100 Days: The foreign policy groove

This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

US presidential candidates run for office as if they would be
free to act however they wish once elected. But upon election, they
govern as they must
. The freedom of the campaign trail contrasts
sharply with the constraints of reality. The test of a president is how effectively he bridges the gap
between what he said he would do and what he finds he must do. Great
presidents achieve this seamlessly, while mediocre presidents never
recover from the transition. All presidents make the shift, including
Obama, who spent his first hundred days on this task.

Obama won the presidency with a much smaller margin than his
supporters seem to believe. Despite his wide margin in the Electoral
College, more than 47 percent of voters cast ballots against him. Obama
was acutely aware of this
and focused on making certain not to
create a massive split in the country from the outset of his term. He did
this in foreign policy
by keeping Robert Gates on as defense
secretary, bringing in Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and George
Mitchell in key roles and essentially extrapolating from the Bush
foreign policy. So far, this has worked. Obama’s approval
rating rests at 69 percent, which The Washington Post notes is
average for presidents at the hundred-day mark.

Obama, of course, came into office in circumstances he did not
anticipate when he began campaigning — namely, the financial
and economic crisis
that really began to bite in September 2008.
Obama had no problem bridging the gap between campaign and governance
with regard to this matter, as his campaign neither anticipated nor
proposed strategies for the crisis — it just hit. The general
pattern for dealing with the crisis was set during the Bush
administration, when the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve
Board put in place a strategy of infusing money into failing
institutions to prevent what they feared would be a calamitous
economic chain reaction.

Obama continued the Bush policy, though he added a stimulus
. But such a package had been discussed in the Bush
administration, and it is unlikely that Sen. John McCain would have
avoided creating one had he been elected. Obviously, the particular
projects funded and the particular interests favored would differ
between McCain and Obama, but the essential principle would not. The
financial crisis would have been handled the same way — just as
everything from the Third World debt crisis to the Savings and Loan
crisis would have been handled the same way no matter who was
president. Under either man, the vast net worth of the United States
(we estimate it at about $350 trillion) would have been tapped by
printing money and raising taxes, and U.S. assets would have been
used to underwrite bad investments, increase consumption and build
political coalitions through pork. Obama had no plan for this.
Instead, he expanded upon the Bush administration solution and
followed tradition.

The Reality of International Affairs

The manner in which Obama was trapped by reality is most clear
with regard to international affairs. At the heart of Obama’s
campaign was the idea that one of the major failures of the Bush
administration was alienating the European allies of the United
States. Obama argued that a more
forthcoming approach to the Europeans
would yield a more
forthcoming response. In fact, the Europeans were no more forthcoming
with Obama than they were with Bush.

latest trip to Europe
focused on two American demands and one
European — primarily
— demand. Obama wanted the Germans to increase their
economic stimulus plan because Germany is the largest exporter in the
world. With the United States stimulating its economy, the Germans
could solve their economic problem simply by increasing exports into
the United States. This would limit job creation in the United
States, particularly because German exports involve automobiles as
well as other things, and Obama has struggled to build domestic
demand for U.S. autos. Thus, he wanted the Germans to build domestic
demand and not just rely on the United States to pull Germany out of
recession. But the Germans
, arguing that they could not afford a major stimulus now
(when in fact they have no reason to be flexible, because the U.S.
stimulus is going to help them no matter what Germany does).

Germany’s and France’s unwillingness to provide
substantially more support in Afghanistan gave Obama a second
disappointment. Some European troops were sent, but their numbers
were few and their mission was limited to a very short period. (In
some cases, the European force contribution will focus on training
indigenous police officers, which will take a year or more to really
have an impact.) The
and Germans essentially were as unwilling to deal with
Obama as they were with Bush on this matter.

The Europeans, on the other hand, wanted a major
effort by the International Monetary Fund
(IMF). The Central
European banking system, largely owned by banks from more established
European countries, has reached a crisis state because of aggressive
lending policies. The Germans in particular don’t want to bail
out these banks; they want the IMF to do so. Put differently, they
want the United States, China and Japan to help underwrite the
European banking system. Obama did agree to contribute to this
effort, but not nearly on the scale the Europeans wanted.

On the whole, the Europeans gave two big nos, while the Americans
gave a mild yes. In substantive terms, the U.S.-European relationship
is no better than it was under Bush. In terms of perception, however,
the Obama administration managed a brilliant coup, shifting the focus
to the changed atmosphere that prevailed at the meeting. Indeed, all
parties wanted to emphasize the atmospherics, and judging from media
coverage, they succeeded. The trip accordingly was perceived as a

Campaign Promises and Public Perception

This is not a trivial achievement. There are campaign promises,
there is reality and there is public perception. All presidents must
move from campaigning to governing; extremely skilled presidents
manage the shift without appearing duplicitous. At least in the
European case, Obama has managed the shift without suffering
political damage. His core supporters appear prepared to support him
independent of results. And that is an important foundation for
effective governance.

We can see the same continuity in his treatment of Russia. When he
ran for president, Obama pledged to abandon the U.S. ballistic
missile defense (BMD) deployment in Poland amid a great show made
about resetting U.S.
Russia policy
. On taking office, however, he encountered the
reality of the Russian position, which is that Russia wants to be the
pre-eminent power in the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration
took the position that the United States must be free to maintain
bilateral relations with any country, to include the ability to
extend NATO membership to interested countries. Obama has reaffirmed
this core U.S. position.

United States has asked for Russian help
in two areas. First,
Washington asked for a second supply line into Afghanistan. Moscow
agreed so long as no military equipment was shipped in. Second,
Washington offered to withdraw its BMD system from Poland in return
for help from Moscow in blocking Iran’s development of nuclear
weapons and missiles. The Russians refused, understanding that the
offer on BMD was not worth removing a massive thorn (i.e., Iran) from
the Americans’ side.

In other words, U.S.-Russian
relations are about where they were in the Bush administration
and Obama’s substantive position is not materially different
from the Bush administration’s position. The BMD deal remains
in place, the United States is not depending on Russian help on
logistics in Afghanistan, and Washington has not backed off on the
principle of NATO expansion (even if expansion is most unlikely).

In Iraq,
Obama has essentially followed the reality created under the Bush
administration, shifting withdrawal dates somewhat but following the Petraeus
there and extending it — or trying to extend it —
to Afghanistan. The Pakistani problem, of course, presents the
greatest challenge (as it would have for any president), and Obama is
coping with it to the extent possible.

Obama’s managing of perceptions as opposed to actually
making policy changes shows up most clearly in regard to Iran. Obama
tried to open the door to Tehran by indicating that he was prepared
to talk to the Iranians without preconditions — that is,
without any prior commitment on the part of the Iranians regarding
nuclear development. The
Iranians reacted
by rejecting the opening, essentially saying
Obama’s overture was merely a gesture, not a substantial shift
in American policy. The Iranians are, of course, quite correct in
this. Obama fully understands that he cannot shift policy on Iran
without a host of regional complications. For example, the Saudis
would be enormously upset by such an opening, while the Syrians would
have to re-evaluate their entire position on openings to Israel and
the United States. Changing U.S. Iranian policy is hard to do. There
is a reason Washington has the policy it does, and that reason
extends beyond presidents and policymakers.

When we look at Obama’s substantive foreign policy, we see
continuity rather than changes. Certainly, the rhetoric has changed,
and that is not insignificant; atmospherics do play a role in foreign
affairs. Nevertheless, when we look across the globe, we see the same
configuration of relationships, the same partners, the same enemies
and the same ambiguity that dominates most global relations.

Turkey and the Substantial U.S. Shift

One substantial shift has taken place, however, and that one is
with Turkey.
The Obama administration has made major overtures to Turkey in
multiple forms, from a presidential visit to putting U.S. anti-piracy
vessels under Turkish command. These are not symbolic moves. The
United States needs Turkey to counterbalance Iran, protect U.S.
interests in the Caucasus, help stabilize Iraq, serve as a bridge to
Syria and help in Afghanistan. Obama has clearly shifted strategy
here in response to changing conditions in the region.

Intriguingly, the change in U.S.-Turkish
never surfaced as even a minor issue during the U.S.
presidential campaign. It emerged after the election because of
changes in the configuration of the international system. Shifts in
Russian policy, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and shifts within
Turkey that allowed the country to begin its return to the
international arena all came together to make this necessary, and
Obama responded.

None of this is designed to denigrate Obama in the least. While
many of his followers may be dismayed, and while many of his critics
might be unwilling to notice, the fact is that a single concept
dominated Obama’s first hundred days: continuity. In the face
of the realities of his domestic political position and the U.S.
strategic position, as well as the economic crisis, Obama did what he
had to do, and what he had to do very much followed from what Bush
did. It is fascinating that both Obama’s supporters and his
critics think he has made far more changes than he really has.

Of course, this is only the first hundred days. Presidents look
for room to maneuver after they do what they need to do in the short
run. Some presidents use that room to pursue policies that weaken,
and even destroy, their presidencies. Others find ways to enhance
their position. But normally, the hardest thing a president faces is
finding the space to do the things he wants to do rather than what he
must do. Obama came through the first hundred days following the path
laid out for him. It is only in Turkey where he made a move that he
wasn’t compelled to make just now, but that had to happen at
some point. It will be interesting to see how many more such moves he


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