The Big Question: Will Obama's diplomacy work in the long term?

Some of the nation's top political commentators, legislators and intellectuals offer their insight on the biggest question burning up the blogosphere and cable news airwaves on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009.

The Big Question today is:

President Obama has taken a very different approach to diplomacy than President Bush. Does the new approach serve or undermine long-term U.S. interests?


Christopher Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said:

What “very different approach”? Sure, President Bush implicitly scorned diplomacy in favor of toughness, particularly in his first term. But he sought UN Security Council authorization for tougher measures against Iraq; a truly unilateral approach would have bombed first and asked questions later. By the same token, President Obama has staffed his administration with people, including chief diplomat Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who favored military action against Iraq and Serbia in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and were undeterred by the UNSC’s refusal to endorse either intervention.

There are other similarities. George Bush advocated multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, despite his stated antipathy for Kim Jong Il. President Obama supports continued negotiations with the same odious regime that starves its own people. Bush administration officials met with the Iranians to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. In the second term, President Bush even agreed in principle to high-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama likewise believes that the United States and Iran have a number of common interests, and he favors diplomacy over confrontation.

This continuity shouldn’t surprise us. Both men operate within a political environment that equates diplomacy with appeasement, without most people really understanding what either word means. Defined properly, diplomacy is synonymous with relations between states. As successive generations have learned the high costs and dubious benefits of that other form of international relations -- war -- most responsible leaders are rightly eager to engage in diplomacy. Perhaps the greater concern is that they feel the need to call it something else.

Tom McClusky, senior vice president of FRC Action, said:

President Obama's diplomacy seems to consist entirely of abortion promotion, unicorns and fairy farts. While it might earn him Nobel Peace Prizes from judges who long ago lost any credibility it is a recipe for disaster for not only U.S. interests but those of the entire world.

What have been the major foreign accomplishments of President Obama? Within days of taking office he rescinded a policy so that now one of the U.S. biggest exports will be subsidizing abortions in countries who oppose the ghastly practice and increasing funding for an international program that will underwrite coercive abortions and forced sterilizations in countries like China.

As for the President's dealings with the world's most brutal dictators he did exactly as he said he would during the campaign. Be it giving a photo-op for Hugo Chavez, standing up for a brutal tyrant overthrown by his people or remaining largely silent when a terrorist who killed Americans over Lockerbie is released from prison to return to Libya.

The President's failure to take a stand and lead was never more prevalent then his speech to the United Nations that, due to its naivete, would have been better delivered by a five year old girl. The President spoke of a world free of nuclear weapons fully knowing about an illegal uranium enrichment facility that the Iranians had been hiding near Qom. Even France's President Nicolas Sarkozy took the President's lack of backbone to task. And as Charles Krauthammer said, "When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom."

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said:

I think the diplomatic efforts that are ongoing by this administration clearly are about trying to negotiate with people rather than stick our fingers in folks’ eyes. You see things like the breakthrough with Armenia and Turkey, and that didn’t happen before.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said:

It serves.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said:

I don’t think it undermines it at all, and I would hope that it would serve for the future. There are going to be those that are going to disagree with the approach that you reach out ... but I think President Obama has taken the approach that talking to people is not appeasement and reaching out makes good sense.

Part of his outreach is not just to the governments, but to the people behind the governments, and reaching out to people all across the world. I think that that's in our best interest. In this world today, we have found out what it's like to have enemies, so wanting to have more friends makes good sense. We don’t have to give away the store to do that. We don’t have to sell out our own principles or our own security to do that, and I think that's what the president is doing.

Michelle D. Barnard, president and CEO of the Independent Women's Forum, said:

It is too soon to tell how President Obama's approach to diplomacy will ultimately affect U.S. interests. While it is certainly positive that many countries report having a more positive view of the United States, we have yet to see if this greater good will translate into actual policy gains.

Take, for example, the arena of international women's human rights. Secretary Clinton has made strong statements in support of international women's human rights (as had the Bush Administration), but then, it is unclear if those statements are being backed up by Administration policy. President Obama's Cairo speech earlier this year was disappointing on the issue of women's rights. Additionally, the Administration appeared somewhat reticent to condemn the massive human rights violations committed by Iran, even as the world watched the regime's thugs gun down peaceful protesters like Iranian protester Neda Iran who was murdered before our eyes. Does this signal a willingness to look pass such abuse in the pursuit of other aims?

Those concerned about international women's human rights should be particularly alarmed by these actions and the Administration's stance on Afghanistan. Whether or not victory in that theater is necessary for U.S. security (or if, as President Obama recently suggested, we can tolerate some Taliban involvement in the country, victory is certainly necessary for the security of millions of Afghan women and girls, who suffered tremendous repression and abuse under the previous Taliban regime.

All Americans, myself included, root for the Obama Administration to make progress in promoting peace and security around the world. We all hope that the Administration's diplomatic efforts will ultimately pay off, but as the old saying goes, "only time will tell."

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said:

Is this a trick question? The Bush foreign policy weakened America, alienated our allies and emboldened our adversaries. North Korea is far more threatening than eight years ago. Iran has been strengthened immeasurably by the invasion of Iraq and the increase in the price of oil. Russia invaded Georgia with impunity, and China is both our rival and our banker — not a good position for America. Oh, and we’re losing the war in Afghanistan and have lost 4,340 heroic lives invading, conquering and occupying Iraq, which was no threat to America.

It won’t be easy, but Pres. Obama is working to restore American strength. That starts with reassessing our military strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. It includes hard-nosed, multilateral talks with Iran — backed by the threat of sanctions and keeping all options on the table. It includes new agreements with nations to assist in combating terrorism. And it includes stepped-up use of deadly force against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, including taking out Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com said:

The lack of progress on Iran, the failure to secure the desired level of additional European troops in Afghanistan, the move against the dollar, all suggest that the United States is weaker than it was a year ago.  Obama is more popular in the world than Bush was, but less respected, or at least less feared. The Obama presidency will be a test of which is better, but so far popularity isn't looking particularly potent.

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, said:

The one significant, perhaps overacrching, difference between the two presidents is that President Obama is a visceral, transnational progressive who believes the United States has been a willful hegemon that must engage in a unilateral retreat in global affairs, while President Bush is a believer in American exceptionalism convinced that the United States must serve as a balance wheel in preserving international equilibrium. This difference in attitude accounts, in large part, for the concessions and apologies made by President Obama without a demand for reciprocal responses, and the subsequent criticism leveled against him from Bush supporters and Republicans.

John F. McManus, president of the John Birch Society, said:

I don't see that there's any "different approach" taken by the Obama administration's diplomacy. Our nation is still heavily involved in international entanglements, still committed to nation building, still mired in the anti-American United Nations, and still dispensing foreign aid while admitting to a yearly deficit that is three times the worst yearly shortfall in our nation's history. Wouldn't a truly "different approach" reverse course in these areas?