Obama's Foreign Policy Challenges

Washington Matters

Obama's Foreign Policy Challenges

The day after Election Day, I received a message from my friend Kelvin, an Irish photographer. Kelvin and I met in Galway in the summer of 2004. The insurgency in Iraq was running red hot, U.S.-European relations were at a post-World War II low, and Fahrenheit 9/11 had just opened in nearby theaters. We had plenty to talk about. One of the things that we agreed on was that, whatever George Bush's intentions might have been, his leadership had hurt America's image around the world. I hadn't discussed my views on the 2008 election with him during the campaign, but Kelvin was now writing me to congratulate me on the outcome: "The future is bright. Absolutely delighted."

I thanked my friend but offered a note of caution. Obama, I told him, is certain to be more diplomatic and open to multilateral solutions than was President Bush, but he'll still need to consider U.S. strategic interests. And as any democratically elected head of state, he has to consider the views of the voters. He can show leadership by getting out in front of them and trying to convince them of the importance of a change in direction on any given foreign policy issue, but he can only go so far. 

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The bottom-line is that, inevitably, Obama is going to make decisions that will disappoint his international fans. The reaction to his election in various trouble spots around the world ought to be enough to illustrate that:

Less than twenty-four hours after Obama's election, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said he hoped U.S.-Russian relations would improve with Obama in the White House, then in the next breath threatened to move missiles right up to NATO's eastern border. Obama doesn't advocate as tough a line with Russia as John McCain did, but there's bound to be more confrontation during Bush's presidency. That's going to create friction between the U.S. and the European states that depend on Russia for their energy supplies -- particularly Germany and Italy.


Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki repeated his insistence on a hard withdrawal date for U.S. forces, without which he won't sign a new Status of Forces Agreement. Obama is inclined to draw down U.S. troops as soon as he can without risking a renewal of sectarian warfare. That may be good news for Maliki, but it misses a larger point. Plenty of Iraqis found themselves in front of U.S. cameras and microphones after the election results came in. Half of those interviewed were thrilled at Obama's election because they were convinced Obama would get U.S. troops out of Iraq. The other half were terrified for precisely the same reason.

One of Obama's main foreign policy arguments was that the U.S. needed to get out of Iraq to focus on winning the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. That means sending more troops to Afghanistan and conducting more operations in Pakistan where insurgents have a relatively safe haven. Pakistan's efforts against the Taliban and al Qaeda have started to improve now that it is enlisting tribal warriors opposed to the Taliban. But it's a dead certainty that Obama will violate Pakistan's border, with or without permission, if he feels Pakistan isn't moving fast enough. That guarantees tensions between Washington and Islamabad will continue to simmer. Kabul won't cut Obama much slack either. Afghanistan's President Hamid Kharzai faces a tough reelection fight next year and is demanding an end to U.S. attacks in civilian areas -- something that the Taliban's use of ordinary Afghans as human shields makes virtually impossible. In either case, as well as in Iraq, Obama will take many of his cues from a Bush administration appointee: General David Petraeus, who now commands U.S. troops in both war zones. That will go double if Obama chooses to keep Robert Gates on as Defense Secretary.

Hamas marked Obama's election by raining Qassam rockets down on southern Israel from Gaza, violating a ceasefire in place since June. If Hamas had anything to celebrate, it was that Bush will be leaving. Obama promises to put the U.S. back at the center of the Arab-Israeli peace talks for the first time in eight years. But if Hamas, Hezbollah or any other jihadist group thinks they're getting a seat at the table, they're in for a rude shock. One thing Obama shares with Bush is his determination not to negotiate with such groups as long as they practice terrorism and refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist.

The terrorism question brings us almost back to our own shores. One major break Obama will make with Bush administration policy is to close Camp Delta, the prison camp for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Shutting down Camp Delta would remove a blemish on America's human rights record and go a long way towards repairing the damage to America's image. But that leaves the question of what to do with the detainees. Some of them, such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will never go free. Will they be tried in U.S. military courts or civilian ones? Will they end up in U.S. civilian prisons, military stockades or entirely new POW camps to be constructed on U.S. soil? And what about those detainees who have been found not guilty? Some may well have been radicalized by their treatment at Gitmo and would take up arms if released. Others would face persecution or worse if returned to their home country, such as the Chinese Uighurs caught fighting alongside the Taliban.


Tough questions, all of them. Bush has taken tremendous heat for having let them go as far as they have. But fixing the mess would tax a Reagan, an FDR or a Lincoln. Obama will have to tackle these problems, and others, while simultaneously grappling with the worst global financial crisis in decades. Whatever he does, he won't be able to please everyone. That's just as true overseas as it is here.