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Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Posted: May 21, 2010 09:04 AM

It's fortunate for President Obama that domestic events swamp international concerns because most voters don't care about what happens in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan. For those of us who do, Obama's foreign policy stances often bewilder both the left and right -- they are the international equivalent of the Third Way domestic policies of the Clinton Administration.

During his first term, President Bill Clinton embraced Third Way economic policies that had already been implemented by the Tony Blair government in Great Britain. These policies were said to be "centrist," advocating neither socialist nor laissez-faire economic governance. While they eschewed the "trickle down" philosophy of the Reagan years and promoted some social programs - such as healthcare reform - they largely embraced the position that financial markets were self-regulating, relying on trade policy to protect US jobs.

The best example of Obama's Third Way foreign policy is Afghanistan, where his strategy pleases neither the right nor the left. Conservatives, such as John McCain, want the President to commit to being in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban. (Sarah Palin recently criticized Obama for not fully supporting corrupt Afghan President Hamid Karzai.) Liberals, arguing that the US has been in Afghanistan long enough and needs to redirect its priorities, want our troops withdrawn immediately.

President Obama has chosen a third path, sending more troops to Afghanistan and expanding the war into neighboring Pakistan - primarily through the use of predator drones. However, in his December 1, 2009, speech Obama said there would be a surge of 30,000 additional troops but, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

A more recent example of Third Way foreign policy is Israel. While there are multiple hot buttons in the US relationship with Israel, the most recent flare-up concerned continued settlement development on the West Bank. On March 8th, during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel, that government announced the construction of 1800 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Biden immediately condemned this as "precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now." Two weeks later, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a cool reception at the White House. Nonetheless, on May 2 there were indications that Israel-Palestine peace talks were about to restart.

On May 13, the ASSOCIATE PRESS reported that Obama would ask Congress for $205 million for Israel's rocket defense system. Even though the Iron Dome mobile air defense system is far from operational, Obama apparently saw this as an opportunity to extend a carrot to Israel: You restart peace talks and we'll help you build a rocket defense system. It's classic third-way diplomacy.

Obama also displayed pragmatism in his dealings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. While refusing Russian demands to curtail missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, Obama got Medvedev to agree to a new arms control treaty and to work with the US to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program.

In relationships with Israel, China, Russia and smaller states like Sudan and Kazakhstan, Obama has not been as ideological as George W. Bush. Obama avoids talk about the role of the US being to dot the world with new democracies. On the other hand there's not a lot of discussion about human rights.

Obama's conversations with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao primarily concern trade and currency, whether China meets its international obligations in terms of manufacturing conditions and wages and whether or not the Renmimbi should be allowed to float. Obama has been recruiting China to work with the US to stop Iran's nuclear weapons programs and to intervene with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il.

Although Obama began his Presidential campaign focusing on his opposition to the war in Iraq, domestic events caused him to shift focus to the economy, healthcare, and energy policy. Nonetheless, the President has done what he said he was going to do: gradually withdraw from Iraq and increase US focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan. He's also carried through on his commitment to decrease the threat of nuclear weapons and waste products.

It's the "peripheral" foreign policy issues that have surprised Obama's friends and foes. He's much more pragmatic than conservatives and liberals expected. Perhaps this is because the President has so much on his plate that he doesn't have the focus necessary to develop a twenty-first century progressive foreign policy. Perhaps this is because Obama's political instincts tell him that he is wise to only pick a fight when he absolutely has to, that it is unwise to waste precious political capital on Cuba, Sudan, Venezuela, or any of the other countries where a focused US policy might make a difference.

Time will tell. In the meantime we are left with "third way" foreign policy, which for most progressives seems like a weight-watchers meal, providing the necessary calories but not satisfying our moral taste buds.