Obama chooses smart power

The assassination of bin Laden was a watershed moment; Obama decided to realize the international role of authority that the US has assumed since World War II.

By
May 6, 2011 16:25
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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US President Barack Obama wanted to change the world. In the meantime, however, it seems the world has changed him. The very person who, over two years ago, called for “change,” has found himself, mid-term through his presidency, behaving more like his predecessors, and in accordance with the painful compromises today’s international conditions demand.

Obama now understands that his “change” is more of a “continue,” and he is willing to accept that.

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The American president’s world, as he described it when he took office, is one of dialogue, peaceful contacts and engagement. This is in sharp contrast to the sometimes overly aggressive “Wild West” approach adopted by George W. Bush.

Obama wanted to present an alternative to that type of foreign policy. The world was so excited by the new vision that the Nobel Committee made the unprecedented decision to grant him a prize for anticipated achievements.

Accepting the prize constituted a type of commitment on Obama’s part to maintain his policies based on the principle of soft power and its values. Obama believed that by upholding this principle, America would be better able to defend its international status and its interests across the world.

His first act was to reach out to the Muslim world, speaking officially in Egypt and Turkey, while intentionally skipping over Israel. He wanted to bring a fresh message.

With regard to Iran, which was already well on a collision- course with America, Obama initiated a process of dialogue with Iranian leaders. His belief in that process was to such an extent that, when protests broke out in that country as a result of the stolen 2009 elections, he rejected outright support for democracy and human rights and left the Iranian people to be brutally suppressed by the regime.

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But the president has now resumed the use of hard power, perhaps without even understanding that his world had changed.

The US is leading a new economic sanctions campaign against Iran, one that may even lead to military confrontation. America is leaving Iraq slowly and cautiously. In Afghanistan, Obama was forced to decide between surrendering to the Taliban and continuing the struggle against it, and he chose to fight – a decision that would seem to contradict his worldview.

In the face of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, Obama was at first hesitant, but then abandoned president Hosni Mubarak, allegedly for the sake of Egyptian democracy. But by the time the revolution in Libya came along, the US president understood that he could not let things continue as they were; Obama supported the NATO air strikes and America even aided the rebel forces there. When it comes to Syria, there is still a lot of ambivalence on his part.

The bullets that killed Osama bin Laden this week represented, I believe, a watershed moment. The assassination marked a decision by the new Obama to realize the United States’ international role – that is, the role of authority it has assumed since World War II.

This is not to say that he has completely abandoned his previous values. But he is trying to find the proper combination between hard power and soft power – something that is sometimes called smart power. It is an educated mix of hard and soft means in changing, gradual proportions: sometimes the soft precedes the hard, and sometimes it follows it. In any case, he is no longer a prisoner of a single worldview, but is able, and willing, to combine the two according to changing conditions and out of an understanding that neither alone can provide victory, but rather only in symbiosis.

The US communication policy, including the speech in which Obama addressed the nation late Sunday night, further exemplifies the American dilemma. There were few pictures of the event, and none of bin Laden’s body. The official White House photo presented a careful and thoughtful team, not a group of bloodthirsty politicians. The contemplative expression on the president’s face embodied the power of the dilemmas he faced.

When he addressed his nation, the president knew to connect the war on terror and the basic values of the free world, and especially of America. The sentence that, I believe, best encapsulates this approach was the following: “...America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

So what happens now? How will the new Obama act? He could become intoxicated by his power and its use, resulting in an America that will intervene more frequently in the international arena. Or he could return to his former worldview and focus on domestic issues.

I’m betting that, given the upcoming elections, he will prefer the stronger approach, one which earned him an instantaneous leap in popularity just this week.

Smart power could be his insurance policy for another four years in the White House.

The writer is a Kadima MK and a former IDF spokesman.

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