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World Citizen: After Iran Failure, Obama Moves on to Plan B
By: Frida Ghitis
When Iran announced (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/07/west-iran-enrichment-uranium-nuclear) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/07/west-iran-enrichment-uranium-nuclear) this week that it would start enriching its uranium stockpiles to 20 percent -- a level much closer to that needed for nuclear weapons production -- it closed the first chapter in the history of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
That chapter has ended in failure.
Now the administration's push to get started on Chapter Two is already visible, presumably adopting a more muscular American posture to confront international challenges in Iran and beyond.
In his first year, President Barack Obama tried a radically different approach from the confrontational policies practiced by his predecessor, George W. Bush. It wasn't so much an attempt to wield Soft Power as it was Smooth Power: a velvety appeal to common goals and peaceful coexistence. Obama tried to leverage his personal appeal -- the power of his personal history bolstered with the force of his verbal mastery. The persuasive skills that convinced America's voters to elect him were deployed to convince foreign foes to change their ways and reluctant allies to follow Washington's leadership. The new commander in chief famously called it the "outstretched hand," and was eager to see it joined with newly unclenched fists. It took a year to test this theory of power.
The response to the attempt at a more embraceable U.S. foreign policy has made it clear that it did not work. That doesn't mean that Obama's Foreign Policy 2.0 will look like Bush's, but it does mean that what we saw in the first year was something of a Beta Version -- definitely in need of major adjustments.
The new product will not represent an absolute rejection of the previous one. After all, Obama has always shown an inclination to bridge the theoretical gap between idealism and realism. A recent example was his Nobel acceptance speech (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/07/west-iran-enrichment-uranium-nuclear) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/07/west-iran-enrichment-uranium-nuclear) in Oslo, when he passionately praised the virtues of nonviolence, but added, "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms."
The Oslo speech showed the beginning of a pragmatic and rhetorical pivot. The driving foreign policy metaphor of his inauguration speech receded into the deep background.
Both hands from the Obama inaugural speech -- the outstretched and the unclenched one -- have now become clichés, used mostly to show the policy's failure, as in the recent article by William Tobey (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/02/04/iran_unfolds_its_fist_to_slap_us_in_the_face/) (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/02/04/iran_unfolds_its_fist_to_slap_us_in_the_face/) entitled "Iran Unclenches Fist to Slap Us in the Face."
Obama appears to agree. The day after Iran's announcement, Obama appeared in the White House press room and rejected Iran's claims (http://www.youtube.com/?v=4Xtkb5Z10Ho) that its nuclear program aims only at nuclear energy, saying, "They in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization. And that is not acceptable to the international community, not just to the United States." He said the U.S. is leaving the door open to a negotiated solution, but in the meantime (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4902) (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4902), it is also "developing a significant regime of sanctions."
The tension inside Obama's dual foreign policy mind pulls him in two directions. Even as the White House ratcheted up the pressure on sanctions, reports emerged (http://news.google.com/news/url?sa=t&ct2=us%2F0_0_s_1_0_t&usg=AFQjCNE9IusMFwf7X8EGLoy4N75FTE9X-Q&cid=8797496915822&ei=c8dyS5ihHMXNlQeZlvCoAw&rt=SEARCH&vm=STANDARD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2010%2FPOLITICS%2F02%2F09%2Fus.iran.nuclear%2F) (http://news.google.com/news/url?sa=t&ct2=us%2F0_0_s_1_0_t&usg=AFQjCNE9IusMFwf7X8EGLoy4N75FTE9X-Q&cid=8797496915822&ei=c8dyS5ihHMXNlQeZlvCoAw&rt=SEARCH&vm=STANDARD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2010%2FPOLITICS%2F02%2F09%2Fus.iran.nuclear%2F) that new diplomatic initiatives were underway. But the history of negotiations with Iran, and the overall results of the softer approach, point decidedly in the direction of a less conciliatory foreign policy.
Iran says the higher enrichment levels aim at producing fuel for a medical reactor, but many experts see it differently (http://news.google.com/news/url?sa=t&ct2=us%2F0_0_s_0_1_aa&usg=AFQjCNHBqAk8anLT26uA7FL_dYDcsqwYGg&cid=8797496915822&ei=zsdyS7mlJcf3lAfumPyoAw&rt=SEARCH&vm=STANDARD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.washingtonpost.com%2Fwp-dyn%2Fcontent%2Farticle%2F2010%2F02%2F08%2FAR2010020801384.html) (http://news.google.com/news/url?sa=t&ct2=us%2F0_0_s_0_1_aa&usg=AFQjCNHBqAk8anLT26uA7FL_dYDcsqwYGg&cid=8797496915822&ei=zsdyS7mlJcf3lAfumPyoAw&rt=SEARCH&vm=STANDARD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.washingtonpost.com%2Fwp-dyn%2Fcontent%2Farticle%2F2010%2F02%2F08%2FAR2010020801384.html), noting that 20 percent enriched uranium is considered highly enriched. Once that level is reached, the remaining steps towards making weapons-grade uranium are simple. According to renowned nuclear scientist David Albright, the final steps "are not a big deal" and can be accomplished fairly easily in just a few months.
While it is true that Tehran's decision to raise enrichment levels in further defiance of international demands drove the last nail into the coffin of Obama's first-year foreign policy, the disappointments came from many other places as well.
On China, Obama paid a high moral price in order to keep Beijing's rulers happy (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4698) (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4698). Washington's newfound non-confrontational mood meant that for the first time in years, a visit to the capital by the Dalai Lama would not include a meeting with the president. Obama gave up the moral high ground, refraining from criticizing China on human rights, much as he did when post-election protests broke out in Iran last June. In both cases, the conciliatory tone produced no reciprocal response from its intended audience. The more Obama has tried the light touch with China, the more demanding Beijing has become with the U.S.
Making nice with Cuba didn't produce a breakthrough, either. After what seemed like a promising start, relations between Havana and Washington have made no progress. The same is true with Venezuela. Soon after Obama's election, President Hugo Chávez had theatrically declared that the stench of sulfur he ascribed to Bush had been replaced in the U.S. by the smell of hope. But he recently told the world (http://www.statesman.com/opinion/ghitis-they-still-don-t-love-us-157697.html) (http://www.statesman.com/opinion/ghitis-they-still-don-t-love-us-157697.html) that Obama, too, smells like the devil.
Obama's entreaties to Pyongyang have also fallen on deaf ears, with more rocket launches and secretive arms deals by the North Koreans.
Obama has admitted he overestimated the effectiveness of his verbal skills. Speaking of the administration's stalled efforts at a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, he said (http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1955072,00.html) (http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1955072,00.html) "I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that."
The same is true in Tehran, Beijing, Havana, Caracas, and elsewhere.
The good news is that the Obama team now knows it was using the wrong strategy. So even as the president shifts much of his attention to domestic matters, America's foreign policy under Obama is about to enter a new phase.
The tone has already shifted (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4912). Defense Secretary Bill Gates has now declared that the time has come for stricter sanctions on Iran. And the long-delayed meeting with the Dalai Lama will finally take place, no matter how loudly China objects.
When it comes to Iran, Plan A has officially failed. Plan B is being put in place. We know the rough outlines of the new strategy, and we will soon find out the details. But most of all, it is the intensity of Obama's personal determination that will make the difference between success and failure for the new plan.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world
affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly
Citizen (../worldcitizen), appears every Thursday.
Photo: President Barack Obama during a meeting at the White House, January 2009 (White House photo by Pete Souza).