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John Feffer

John Feffer

Posted: October 6, 2009 02:19 PM

Obama's Two-Handed Approach

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A mixed metaphor lurks behind the Obama administration's foreign policy. On the one hand, there's Obama's "open hand" approach that rewards the unclenched fist with a handshake. On the other hand there's the other hand, the one that Obama keeps close to his chest. This "hand" is the set of cards that Obama the gambler plays with poker bluff and blackjack daring. Two hands: two governing metaphors. The challenge arises, in language as in policy, when the metaphors mix.

But let's start with the open hand.

Last week, Obama's engagement approach with Iran finally bore fruit. Meetings in Geneva -- both multilateral and face-to-face between Iran and the United States -- produced an agreement that at least temporarily keeps additional sanctions at bay. Iran will permit inspections of its new uranium enrichment facility near Qom. And it will send much of its low-enriched uranium outside the country, first to Russia and then to France, for further enrichment before returning to Iran for use in medical research. The United States has acknowledged Iran's right to enrich uranium; Iran has agreed to transform much of its uranium into material that is not weapons-grade.

It's a small step, to be sure, and there will be ample opportunity for Iran and the United States to clash. But if John Bolton says we're moving in the wrong direction, then the Obama administration must be doing something right. Bolton, the Bush administration's man at the UN, believes in only two modes of international engagement: appeasement and annihilation.

The Obama administration is also using its "open hand" approach with North Korea. After previously insisting on multilateral negotiations and nothing but multilateral negotiations, the administration agreed earlier this month to the possibility of face-to-face talks with Pyongyang. "Engaging North Korea through direct negotiations doesn't mean the Obama administration is legitimizing the North Korean leader," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Christine Ahn in "Send Bosworth to North Korea":

Richard Nixon negotiated with China and Ronald Reagan talked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and those societies have changed quite a bit since then. President Obama should uphold his commitment to negotiate, and doing so with North Korea means opening up North Korea and the door to peaceful reunification. Given its leadership in the division of the Korean peninsula and in the Korean War, the United States has a moral obligation to engage North Korea. Not doing so is a dangerous repeat of the same mistakes of the past two administrations, which led, eventually, to a nuclear North Korea.

It's of course too early to declare Obama's modest engagement policies toward Iran and North Korea a success. Engagement is a fragile policy even at the best of times. The principal players must not only deal with their own mutual disagreements but also the inevitable criticisms on the home front. It's not just the usual suspects like Bolton who eagerly shoot down every trial balloon. Consider Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl's premature evaluation of the "open hand" policy: "What seems pretty clear is that the most notable foreign policy idea Obama offered during his campaign has fallen flat during his first months in office." Diehl might as well criticize Obama for not bringing about world peace, achieving global prosperity, and writing another bestselling book in his first few months in office. He's president, not God.

Now let's turn to the other hand, the "hidden hand" approach. Any good card player will tell you never to show your hand, either by carelessly unveiling your cards or giving away their value through gesture or expression. Winning relies on guile and misdirection. In the end, though, the player takes a risk. There is a good amount of gambling in international relations, but the best politicians make calculated gambles.

Obama's Afghanistan policy is a gamble. He inherited a weak hand from his predecessor, and he's hoping, through a mixture of luck and bluff, to rescue his position at the table. Obama's initial approach was to "double down." That is, instead of holding steady or folding his hand and withdrawing from Afghanistan, he decided to double his bet by sending in more troops.

In blackjack, doubling down is usually a good strategy if the dealer's up card is weak (a two through a six). In Afghanistan, Obama has come to realize that the up card is not weak at all. The Taliban is showing a face card. It can, of course, go bust with a king. We don't know the Taliban's hole card. And we don't know what card it might still draw from the deck. But the odds are currently in its favor.

"The Taliban has made a steady comeback since its rout in 2001," I wrote in Afghanistan: NATO's Graveyard? "More American soldiers, as well as more soldiers from the other coalition partners, have already died in 2009 than in any of the previous eight years. The number of civilian casualties -- 2008 was a record year and 2009 will likely break that record -- fly in the face of NATO's 'responsibility to protect' guidelines. There aren't anywhere near the number of troops necessary for an effective counterinsurgency campaign, if such a thing were even possible in distant Afghanistan, and what troops are there have proven ill-trained for 'hearts and minds' work. Nor are there sufficient Afghan troops trained, almost eight years after the initial invasion of that country, to 'Afghanize' the NATO side of the conflict."

This situation on the ground is sowing discord among the backers of the U.S. position. "When Labor MP Eric Joyce recently resigned his position as parliamentary aide to the British defense minister because he could no longer support the war, he leveled a broadside at other NATO countries," writes FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan in We Deeply Regret. "'For many, Britain fights, Germany pays, France calculates, Italy avoids.' Even some in the United States have begun to rail at what they see as a lack of commitment by NATO. While the 'American people are supporting this [the war],' U.S. Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Democratic chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told The Cable, 'The Europeans are not doing a damn thing.'"

In our strategic dialogue this week on Afghanistan, FPIF research fellow Erik Leaver argues that Obama has made the wrong decision on the blackjack table. "Doubling down on George Bush's war by sending more troops and resources has little chance of success," he writes in Decision Point: Afghanistan. "Even if it did succeed, such a strategy would likely further damage the U.S. economy, military, and our standing in the world in the process. Another option is needed on the table -- a clear and measurable timetable for withdrawal."

In the counterpoint piece, FPIF contributor Ed Corcoran also urges the Obama administration to cut its losses, but to focus on northern Afghanistan rather than pull out altogether. "We need to show real development in the areas we do control, particularly in the north and main cities," he writes in Why Afghanistan. "The Taliban has never controlled the northern areas, not even in the dismal 1990s. The populace there almost universally opposes the Taliban. Focused aid can develop local leaders who can gain the respect and dedication of the population and can build a very hostile environment for the Taliban."

Obama has been of late very coy about his Afghan policy. His top general is calling for more troops. His vice president, among others, is pushing for a narrower, anti-terrorist strategy. At the same time, the administration has raised the possibility of negotiating with Taliban moderates. With the specificity of a bookie, Vice President Biden has claimed that 70% of the Taliban are just mercenaries open to negotiation. The same combination of "open hand" and "hidden hand" characterizes U.S. policy toward Iran and North Korea. We extend the hand of engagement but keep certain cards very close to our chest.

The problem arises when one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, for instance, we reached out to North Korea with one hand even as the other hand prepared to undercut the agreements we signed. One hand gaveth, the other tooketh away. And then we had the temerity to criticize other governments for sending out equally mixed messages: agreeing to talk with the United States even as they kept their nuclear hole cards hidden.

Will current U.S. policy toward Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and other countries succumb to a similarly mixed metaphor? That's a tough bet.

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post. To subscribe to FPIF's e-zine World Beat, click here.