The Magazine

The Fog

Translating Obama's vague foreign policy pronouncements.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A similar emphasis on diplomacy characterizes Obama's approach to North Korea, Russia, and Lebanon. In May 2008, he responded to Hezbollah's attack on the Lebanese government by calling on "all those who have influence with Hezbollah     [to] press them to stand down," and added, "It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy." His approach to North Korea is similar. In September, Susan Rice, senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, said that he "would have a tough policy that combines stronger sanctions, but to pursue this through diplomatic means to the maximum extent possible." Obama called for a "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" toward North Korea in an article in the July/August 2007 Foreign Affairs, and also proposed creating a more permanent "international coalition" to replace the "ad hoc" Six Party Talks the Bush administration has pursued.

Harsh words toward Russia following the invasion of Georgia in August were tempered by Obama's principal Russia adviser, Michael McFaul: "As a general philosophy, we are better off in direct negotiations with them, and trying to do things of mutual interest, versus isolating, containing them." On those grounds, Obama and his advisers have rejected the idea of expelling Russia from the G-8 and blocking its full accession to the World Trade Organization and continue to emphasize negotiating arms control agreements with Moscow aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals, making the current intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty global, and containing the dangers of nuclear proliferation from Russian scientists, among other things.


Obama recognizes that diplomacy will not always achieve his objectives and that it cannot be successful on its own. In such cases, his preferred course of action is to adopt or increase punitive economic sanctions on the offending regime. In May 2007, he complained that Bush's sanctions package against Sudan was inadequate: "Conspicuously absent from this package of sanctions is maximal punitive action against the Sudanese oil industry.     Targeted pressure by the international community against the Sudanese oil economy is a much-needed step to stop the killing and displacement of innocent civilians in Darfur." Noting that Tehran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a "game changer" that "we cannot tolerate," Obama explained in the first presidential debate:

Now here's what we need to do. We do need tougher sanctions. I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation from countries like Russia and China that     have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon.

In the second debate, he expanded on the theme:

If we can work more effectively with other countries diplomatically to tighten sanctions on Iran, if we can reduce our energy consumption through alternative energy, so that Iran has less money,     if we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis.

He has also proposed sanctioning Venezuela for supporting the FARC rebels in Colombia and supports tougher sanctions on North Korea for violating its various agreements to suspend its nuclear program. In June, Obama explained, "Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to reimpose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." In September, he supported maintaining the embargo on Cuba "until we are seeing clear signs of increased political freedom and so we can maintain leverage in any direct negotiations that may take place." He has also proposed raising tariffs on Chinese products to force China to revalue the yuan.