Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The punch that landed: Rachman writes Obama's second chapter

Eons ago, back in October, I took a bit of umbrage when the award winning columnist Gideon Rachman suggested that Obama was displaying "a failure to get things done behind the scenes," that the "notion that he was a weak leader" was spreading at home and abroad, and that he "needs to show that he can pack a punch."

I scoffed that Rachman was misrepresenting "the realities and pacing of the American political process, not to mention of international diplomacy" and forecast that "when sweeping healthcare reform, however flawed, is passed before year's end, the pace will look like lightning in retrospect; President Obama will be seen to have moved a mountain in his first year in office."

Didn't happen quite that way, did it? During the long stall-out -- not only over healthcare but in negotiations with Iran, and with Russia, and in the climate summit debacle -- I thought about Rachman's column from time to time. He was right. He didn't say Obama couldn't land a punch. He said he needs to. Boy has that been true.

Today, Rachman wrote the second chapter:

By pushing through a social reform that eluded generations of presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, Mr Obama can now point to a genuinely historic achievement. He has turned around his image as a weak president who cannot get things done – just when it was getting dangerously close to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He goes on to suggest, as has Andrew Sullivan, that the huge domestic victory will resonate abroad:
Of course, there is no direct connection between the renewal of Mr Obama’s domestic political momentum and his chances of success in foreign policy. But there is an indirect connection. Put crudely, the passage of healthcare reform makes Mr Obama look like a winner rather than a loser. It also shows that he is tenacious and that his stubbornness can pay dividends.

Healthcare looked like a lost battle – but it turned out just to be a long battle. Foreign leaders who have written off Mr Obama’s chances of succeeding on the big international issues – Afghanistan, the Middle East, climate change, Iran – will now have to consider the possibility that the president’s persistence might ultimately deliver success. That increases the likelihood that leaders who are wavering will listen and try to work with him.
I do think that Rachman goes a little over the top in chronicling Obama's alleged foreign policy failures of the past year, falling into the columnist's trick of packing disparate items in series, lining up heterodox ducks (heteroducks?) as if they're birds of a feather:
The president announced that he would reinvigorate the Middle East peace process and demanded a halt to new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. But there were no peace talks and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, basically ignored him on settlements. On the night that he was elected, Mr Obama made a “planet in peril” one of his top priorities – but the Copenhagen talks on climate change ended in fiasco, with the US diplomatically outmanoeuvred by China.

The Obama administration said that it would not tolerate the development of an Iranian bomb – yet the Iranian nuclear programme continued apace and the Americans have so far proved unable to rally the world behind fresh sanctions. When it came to the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration agonised in public for months – and then announced a new troop surge that even the president seemed unconvinced by.
Obama did seem to get rolled by Netanyahu for a season.  But, um, he has not yet "tolerated" an Iranian bomb. And was the U.S. "outmanoeuvred" at Copenhagen?  China simply stonewalled, and Obama pulled them back a bit from the brink.  Likewise, there's no evidence as of yet that Obama's Afghanistan strategy is not working.

But credit where credit is due. Rachman was right in October. I hope he's right now.

And he didn't even say "I told you so."

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