As George W. Bush's term ended, he had few defenders left in the
world of foreign policy. Mainstream commentators almost unanimously agreed
the Bush years had been marked by arrogance and incompetence. "Mr. Bush's
characteristic failing was to apply a black-and-white mind-set to too many
gray areas of national security and foreign affairs," The Post
editorialized. Even Richard Perle, the neoconservative guru, acknowledged
recently that "Bush mostly failed to implement an effective foreign and
defense policy." There was hope that President Obama would abandon some of
his predecessor's rigid ideological stances.
In its first 50 days, the Obama administration has naturally been
consumed by the economic crisis, but it has nevertheless made some striking
shifts in foreign policy. Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo and the
end of any official sanction for torture. He gave his first interview as
president to an Arab network and spoke of the importance of respect when
dealing with the Muslim world -- a gesture that won him rave reviews from
normally hostile Arab journalists and politicians.
Hillary Clinton has racked up more miles in a few weeks than many of
her predecessors as secretary of state did in months, mixing symbolic
gestures of outreach with substantive talks. The administration has
signaled a willingness to start engaging with troublesome regimes such as
Syria and Iran. Clinton publicly affirmed that the United States would work
with China on the economic crisis and energy and environmental issues
despite differences on human rights. She has also offered the prospect of a
more constructive relationship with Russia.
These initial steps are all explorations in the right direction --
deserving of praise, one might think. But no, the Washington establishment
is mostly fretting, dismayed in one way or another by these moves. The
conservative backlash has been almost comical in its fury. Two weeks into
Obama's term, Charles Krauthammer lumped together a bunch of Russian
declarations and actions -- many of them long in the making -- and decided
that they were all "brazen ... provocations" that Obama had failed to
counter. Obama's "supine" diplomacy, Krauthammer thundered, was setting off
a chain of catastrophes across the globe. The Pakistani government, for
example, had obviously sensed weakness in Washington and "capitulated to
the Taliban" in the Swat Valley. Somehow Krauthammer missed the many deals
that Pakistan struck with the Taliban over the past three years -- during
Bush's reign -- deals that were more hastily put together, on worse terms,
with poorer results.
Even liberal and centrist commentators have joined in the worrying.
Leslie Gelb, the author of a smart and lively new book, "Power Rules," says
that Clinton's comments about China's human rights record were correct but
shouldn't have been made publicly. Peter Bergen of CNN says that "doing
deals with the Taliban today could further destabilize Afghanistan." Gelb
writes ruefully that it's "change for change's sake." Ah, if we just kept
in place all those Bush-era policies that were working so well.
Consider the gambit with Russia. The Washington establishment is united
in the view that Iran's nuclear program poses the greatest challenge for
the new administration. The only outside power that has any significant
leverage over Tehran is Russia, which is building its nuclear reactor and
supplying it with uranium. Exploring whether Moscow might press the
Iranians would be useful, right?
Wrong. The Post reacted by worrying that Obama might be capitulating to
Russian power. His sin was to point out in a letter to the Russian
president that if Moscow were to help in blunting the threat of missile
attacks from Tehran, the United States would not feel as pressed to
position missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic -- logical
since those defenses were meant to protect against Iranian missiles. It's
also a good trade because right now the technology for an effective missile
shield against Iran is, in the words of one expert cited by the Financial
Times's Gideon Rachman, "a system that won't work, against a threat that
doesn't exist, paid for with money that we don't have."
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It
includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the
exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and
negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate
interests of their own. The only way to deal with them is by issuing a
series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial
policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal,
an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is