Fareed Zakaria: The Post-Imperial Presidency





[Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International.]

If you take just one sentence out, Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan last week was all about focusing and limiting the scope of America's mission in that country. His goal, he said, was "narrowly defined." The objectives he detailed were exclusively military—to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taliban's momentum, and strengthen the Kabul government's security forces. He said almost nothing about broader goals like spreading democracy, protecting human rights, or assisting in women's education. The nation that he was interested in building, he explained, was America.

And then there was that one line: "I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan." Here lies the tension in Barack Obama's policy. He wants a clearer, more discriminating foreign policy, one that pares down the vast commitments and open-ended interventions of the Bush era, perhaps one that is more disciplined even than Bill Clinton's approach to the world. (On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly invoked George H.W. Bush as the president whose foreign policy he admired most.) But America is in the midst of a war that is not going well, and scaling back now would look like cutting and running. Obama is searching for a post-imperial policy in the midst of an imperial crisis. The qualified surge—send in troops to regain the momentum but then draw down—is his answer to this dilemma. This is an understandable compromise, and it could well work, but it pushes off a final decision about Afghanistan until the troop surge can improve the situation on the ground. Eighteen months from now, Obama will have to answer the core question: is a stable and well-functioning Afghanistan worth a large and continuing American ground presence, or can American interests be secured at much lower cost?

This first year of his presidency has been a window into Barack Obama's world view. Most presidents, once they get hold of the bully pulpit, cannot resist the temptation to become Winston Churchill. They gravitate to grand rhetoric about freedom and tyranny, and embrace the moral drama of their role as leaders of the free world. Even the elder Bush, a pragmatist if there ever was one, lapsed into dreamy language about "a new world order" once he stood in front of the United Nations. Not Obama. He has been cool and calculating, whether dealing with Russia, Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A great orator, he has, in this arena, kept his eloquence in check. Obama is a realist, by temperament, learning, and instinct. More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.

In 1943 the columnist Walter Lippmann defined foreign policy as "bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." Only then could the United States achieve strategic stability abroad and domestic support at home. Consciously or not, President Obama was channeling Lippmann when he said, "As president I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." In his speech he quoted only one person, a president of the opposite party, Dwight Eisenhower, who said of national-security challenges, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs." Obama added that "over the past several years, we have lost that balance." He is hoping to restore some equilibrium to American foreign policy.

"In the end," said the president last week, "our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms." He explained that America's economic and technological vigor underpinned its ability to play a world role. At a small lunch with a group of columnists (myself included) last week, he made clear that he did not want to run two wars. He seemed to be implying that these struggles—Iraq and Afghanistan—were not the crucial path to America's long-term security. He explained that challenges at home—economic growth, technological innovation, education reform—were at the heart of maintaining America's status as a superpower.

It is now clear that Obama is attempting something quite ambitious—to reorient American foreign policy to-ward something less extravagant and adversarial. That begins with narrowing the war on terror; scaling back the conflict with the Islamic world to those groups and countries that pose serious, direct threats to America; and reaching out to the rest. He has also tried to develop a better working relationship between America and other major powers like Russia and China, setting aside smaller issues in hopes of cooperating on bigger ones. This means departing from a bipartisan approach in which Washington's role was to direct the rest of the world, pushing regimes large and small to accept American ideas, and publicly chastising them when they refused. Obama is trying to break the dynamic that says that when an American president negotiates with the Chinese or Russians, he must return with rewards or concessions—or else he is guilty of appeasement.

And then there is that line. It might seem hard to reconcile a more targeted and focused foreign policy with the expansion of a war and the introduction of 30,000 troops. But it is not unprecedented...


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rob h adams - 12/11/2009

The Nobel would have been better deserved if President Obama had beaten George Bush to a bloody pulp on the White House lawn the day of the Inauguration. That said, the Nobel speech acknowledged the irony of the award for the things Obama has not yet done; but now the good things: (A) it was a manifestation of relief in the West that George Bush is finally gone, and (B) Obama had the moxie to give a war speech for a peace prize thus exposing the New Boss for what he is: same as the Old Boss.

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