Obama trip spotlights new direction for U.S. foreign policy

News analysis

Barack Obama appeared to have scored a major success in projecting “commander-in-chief” ability and foreign policy savvy in his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq last week, and continued that path as he traveled to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and then on to Western Europe. After meeting with heads of state and other political leaders in each country, Obama continued to emphasize themes that have been hallmarks of his campaign so far: prompt, planned withdrawal from Iraq, giving top priority to achieving a two-state Israeli-Palestinian settlement and putting diplomacy before saber-rattling in U.S. foreign policy.

Before heading to Iraq, Obama told reporters, “I am there to listen,” but re-emphasized his “core position, which is that we need a timetable for withdrawal.” Such a move, he said, is in the strategic interests of the United States. Echoing concerns of U.S. military circles, he also said more troops should be shifted to Afghanistan to deal with the deteriorating situation there.

Even as Obama prepared for his Iraq visit, Iraq’s prime minister was telling the German magazine Der Spiegel that Obama’s 16-month withdrawal timetable was “the right timeframe” for Iraq.

Responding to charges from the McCain campaign that he was not listening to military commanders on the ground, Obama gave a broader definition of the commander-in-chief’s responsibility. That “job is to think about the national security interests as a whole,” Obama told ABC’s Terry Moran, “and to weigh and balance risks in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

In addition, he told reporters in Jordan, “Keep in mind, for example, one of Gen. Petraeus’s responsibilities is not to think about how could we be using some of that $10 billion a month to shore up a U.S. economy that is really hurting right now. If I’m president of the United States, that is part of my responsibility.”

Obama was accompanied on his Mid-East trip by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

McCain struggled to respond. As Iraqi officials pointed to a 2010 deadline for troop withdrawal, almost identical to the timetable proposed by Obama, McCain opposed any deadlines even as the Bush administration itself spoke of “time horizons,” a departure from previous positions. McCain went so far as to claim that only he knows what the Iraqis really “want.”

Obama foreign policy coordinator Denis McDonough told reporters earlier this month that by refusing to elaborate a clear position on when the U.S. would leave Iraq, McCain is discouraging Iraqis from seeking political reconciliation and taking command of the security situation there.

“It is pretty clear that [McCain] does not have a strategy for leaving Iraq — a strategy for success in Iraq,” McDonough said. “He has a strategy just for staying in Iraq.”

At the same time, peace advocates expressed concern over the new focus on ramping up military action in Afghanistan.

Peace activist Tom Hayden, who organized Progressives for Obama, wondered in The Nation last week, “Is an expanded war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fueled by troop transfers from Iraq, winnable? In what sense?

“Ending one war in Iraq to start two more in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be a dumb idea.”

Hayden, nevertheless, saw promise in Obama’s overall approach. “The beginning of an alternative may require unfreezing American diplomacy towards Iran and considering a ‘grand bargain’ instead,” he wrote.

Obama’s trip has spotlighted the direction that his administration would take on foreign policy — diplomacy and negotiations, working with allies in a multilateral way, a turn away from the unilateral militarism of the neoconservative Bush administration.

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who works with Obama on foreign policy, told reporters Obama’s position on Iran sets him apart from Bush and from McCain.

McCain is advocating “a continuation of the Bush policy with respect to Iran,” Wexler said. The Bush policy on Iraq has only helped Iran’s current government to “enhance its position,” he said. Ending the Iraq war and a diplomatic approach with Iran are better alternatives, he suggested.

Referring to Jewish American concerns about threats to Israel expressed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Wexler said, “The smartest policy for America, the smartest policy for people who care about Israel, is for the United State to directly engage with Iran with tough, principled diplomacy.”

After leaving Jordan, Obama met with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Israel and the West Bank. Acknowledging before the meetings, “It’s unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region,” Obama vowed to work toward achieving a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations “starting from the minute I’m sworn into office.”

He said any U.S. involvement in peace talks must recognize “not only Israel’s security concerns but also the economic hardships facing Palestinians.”

Saying he would continue to “regard Israel as a valued ally. That policy is not going to change,” Obama continued, “What I think can change is the ability of the United States government and a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognize the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now.”

jwendland @politicalaffairs.net