Aaron David Miller
McClatchy News (Opinion)
December 22, 2009 - 1:00am

As the clock ticks down on the first year of the Obama presidency, one thing is pretty clear: in the Middle East, President "Yes We Can" is bumping up against the cruel and unforgiving world of "No You Won't."

From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran and Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the president's rhetoric, commitment and desire to engage has outpaced his capacity (so far) to produce.

Beating up President Obama for inheriting these intractable conflicts isn't fair; at the same time, almost a year in, the president has put his mark on all of these issues. He owns them all now. And the approaches he's set into motion don't look all that promising.

Having advised half a dozen Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on the Middle East over the course of 20 years, let me offer up some gentle advice.

Talk Less: The president is persuader in chief, and he's good at it. He has an obligation to convince Americans what he's doing in their name and also to explain his policies to the rest of the world. But if used unwisely, words can also reflect weakness and highlight gaps between rhetoric and effective action.

Look at the president's Cairo speech last spring. Making nice to the Arabs and Muslims is fine; but when you're fighting wars in two Muslim countries and threatening even tougher sanctions against a third, you're not going to get much support for making nice, even if your name is Barack Hussein Obama. Instead over time without effective results, you look weak if not hypocritical.

Or consider this: Why did the president pose a public ultimatum to Israel to agree to a comprehensive settlements freeze only later to back away and back down? Words can inform and inspire, but they can never be a substitute for successful action.

Strategize More: For a guy who is so smart and deliberative, looking back on last year there's been way too much tactics and not enough strategy. Policies have a chance of succeeding when a president knows where he's going and has the means at his disposal to get there. Look at Iran and the problem of its quest for a nuclear weapon. At the end of 2009, the president's Iran policy is stuck: diplomacy hasn't worked; sanctions aren't on the horizon; and we've effectively taken military action off the table.

This was supposed to be the year of diplomacy, "or else." You can only imagine what the mullahocracy in Tehran is thinking.

A similar reliance on tactics without thinking through possible implications played itself out in the president's approach to the Arab-Israeli issue. He came out harder, faster and louder than any of his predecessors on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; but without really thinking through where he was going or how to get there.

So as 2009 comes to an end, America has gotten three no's; no from Israel on a comprehensive freeze, no from the Arabs on even partial normalization with Israel, and no from Palestinians on going back to the negotiations. America looks weak, bested by smaller powers who said no without cost or consequence.

Ends and Means: The president has also had a problem figuring out what's his real objective and what resources are necessary to accomplish it. Afghanistan is the key example. The president talked of a war of necessity (that pesky rhetoric again). He said we're surging in Afghanistan to ensure that al-Qaeda won't return, basically a counter-terrorism policy to keep America safe at home; but he has wrapped this approach in a counter-insurgency and nation-building strategy that will be almost impossible to implement. We are now dependent on Hamid Karzai, porous borders that we can't control, and events in Pakistan itself that are also beyond our reach.

In any event, why is stopping al-Qaeda in Afghanistan worth American lives and treasure? It wasn't a bunch of guys with AK-47s jumping through hoops in the mountains of Afghanistan that made 9/11 happen; it was terrorists training in U.S. flight schools and plotting in places like Hamburg, Germany, that did more to hurt us.

It's way too early to hang a "closed for the season" sign on Obama's foreign policy. The tough-minded realism in the president's superb Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo suggests he's moving in the right direction. What we need is a little less hyperactivity, soaring rhetoric, and a cruel and unforgiving assessment of what really matters to America abroad and what doesn't. We can't save the world; in fact there's a lot more saving to be done at home, to reduce unemployment, the deficit, and ease the economic and social dislocation for millions of Americans.

So the next time the president gets the urge to say yes we can in his foreign policy, he ought to be pretty sure that in fact we can; and that we should.


Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is also the author of the book "Can America Have Another Great President?" (Bantam Books). Readers may write to him at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20004-3027; e-mail: aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org.

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.


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