Obama on the World Stage: What Power Means


Obama on the World Stage: What Power Means

“Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do,” writes Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in his new book, Power Rules. It seems an aggressively simplistic thought for a member of the foreign policy priesthood. But Gelb doesn’t define power merely as the use or threat of force. Power is a combination of factors — military, diplomatic, economic, moral — that give a country the ability to make its way in the world. Gelb believes that most recent Presidents have used power foolishly, squandering it — which is something Barack Obama should bear in mind as he goes forth to meet with the world’s leaders in Europe the first week in April. The new President has shown a predilection for diplomacy, a subtle strategic sense of the world. But sometimes you have to throw your weight around — quietly, but firmly — and Gelb has raised an essential question: Will Obama know how, and whether, to react if diplomacy fails?

Most foreign policy books are … avoidable. They tend to be written in an abstruse language that occasionally approaches English. The most commercial of them promise a new theory of the world: it is flat , America’s influence is waning , the nature of power is changing, growing softer, more multilateral . Gelb takes a defiant step in the opposite direction, away from gimmicks and grand theories, toward a re-examination of the most basic and eternal tool in the game of nations. He does not dispute that the world has changed: globalization exists, as do Osama bin Laden and dirty weapons. The U.S. no longer possesses the military and economic supremacy it had after World War II, but it still has unrivaled power to lead — meaning the ability to build coalitions to attack the world’s problems. Gelb is a prickly moderate. He does not mince words. “Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power, and treat facts like trash,” he writes. “Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision and toughness to govern.”

Gelb is at his best describing the three “demons” that render America’s politicians congenitally foolish and unable to project power creatively — our tendency to turn principles into dogma, domestic political pressures, and the delusion that America can do anything. George W. Bush was badly boggled by all three. His “Freedom Agenda,” which wantonly promoted democracy, led to disasters like the rise of Hamas in Gaza . Bush also played domestic tough-guy politics disgracefully: his opponents were inevitably “soft on terrorism.” And he played the darker avenues of domestic politics as well, allowing ethnic pressure groups like the Israel and India lobbies too much sway. Finally, his feckless battle plans in Afghanistan and Iraq were the result of his reflexive belief in American omnipotence and an underestimation of our enemies’ intransigence.

“Obama is a big improvement on Bush across the board, but he hasn’t faced any test that measures his ability to use power,” Gelb says. Indeed, Obama’s approach to Iran comes straight out of Gelb’s chapter on “stage-setting” — preparing the field for successful diplomacy. Obama has worked the Iran account obliquely — beginning negotiations that might make the Russians a less willing enabler of Iran’s nuclear program, approaching Syria in a way that might entice that country away from so close an alliance with Iran. He also made a direct approach to the Iranian people, taping a New Year’s holiday message of peace to the “Islamic Republic” — calling Iran by its formal name was a crucial signal that he was not intent on regime change — which forced the Supreme Leader into an embarrassing display of weakness, “rejecting” Obama’s advance. Gelb believes that the way is clear for productive negotiations, with “a real possibility” that Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be limited to peaceful uses.

But Obama’s moment of truth will come if Iran doesn’t, ultimately, want to play. Will the “demons” rot away his policy judgment Will he exaggerate Iran’s power, as the Israelis and neoconservatives routinely do, turning a relatively modest regional player into an existential threat — mad mullahs ready to blow up the world Will he allow Republicans to force him into a tough-guy pose for domestic consumption Will he suffer the delusion that U.S., or Israeli, power can “take out” the Iranian nuclear program without disastrous retribution

Gelb, who believes the proper reaction to an Iranian bomb is containment and deterrence, not force, may be reacting to past American arrogance with undue humility. “If you try for the perfect solution, you’re asking for failure,” he says. We have to tolerate a world that isn’t quite as we’d want it to be. It will be interesting to see if Barack Obama, who has pretty much gotten his way at every turn, will be able to handle that.

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