and con, about foreign leaders, as Bush did, Obama seems predisposed to see every foreign policy problem in its global context–the decision to press the reset button with Russia, for example, could have a profound influence on the start of talks with Iran, especially if the Russians agree to help dissuade the Iranians from an illegal nuclear program (in return for a U.S. pledge to halt the antimissile defense system that Russia fears). Every decision will be evaluated for its synergy with other decisions: troop levels in Afghanistan will reflect, among other things, the level of tension between India and Pakistan.

As a result, Obama’s foreign policy will move at the speed of diplomacy–slower than a sclerotic donkey–punctuated by the occasional laser whoosh of a Hellfire missile in Waziristan. His policies will be nuanced and will not please anyone overmuch–not the Muslims (nor the Israelis) nor our NATO allies nor those Americans seeking ideological clarity or consistency. This will make for a round of more argumentative policy conferences next year, but perhaps fewer “How could you?” questions directed at Americans.


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