Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stratfor on the First 100 Days (geopolitically)

George Friedman at Stratfor made the point in his book—The Next One Hundred Years—that administrations are often given very little choice when it comes to foreign relations due to “geopolitics.” Accordingly, administrations driven by national self-interest often have their policies foisted upon them rather than being driven by ideology. In today’s Stratfor newsletter, Friedman (somewhat self-servingly) makes the point that President Obama’s first one hundred days looks very much like the Bush administration save in two areas. First he comments about perception and atmosphere and how brilliantly the administration’s team has handled that on the European trip.

A very short part of his comments:

On the whole, the Europeans gave two big nos [on a German stimulus and help in Afghanistan], while the Americans gave a mild yes [Obama’s agreement to mildly support the IMF’s bailout of European banks]. In substantive terms, the U.S.-European relationship is no better than it was under Bush. In terms of perception, however, the Obama administration managed a brilliant coup, shifting the focus to the changed atmosphere that prevailed at the meeting. Indeed, all parties wanted to emphasize the atmospherics, and judging from media coverage, they succeeded. The trip accordingly was perceived as a triumph.

Campaign Promises and Public Perception

This is not a trivial achievement. There are campaign promises, there is reality and there is public perception. All presidents must move from campaigning to governing; extremely skilled presidents manage the shift without appearing duplicitous. At least in the European case, Obama has managed the shift without suffering political damage. His core supporters appear prepared to support him independent of results. And that is an important foundation for effective governance.

Next, he wrote of the trip to Turkey as the real area of change:

Turkey and the Substantial U.S. Shift

One substantial shift has taken place, however, and that one is with Turkey. The Obama administration has made major overtures to Turkey in multiple forms, from a presidential visit to putting U.S. anti-piracy vessels under Turkish command. These are not symbolic moves. The United States needs Turkey to counterbalance Iran, protect U.S. interests in the Caucasus, help stabilize Iraq, serve as a bridge to Syria and help in Afghanistan. Obama has clearly shifted strategy here in response to changing conditions in the region.

Intriguingly, the change in U.S.-Turkish relations never surfaced as even a minor issue during the U.S. presidential campaign. It emerged after the election because of changes in the configuration of the international system. Shifts in Russian policy, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and shifts within Turkey that allowed the country to begin its return to the international arena all came together to make this necessary, and Obama responded.

None of this is designed to denigrate Obama in the least. While many of his followers may be dismayed, and while many of his critics might be unwilling to notice, the fact is that a single concept dominated Obama’s first hundred days: continuity. In the face of the realities of his domestic political position and the U.S. strategic position, as well as the economic crisis, Obama did what he had to do, and what he had to do very much followed from what Bush did. It is fascinating that both Obama’s supporters and his critics think he has made far more changes than he really has.

Of course, this is only the first hundred days. Presidents look for room to maneuver after they do what they need to do in the short run. Some presidents use that room to pursue policies that weaken, and even destroy, their presidencies. Others find ways to enhance their position. But normally, the hardest thing a president faces is finding the space to do the things he wants to do rather than what he must do. Obama came through the first hundred days following the path laid out for him. It is only in Turkey where he made a move that he wasn’t compelled to make just now, but that had to happen at some point. It will be interesting to see how many more such moves he makes.

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