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Hail to the 'not now' president

Op-Ed

On key foreign policy issues, from Iran to Syria, President Obama is opting for a cautious approach. And that's just fine.

May 07, 2012|By Aaron David Miller
  • President Obama steps off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday after a secret trip to Afghanistan.
President Obama steps off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday… (Evan Vucci / AP Photo )

If you're looking for a two-word summary of how the administration is approaching some key foreign policy issues, from Iran to Syria, there's no better description than "not now."

Barring some unexpected turn that forces the president's hand, there will be no October surprises. What you see now is what you're going to get through November: a cautious approach on the issues of the day that avoids bold, unilateral action.

And that's just fine. The last thing America needs right now is an ill-advised diplomatic blunder or military intervention. In the world Barack Obama inherited, presidential discretion in foreign policy really is the better part of valor.

Context matters. And whatever the president's original risk-ready instincts when it came to transformative foreign policy initiatives, they are now fully under control. Obama came into office with the goal of altering the trajectory of the nation's foreign policy. But after flirting with engaging the mullahs and the Syrians and pressing Israel on settlements, the administration came to its senses.

Obama settled into a less reckless, less ideological approach than his predecessor. But it was one very much consistent with Bush 43's policies. The war on terror intensified, Gitmo remained open, sanctions on Iran toughened and relations with the Israeli prime minister settled down. It was no love-fest, but neither did it have the tensions of the president's earlier campaign to push a settlements freeze.

The president's approach to national security issues — including the bold operation to find and kill Osama bin Laden and the intensification of the drone war — made him look tough. Even Bush 43's speechwriter, Michael Gerson, called Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech "manly." And his orderly but earlier-than-scheduled withdrawal from Iraq made him look politically savvy.

Obama has emerged as a smart, risk-averse foreign policy president. His instincts are well suited for the times. The public is tired of costly quagmires abroad and instead is focused on domestic issues.

The Republicans Party is having a hard time finding a way to attack him on foreign policy and is relegated to drawing distinctions without much difference on issues such as Iran and Syria. To be sure, the handling of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Obama's crowing about getting Bin Laden on the one-year anniversary of the raid that led to his death suggest the president isn't immune from stumbles. But he's proved deft and competent, guided by a smart, deliberate and cautious style.

And so emerges the "not now" president. If there's any doubt, look at U.S. policy responses toward Iran, Syria, the Arab-Israeli issue and North Korea. The goal is process, not outcome; deliberate, not bold initiatives; and multilateral, not unilateral action. The administration may be prepared to do something on any of these issues after November; it's just not going to happen now.

Iran is the clearest example. No president could ever tell an Israeli prime minister not to defend the nation, but Obama made it as clear to Benjamin Netanyahu as any U.S. president could that a unilateral Israeli strike would be a very bad idea.

For Obama, an Israeli attack would mean higher oil and gasoline prices, roiled financial markets, regional tensions, a stalled American recovery and more attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And for what? At best, an Israeli strike would buy a year or two until Iran's nuclear program would be back on track, this time with more international legitimacy and support from the Russians and Chinese.

For Obama, handling Iran these days means tougher sanctions, buying time and space, restraining the Israelis and seeing if the five-nation talks with Tehran can produce a deal. More likely, there will be no big deal on the nuclear issue this year, but no war either. And not getting into another military conflict abroad is a good thing for a president who's focused on extricating the United States from two of the longest wars in American history.

Ditto on Syria. Despite the brutality of the Assads, Obama is moving slowly, cautiously and multilaterally. A few neocons, some liberal interventionists and a couple of U.S. senators are urging more aggressive action, but the president has avoided even the appearance of the slippery slope of military intervention. That could change if the killing reaches new levels. But Obama will go to great lengths to avoid another open-ended military commitment.

The president also has de-escalated his war with Netanyahu. Israeli settlement activity continues. There are no negotiations with the Palestinians, and it's unlikely there will be any. If Obama is reelected, he may choose to try to press the Israelis on peace issues. But right now, it's just another one of those "not now" issues.

To Obama's critics who argue that the president is sacrificing American interests and leadership with his "not now" approach, I'd say give me a realistic alternative. Yes, the president is making a virtue out of necessity because on these three issues, the only options run from bad to worse.

The "yes, we can" president confronts a "no, you won't" world, and he's handling it pretty competently. Sometimes getting out of the way of history is better than getting run over by it. You want big, bold diplomacy, talk to me after November. Just not now.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

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