Obama's foreign policy a work in progress
By Ben Pershing
Since President Obama was elected, only a fraction of the ink expended writing about his tenure has focused on foreign policy, with a much larger share going to health-care reform and Obama's efforts to pull the economy out of recession.
But as George W. Bush learned nine months into his own term, presidents can't always pick the topics that will define their years in office. So whether Obama chooses to emphasize foreign policy and security issues, or is forced to do so by circumstance, there is still plenty of time left for him to make his mark abroad. The New York Times writes: "When he took office last year, President Obama told his foreign policy advisers that he had two baskets of issues to deal with. The first would be the legacy issues left from his predecessor, like Iraq, Afghanistan and America's image in the world. The second would be his own agenda for the future. After 15 months addressing the vexing matters he inherited, Mr. Obama is now aggressively advancing his own vision of foreign policy and defining himself more clearly on the world stage. The 47-nation conference on nuclear security he wrapped up on Tuesday represented a chance to assert proactive leadership rather than simply showing that he is not George W. Bush. ... For most new presidents, foreign policy is a learning experience, and it can take months, if not years, to feel comfortable in the role of world leader. Advisers said Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, had grown more confident in managing international relations over time. But he has learned hard lessons along the way about the limits of his powers of persuasion. "
The Washington Post says, "During his first year in office, President Obama was often best overseas when he was behind a lectern or onstage before a crowd with a microphone in his hand. But in convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- he focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy. The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran." The New Republic writes, "Call it the Obama doctrine. The central theme of Barack Obama's foreign policy to date has been simple: He wants to lower the risk that a nuclear weapon will be exploded inside the United States."
What was accomplished this week at the Washington Convention Center? The Wall Street Journal writes: "World leaders closed out a global summit on nuclear security with a pledge to lock down hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons-usable nuclear fuel by 2014, and set a 2012 summit in South Korea to measure progress. But the leaders stepped back from legally binding plans to secure prescribed amounts of nuclear material or convert nuclear reactors that use highly enriched uranium to less-dangerous fuel. Instead, they said they would work together 'as appropriate' and would make such conversions 'where technically and economically feasible,' according to the final documents." Bloomberg says that "the next test will be how far global leaders will go to carry out their pledges. The final communiqué issued after two days of meetings in Washington should spur higher security standards for separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium and consolidation of scattered material at fewer locations, Matthew Bunn and other experts told reporters after the summit ended yesterday."
The Associated Press takes a step back: "In two fast-paced April days in Washington, the world took a big step out of the age of MAD and into an even madder age, when a dark vision of random nuclear terror will shadow our days for decades or more to come. Almost 20 years after the Cold War's end, after the end of the chilling U.S.-Russian nuclear standoff of mutually assured destruction, President Barack Obama ushered in the new era with an unprecedented, 47-nation summit to begin to confront this ultimate threat. It was an important first step. From the highest levels, it conferred top priority on what is planned as a continuing effort to better marshal global resources to keep the stuff of nuclear bombs -- plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- out of the hands of terrorists and smugglers. Doing so will demand unusual, difficult cooperation around the world. Nations' nuclear secrets may be exposed. Global inspectors may spotlight governments' ineptitude. International advisers may have to rewrite nations' laws to crack down on nuclear sloppiness." Joe Klein thinks "these slow steps toward cooperation--after eight years of American neo-cowboyism--are how diplomacy begins. If it works and an atmosphere of mutual trust is created, larger steps become possible. For the moment, however, the President's nuclear summit seems a good week's job of work."
On the domestic front, the administration's focus is on the coming Supreme Court fight. Richard Wolffe claims to have an inside look at the White House's thinking: "Amid all the speculation about who President Obama will pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the pundits and partisans have already overhyped at least one factor, according to White House officials: the politics of the confirmation vote. Much of the early analysis of possible nominees has focused on how senators will react to the ideological character of the president's pick. Is this the time for Obama to go with a more progressive selection? Can the Senate stomach another political brawl so soon after its historic battle over health care? The White House is hinting that the ideological cast of its ultimate pick doesn't really matter. Obama's team is expecting a full onslaught from the right, no matter who he chooses. 'The president recognizes that regardless of who he picks, there will be a fight. So the prospect of a fight with Republicans doesn't factor into his decision about one candidate over another, whether one candidate is going to galvanize Republicans or whether another is a more risky choice in some way,' says one senior White House official, requesting anonymity in discussing sensitive matters. Referring to the conservative senator from Alabama (and the most senior GOP figure on the Judiciary Committee), the official added: 'He could choose Jeff Sessions to be the nominee and there will still be a big old fight over it.'"
Politico writes: "Democratic senators are urging President Barack Obama to abandon any hope of winning broad Republican support for his upcoming Supreme Court pick -- and to nominate, instead, a dominant liberal voice who will counteract the current conservative majority." The Washington Post examines the question of diversity, not just on race or gender: "While Senate Democrats have not rallied around any particular individual to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, many do have one particular preference: a nominee who comes from outside the usual background of Ivy League law schools and federal court careers. ... All nine current justices served in one of the nation's 12 circuit courts of appeal, before winning confirmation to the highest court in the land, and all but Stevens attended Ivy League law schools. (Stevens graduated from Northwestern's law school.)" Time points out that "No matter whom he chooses, once his nominee is confirmed, the President will have seated as many Justices as any first-term President since Richard Nixon (who pushed through four). And we're barely into Year 2."
Jonah Goldberg writes on the desire of Obama and other liberals for empathy from the Court: "Obama and the vast majority of Senate Democrats believe that Lady Justice should peek from under the blindfold every now and then. ... Of course impartial justice is an abstraction, but it isn't so much a myth as an ideal. Since we are all designed from the crooked timber of humanity, we can only approximate perfect justice. What I don't understand is why we should abandon an ideal simply because it is unattainable. If I can't be a perfect husband, should I get a divorce? If an umpire can't call each game flawlessly, should he stop trying?" Geoffrey Stone mocks the idea of "originalist" judges: "For 30 years, conservative commentators have persuaded the public that conservative judges apply the law, whereas liberal judges make up the law. According to Chief Justice John Roberts, his job is just to 'call balls and strikes.' According to Justice Antonin Scalia, conservative jurists merely carry out the "original meaning" of the framers. These are appealing but wholly disingenuous descriptions of what judges -- liberal or conservative -- actually do. ... Rulings by conservative justices in the past decade make it perfectly clear that they do not 'apply the law' in a neutral and detached manner."
Get ready for an elaborate public relations exercise next week. Politics Daily writes: "In the faint hope of making some bipartisan headway, President Barack Obama invited two top Senate Republicans to join him and Democratic leaders at the White House next week to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy opened up by the impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. The White House said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would sit down on April 21 with the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.)." The Washington Times notes, "Before his nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year, Mr. Obama also made a point of soliciting Republican opinion with the goal of trying to develop an early consensus on a nominee and make good on his promise of bipartisanship."
Beyond the court, The Washington Times examines the broader agenda: "Mr. Obama may have pivoted to international affairs after a long struggle over health care, but the White House is well aware that domestic issues likely will determine the outcome of this year's midterm congressional elections. And Mr. Obama has plenty of issues piled up. His administration is making a full-court press on a financial regulatory overhaul while eyeing other priorities such as the budget, energy and immigration, not to mention the latest addition to the mix of nominating a new Supreme Court justice. Analysts say Mr. Obama has to push through all the big-ticket items he can this year, considering his party is slated to suffer losses in November." The administration's financial reform effort is facing some hurdles. Politico reports: "The chances of a bipartisan compromise on financial reform took another significant hit Tuesday as top Senate Republicans accused the White House of derailing a deal on derivatives trading and bashed the Democratic legislation as perpetuating Wall Street bailouts. The Republican attacks drew a quick rebuke from the White House and pushed an issue long viewed as ripe for bipartisan agreement deeper into partisan territory. The sharp turn in the tone of the debate suggests Democrats might have to struggle to peel off more than a handful of Republican votes, if that."
The Wall Street Journal says "Senate Democrats, resisting a last-ditch lobbying push from big Wall Street firms, are moving toward a sweeping revamp of financial regulation that would squeeze banks' lucrative derivatives-trading business. Wall Street giants Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley had been pressing hard in recent days to dilute provisions of the bill that would change the rules for derivatives trading. But the Obama administration, which has made this one of its priorities for the financial-regulatory bill, has pushed back hard and appears to be succeeding. That's drawing Republican complaints that the pending rewrite of the rules of finance will put the economy at risk." The New York Times notes that "Senate Republicans on Tuesday insisted that legislation proposed by Democrats and the White House would only encourage future taxpayer bailouts of big banks. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, criticized the Democrats' plans to regulate Wall Street as arrogant and partisan, echoing the recent health care fight in which he accused Democrats of carrying out a government takeover."
April 14, 2010; 8:10 AM ET
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