Assessing Obama's Foreign Policy: Guess Who Is Small Now?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You used to be big," says the B-movie hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) when he meets the faded and aging silent film star Norma Desmond (portrayed by Gloria Swanson) in her decaying mansion in Billy Wilder's classic film-noir Sunset Boulevard (1950). "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," responds the bristling Desmond/Swanson. To which the sneering Gillis/Holden replies: "I knew there was something wrong with them."

Some of the criticism of President Barak Obama's foreign policy coming from the neoconservatives on the right -- and occasionally also from progressives on the left -- remind me of Norma Desmond's famous lines. America is still the world's "only remaining superpower," the detractors argue. And yet under the current administration, this supposedly great power is being pushed around by China, disrespected by Russia, dismissed by Pakistan, ignored by Iran, and manipulated by Israel.

If Americans are the Masters of Pax Americana why can't we talk the Chinese into revaluing their currency; induce the Russians to impose sanctions on Iran; compel the Pakistanis to end their support for the Jihadis; bully the Iranians into ending their nuclear-military program; and get the Israelis to stop building new Jewish settlements on the West Bank? That America is still the Big Boy on the global block and that Washington has failed to use that enormous power to deliver results suggest to the critics that the problem lies in the White House, in a weak president that just does not have what it takes to lead America in this world. America is big. It's the president who got small.

Indeed, while conservatives who are not satisfied with the new Afghanistan strategy insist that Obama should be sending more troops to Hindu-Kish, critics on the left fault the White House for not getting rid of Hamid Karazi, the politically corrupt leader of that country, and for failing to make Pakistan into a non-failed state.

Then there was Obama's decision to abandon a planned missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of an effort to "reset" U.S. relationship with Russia. So why is Washington still waiting for a clear pledge from Moscow to support economic sanctions against Iran if it refuses to work out a nuclear deal with the international community? And why should Americans wait for a green-light from Vladimir Putin to allow Georgia and Ukraine into NATO?

And apropos of Iran; where are the diplomatic rewards America should have been receiving from Iran in return for Obama's stated willingness to engage with the Ayatollahs in Tehran? As the neoconservatives see it, only the threat of military power will bring an end to Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.

If anything, both right-wing and liberal critics seem to share the view that Washington should 'do something" to assist the pro-democracy movement in Iran. And the members of a similar right-left coalition have slammed Obama for refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama before leaving for his trip to China and for not raising China's human rights violations and its protectionist economic approach (by tying the value of the renminbi to that of the U.S. dollar) during his meetings in Beijing.

When it comes to the Middle East, Obama is being challenged by his political supporters who expected him to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and in particular, to pressure Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to stick to his commitment to freeze the buildup of Jewish settlements; while right-wing detractors accuse the president of "abandoning" Israel in order to "appease" the Arabs.

On the issue of the Middle East as well as on other foreign policy challenges, Obama has to deal with the wide gap between the realities of the global politics and economics and the expectations that he may have created upon entering office. Many of his fans on home and abroad had assumed that Obama's multiculturalist persona and cosmopolitan disposition, not to mention his charisma and star qualities would help him win the hearts and minds of publics and elites around the world.

There is no doubt that through his personality and life-story, coupled with the manufactured media events, friendly gestures and cool style, Obama has been able to start changing America's global brand name. But that his media image and style of foreign policy have failed to produce any dramatic foreign policy success does not reflect a breakdown of presidential leadership, an ineffective decision-making process, a lack of moral authority or some sort of personal intellectual deficiency. Obama is certainly not a small-time president.

In order to understand the constraints operating on Obama as he tries to pursue his foreign policy agenda one should reread the U.S. National Intelligence Council report which had been issued in November 2008, in the same month in which Obama was elected as president. It predicted continued U.S. economic and military decline, the rise of a multi-polar system in which America will have to share power with China, India and other players. "By 2025, the U.S. will find itself as one of a number of important actors on the world state, albeit still the most powerful one," it concluded.

While the financial meltdown and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have accelerated this process of American decline, the elites in Washington have been unwilling to accept that reality and assume that American could still "do something" to impose its interests and values worldwide. At the same time, the political right seems to be operating under the delusion that a Republican president a la Reagan - and unlike Obama -- would be able revive and even strengthen American global power.

But even a Roosevelt, a Truman, a Kennedy or Reagan would have no choice but to deal with the reality that is facing Obama, in which domestic resistance and rising global challenges make it more and more difficult for Washington to secure its military and economic hegemony on its own - to continue being the Big Number One --- and necessitate working together with other powers to contain threats to the international system while trying ensure that the United States is at least, a first among equals. Unfortunately, many in Washington are going to look at the mirror and assert that, "We're Big. And it's the guy in the White House that makes us look small."