Obama's Foreign Policy: Buying in at the Bottom

"George W. Bush ... has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out."

In the spring of 1977, Menachem Begin was elected prime minister of Israel and surprised everyone by choosing as his foreign minister not someone from his own Likud Party, but a star of the opposing Labor Party, Moshe Dayan. It proved a brilliant choice, as Dayan helped direct the peace process with Egypt that culminated with the Camp David accords.

In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, and rather than choose as his national security adviser someone from among his own supporters, he chose Henry Kissinger, a supporter of Nixon’s arch-rival, Nelson Rockefeller. Again, that proved a fortuitous choice, as Kissinger helped orchestrate a rapprochement with China, as well as accords in the Middle East and with the Soviet Union.

President-elect Barack Obama has now done something similar, picking a rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to be his secretary of state, rather than someone from among his own supporters. It could also end up a fortuitous choice. Clinton may not be as steeped in foreign policy expertise as a Dayan or a Kissinger, but neither is she a neophyte. Moreover, she will build a strong team at State from among her own supporters, notably former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

But the real reason that Obama and Clinton might enjoy success is something that goes barely mentioned in the media. Obama and Clinton are buying into a bottomed-out market vis-à-vis America’s position in the world. It is as if they will be buying stock after the market has crashed, and just at the point when a number of factors are already set in motion for a recovery. For President George W. Bush did not just damage America’s position in the world, he has also, over the past two years, quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy, and that, coupled with a bold new strategy in Iraq, known as the “surge,” has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out.

Consider the following:

Iraq is on the mend, with local and national elections scheduled for 2009 and 2010 respectively, which could well solidify our withdrawal under better-than-previously-expected circumstances. Afghanistan is not on the mend, but Obama will have the benefit of moving more troops there from an improved Iraq, as well as putting into place the new strategy of Army Gen. David Petraeus, who has just taken over Central Command, giving Petraeus responsibility not just for Iraq, but for the Greater Middle East. Moreover, Al-Qaeda may be on the run, thanks to a quiet agreement that President Bush negotiated recently with Pakistan for aerial strikes against enemy targets inside Pakistani territory. Then there is Iran, perhaps about to become more reasonable, given the collapse in the price of oil. Syria has been subtly re-engaged by both America and Europe, and may be about to inch away from Iran’s orbit. And Arab-Israeli peace negotiations have been making a little headway over the course of 2008, even as there has been almost no coverage of it. Here, too, Team Obama is poised to get the credit for break-throughs.

Indeed, the Middle East may just possibly be on the brink of a positive rearranging of pieces over the next few years, thanks to a new American president with the clout derived from high approval ratings both domestically and internationally, that will, in turn, affect decision-making in places like Teheran and Damascus, whose citizenries likely have a higher opinion of Obama than they have of their own leaders. Do not underestimate the importance of a popular American president coupled with increased stability in Iraq, which will be progressing from one democratic election to another.

Then there's China, India, and Russia. China and the United States may be about to move closer together, thanks to the world economic crisis, which now increases the degree to which each of these two great powers will depend on the other. In India, Bush has left a legacy of improved relations, thanks in no small measure to the recently concluded nuclear pact. And Obama’s promise to engage Russia, while perhaps calling a halt to NATO expansion - even as Russia is weakened by falling oil prices and a negative international reaction to its adventure in Georgia – could signal improved ties on that score. And improved ties with Russia could mean more Russian pressure on Iran.

In South America, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has become measurably more unpopular according to recent polls, even as he, too, is weakened by falling oil prices. Obama can also look forward to the end of the Castro regime in Cuba and that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe over the next four years. Burma may be edging towards a transition away from its aging, implacable dictator, Than Shwe. North Korea is a dicey call, as Kim Jong Il continues to manipulate negotiations, but the overall trend there is in the direction of a comprehensive agreement.

So, yes, this may be a market where buyers are once again starting to trickle in, signifying that a bottom has been reached. Good timing for Hillary.