How the world looks at Obama after midterms

November 8, 2010

By George Friedman
The following is an excerpt from Friedman’s weekly column. The opinions expressed are his own.

The results of the 2010 U.S. midterm elections were as expected: The Republicans took the House but did not take the Senate. The Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate, however, that Republicans can block the Obama administration initiatives in both houses of Congress. The public has thus taken away Obama’s ability to legislate on domestic affairs.

That leaves foreign policy though. So let’s consider how foreign governments view Obama after this defeat. There are several major elements to Obama’s foreign policy. He campaigned intensely against George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq. He argued that the important war was in Afghanistan. And he argued against Bush administration policy on detention, military tribunals and torture. He also argued that Bush had alienated the world by his unilateralism, by which he meant lack of consultation with allies.

The Europeans were particularly jubilant at his election. They saw Bush as unwilling to take their counsel, demanding that they participate in U.S. wars in which they had no interest. The Europeans thought Obama would allow them a greater say in U.S. policy — and, above all, ask them for less.

The bloom wore off as the Europeans discovered that Obama had meant that the Europeans would be more likely to provide assistance to the United States if Washington was more collaborative with them. So Obama simply became another U.S. president, constrained by circumstances into acting like any other U.S. president would.

Perhaps more telling was the reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech intended to reach out to the Muslim world. In it, Obama warned that the United States would not abandon Israel — the same stance other U.S. presidents had adopted. Muslims understood the speech as saying that while Obama was prepared to adopt a different tone, the basic structure of American policy in the region would remain unchanged.

Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama’s position on Iraq consisted of slightly changing Bush’s withdrawal timetable. In Afghanistan, his strategy was to increase troop levels beyond what Bush would consider. Toward Iran, his policy has been the same as Bush’s: sanctions with a hint of something later.

Why did Obama believe that he was changing relations when in fact his policies were not significantly different from Bush’s policies? Apparently, he seemed to believe the essential U.S. problem with the world was rhetorical. The idea that nations weren’t designed to trust or like one another, but rather pursue their interests with impersonal force, was alien to him.

Having met a number of world leaders, I can say with some confidence that Obama is perceived globally as given to rhetoric that doesn’t live up to its promise. No one expected him to turn rhetoric into reality. But they did expect significant shifts in foreign policy and a forceful presence in the world.

Whatever criticisms are leveled at the United States, the expectation remains that America will be at the center of events, acting decisively. The questions I hear most often from leaders are simple: What is the American position, what is the American interest, what will the Americans do?

I answer that the president is preoccupied but will attend to their region shortly. Though true, the issue now is simple: Obama has spent two years on the trajectory in place when he was elected. Inertia is not a bad thing in policy, as change for its own sake is dangerous. Yet a range of issues must be attended to, including China, Russia and the countries they border.

If he continues on this trajectory, the rest of the world will perceive him as a crippled president, something he needn’t be in foreign policy matters. He could emerge from his midterm defeat as a powerful foreign policy president, acting decisively in Afghanistan and beyond. Reagan accelerated his presence in the world after his defeat in 1982. We will know in a few months if Obama will follow suit. If he doesn’t, global events will begin unfolding without recourse to the United States, and issues held in check will no longer remain quiet.

George Friedman is the chief executive officer of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, and the author of “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.”

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