Obama as Hamlet

Let’s face it, the meme that’s currently taking shape is that President Barack Obama is weak and vascillating. And that’s a particularly lethal meme for a foreign policy oriented around engagement, cooperation, shared responsibility and a careful husbanding of dwindling U.S. power resources.

Is it a fair characterization? It leaves out a number of policy positions where he has taken bold initiatives and followed them up well. His nuclear nonproliferation agenda, for instance, which I initially dismissed but have since come to appreciate, offers promising openings on a number of fronts. His handling of the much-needed U.S. image makeover, too, has been effective. His initial handling of China and India have been quietly consistent with precedent, if not without some (unavoidable) bumpy patches. His reset of the Russia relationship was necessary, and the concessions made — inevitable because it entailed walking back previous overreach — were kept to a minimum.

But on Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan and Iran — that is, the inherited conflicts, as opposed to the inherited engagements — there definitely seems to be a hesitation on following through on initial convictions and openings. To be fair, in the latter two cases, the ground shifted under the stated policy’s feet. And in all three cases, the reality is that there are no good options. All the possible approaches carry great risks — whether immediate or deferred — and limited chances of optimal outcomes. They’re all also politically perilous domestically.

But even if it’s understandable why, Obama has blinked. And that will certainly have effects down the road. The logic behind the “Nixon in China” axiom isn’t that a hawk can sell engagement to domestic hawks. Engagement with China remained very unpopular with most hawks after Nixon’s visit, and remains so in its various updated expressions to this day. The logic behind the axiom is that a hawk can sell engagement as strength to both the interested party and to third-party observers, whether adversaries or rivals, thereby minimizing the risk of collateral damage on other conflicts, whether active or potential.

I had initially interpreted Obama’s immediate decision to deploy 21,000 troops to Afghanistan in this light: a show of strength that would provide cover for subsequently drawing down the military footprint there. That effect has now been muddied, and the resulting image of a modern-day Hamlet could very well limit Obama’s hands in the subsequent rounds of what are all multi-round affairs.

The alternate danger is that Obama might feel the need to give another, more dramatic demonstration of force to dispel any lingering image of weakness. And that could fatally wound his campaign to re-brand the U.S. as a more benign superpower.

One other thing. Whether or not you believe the rhetoric Obama uses about shared responsibility and shared interests — and I do — there’s no certainty that other countries’ leadership elites feel the same way. In other words, as much as the conventional wisdom in Washington needs to be adapted to a non-zero-sum world, so, too, does conventional wisdom in foreign capitals. The Obama foreign policy approach is essentially a wager on both those outcomes, and the jury is still out on both.