At Large

Snake Oil Diplomacy

Obama's foreign policy doesn't have talking points so much as talking as its only point.

By 2.20.09

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There is one consistent factor in the new administration's foreign policy: talk, talk, and more talk. President Barack Obama has his designated talkers (aka special envoys and ambassadors) attempting to do what they consider the reverse of what they've judged to be the Bush/Cheney method.

The last administration was charged with an unwillingness to discuss American plans -- or as some would say, build U.S. policy based on a consensus with other nations' views and positions. The Obama view has been that holding foreign political cards close to the chest is not the way to build friendship and understanding. Sounds good, especially if you are in the community organizing business, but not quite transferable to the political, economic, and military world of international relations.

While laudatory comments about the new Obama smile program have been elicited from such diverse players as Russia, France, Germany, and even Iran, China jumped all over U.S. Secretary of Treasury Geithner when he broke ranks and noted that Beijing had manipulated its currency. As usual Uncle Sam is supposed to accept any opprobrium thrown at it but never be negative in return. Tim Geithner hadn't yet learned the lessons of the new Obama game.

Already the European press is picking up on the fact that the liberal Obama Administration style is to pay lip service to every issue under consideration and emphasize a willingness to discuss each and every element. This is what Washington now considers good foreign policy. The operational theme is to flood the diplomatic process with talk and pass that off as foreign political accomplishment. It isn't!

There is an important difference between maintaining friendly relations with other countries and actually obfuscating the issues through platitudinous exposition. That might work on the campaign trail, but is easily seen through by professionals in foreign policy. If George W. Bush came to be considered a "cowboy," Barack H. Obama is in danger of being viewed as a "snake oil salesman." 

The aggressively warm and fuzzy diplomatic approach of the Obama Administration is nonetheless a useful device for the Russians, who are searching for ways to exploit the newly arrived American charm offensive. Joe Biden announced in his exquisitely opaque style that it was time to "press the reset button" on U.S./Russian relationships. It is rumored that he was referring to the establishment of regular discussions between agencies of both governments. How very ecumenical!

Clearly the Obama government is trying to find a way to wiggle out of the Bush commitment to place anti-missile batteries in Poland and radar systems in the Czech Republic. Hillary R. Clinton referred to the need to make an assessment of the technical capability and cost effectiveness of such a system before a decision for deployment would be made. It's obvious that the Obama plan is now to keep assessing the project, and talk about assessing the project, long enough so as to make it easier to tell the American people that the missiles really weren't needed in the first place.

Meanwhile the Iranians happily proceed apace as Washington convinces itself that a revived friendship with Moscow will result in its putting pressure on Tehran to limit its nuclear program to peaceful development. It's hard to believe that the Obama White House really can be so ignorant of Iran's true intentions after so many years of well-documented efforts by the Persians to develop a nuclear weapon capability.

Following the Obama policy of talking itself into perpetual talks, Secretary Clinton announced at the start of her current Far East tour that the new administration in Washington intends to usher in "a new era in relations with Asia." One isn't too sure of what that great expert on Asia, Hillary Rodham, has in mind. Too bad Tim Geithner is persona non grata. He speaks Chinese.

Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has been winging his way through South Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India -- in that order) alerting all to the newly discovered fact by the Obama team that "Islamic militants are a danger to that whole region." It must have been really hot news to Islamabad, Kabul, and New Delhi.

Unfortunately for Holbrooke who was trying to bring a message of general support to President Karzai, the Afghan president only seemed interested in the fact that he hadn't yet received a personal telephone call from the new U.S. President.

It would appear that a policy of talking may seem a safe way to say nothing, but that, too, can get you into trouble.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.