Dan Balz's Take
The Challenge of Moving Beyond America Alone
By Dan Balz
President Obama delivered a global call to action at the United Nations Wednesday morning, but it was an expression of apparent frustration that may have best captured the moment in which he finds himself.
His address came during a whirlwind week of international gatherings and diplomacy -- a climate change summit and Middle East meetings on Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, a G-20 meeting on the international economy on Thursday. Those formal events coincided with an intensification here at home over critical choices facing the president in his Afghanistan policy.
Obama's message to the other national leaders assembled in New York was that his administration represents a clear break with the posture of the Bush administration in its dealings with allies around the world. Hailing what he called a new era in the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, Obama ticked through the changes he said his administration has undertaken in the first eight months of his presidency.
They included the banning of torture, the order to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the winding down of the war in Iraq, a renewed focus on dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the appointment of a special envoy for the Middle East with the goal of a two-state peace agreement and fresh investment in combating climate change.
In return, Obama said, the United States expects the cooperation of others in addressing these problems. "This cannot be solely America's endeavor," the president said bluntly. "Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone. We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."
That summed up the challenge he faces. Can a different style, a more open hand and expressions of respect prompt the rest of the world to follow along with this administration as it tries to solve many of the same problems that confronted the Bush administration?
And to what extent will the president be willing to act, if not exactly unilaterally, then mostly alone, to advance this nation's interests?
Part of this will depend on the steadiness and consistency of Obama's leadership. He has set clear goals and, in his speech Wednesday, outlined concrete steps in some of the areas of priority. But as he delivered his address, his administration was engaged in an important debate over Afghanistan -- one that became all the more public Monday with Bob Woodward's publication The Washington Post of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report (PDF) warning of failure in the mission there unless more troops are committed.
The report puts Obama squarely on the spot. With public support for the war eroding and with liberal activists voicing opposition to what they see as a potential quagmire in Afghanistan, White House officials have responded cautiously -- hesitantly in the assessment of some outsiders -- to McChrystal's assessment.
It was only a few months ago that the president announced a new strategy for Afghanistan. McChrystal was installed to implement that strategy. Now, in the wake of reports that the general wants more troops, administration officials suggest another new strategy may be needed.
They cite a new set of conditions, including the messy aftermath of the recent election in Afghanistan, as a cause for reassessment. In reality, the election certified rather than exposed what administration officials have long known -- that President Hamid Karzai, is an unreliable partner in the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
What has really caused the apparent reevaluation? When he was running for president, Obama found Afghanistan a convenient policy foil for his opposition to the Iraq war, though one to which he seemed genuinely committed. Opposed to the war in Iraq, Obama was able to demonstrate muscularity on foreign policy by arguing that Iraq was consuming resources better focused on Afghanistan. As president, he has found that even more may be needed there than he believed as a candidate.
When George W. Bush was preparing a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, his advisers warned him of the difficulty of launching any military action in Afghanistan. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Bush that Afghanistan was about 188th of the first 189 countries where anyone would want to get involved militarily, given its history of frustrating outside invaders. Bush launched attacks in Afghanistan but soon shifted his focus to Iraq.
Obama now is confronted by Afghanistan's history, and part of his task has been to define his goals in Afghanistan narrowly. His language on Afghanistan was similar to Bush's on Iraq. He called Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror. But how could he avoid the same kind of open-ended commitment there than had happened under Bush in Iraq?
In an interview while he was a candidate, Obama told me his only real objective in Afghanistan was to confront the security threats to the United States. Afghanistan, he said, likely would never become a Jeffersonian democracy or a market economy and he wasn't intent on trying to make it one as president.
"You've got a very minimal sort of threshold when it comes to the military side," he said. "Now, I still think it's important for us to help Afghanistan develop, but in terms of military presence, I don't have grand ambitions. I just want to eliminate a sworn enemy of the United States that if it ever got its hand on nuclear weapons would be happy to set it off in a major American city." He added, "What it comes down to is a modest set of goals."
But sticking to these circumscribed goals has proven difficult as the new administration has taken hold, and McChrystal's report gave some White House officials pause. Some of Obama's advisers heard echoes of Vietnam in the military's call for more troops and more time before the mission could be considered successful.
Meanwhile, pressure has built from the outside for Obama to listen to the generals and not to waver in his commitment of the forces that they say are needed to defeat al-Qaeda. Obama's old rival, Sen. John McCain, is among those ratcheting up the pressure. He is speaking as forcefully now in favor of an escalation as he was when he called for more troops in Iraq long before Bush initiated the surge policy that helped to quell the violence there.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Obama sought to rally the world to collective action on the challenges as diverse as the economy, nuclear proliferation and the environment. But Afghanistan now looms as an example of how the United State must set its own course before others will follow along. The rest of the world will be watching to see how the president responds.
Posted at 1:23 PM ET on Sep 23, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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