The historic election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States has sharply raised hopes around the world at a time of gloom and crisis. Mr. Obama's demeanor on foreign affairs throughout his campaign has been low key, although the President-elect did emphasize, not unexpectedly perhaps, the need to continue the war on terrorism and pursue Usama bin Laden till the end. Pundits did not fail to highlight Mr. Obama's careful treading on foreign policy, a field where his experiences are limited. The selection of Senator Biden for the VP post was thus interpreted as a move to cover the immediate gaps at the top of an Obama administration with the experience of a veteran lawmaker attuned to the details of ongoing American battles.
Although it is too early to accurately crystal ball the direction and content of an Obama foreign and security policy, it goes without saying that the new President must continue pursuing the fronts left open by the Bush administration. But what is almost certainly to change would be the public attitude of the White House and the guidelines controlling the day-to-day tactics confronting the challenges at hand. Mr. Obama has demonstrated he can be excruciatingly focused on the objective as well as in favor of an “intellectual” approach to formulating strategy, a department where Bush neocons failed so disastrously. Both characteristics will serve him and America well at a time when bearings are fuzzy and dead ends like Iraq are sapping US power sharply.
Mr. Obama should be expected to immediately begin consultations with America's allies in an effort to establish rapport and build new bridges where the charred remains of old ones mark the long passage of the Bush neocons. That won't sit well perhaps with “new” Europe, and its phobic pre-occupation with Putin's Russia, but it will do a world of difference in America regaining its sure footing with its closest allies. And although the Russians, in contrast to western Europeans, seem little enthused over Mr. Obama's election, they will no doubt appreciate the potential of working away from a “new Cold War” with a pragmatic US leadership.
Much remains to be done on the Asian front. China and India will demand a major part of the new administration's time and attention. Iran and its planned nuclear weapons will necessitate some quick footwork and the reshaping of both language and strategy so that America puts distance between its expressed disapproval of the Iranian nuclear program and destabilizing rumors of impending military attack on Iranian facilities. That won't please Israel for sure, but Mr. Obama does not seem like the man who would be perturbed by the unavoidable friendly friction with the Israeli government over such critical questions of war and peace.
The Obama administration, in sharp contrast to its predecessor, will choose, most likely, the path of quiet power. Obama detractors have painted so many doomsday scenarios that, inevitably, some doubts as to the “backbone” of the new president do linger. We believe, however, that Mr. Obama will surprise even his many friends once he puts his hands firmly on the controls available to the Commander-in-Chief.
As history has testified so many times in the past, being truly and effectively powerful depends not so much on the ability to dispatch legions hither and yonder as on the ability of the Leadership to understand the implications of alternative futures. Here, Mr. Obama seems to have done a lot of homework. We will watch with undying interest how he does on the test.