The New Sheriff in Town


A comical image on an Internet website is accompanied by the caption, “There’s a New Sheriff in Town.” The illustration is a photograph of a dove-like bird holding a radar gun pointed at passing-by traffic.

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The photo frames a fascinating debate about the incoming administration of President Barack Obama. Much has been made of Obama’s inexperience in foreign affairs, even by his Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton during the primary season. Many, especially those on the right who embraced President Bush’s so-called “Cowboy Diplomacy,” have questioned how he will lead on the world stage.

Is the dove with the radar gun a reluctant warrior or a deceptively subtle toughie? We’ll find out soon enough. Contextual clues suggest that the administration’s persona on the international stage, and in the Middle East in particular, will carry both similarities and striking differences from that of the Bush Administration:

* Israel: While the outgoing leadership has been forceful in its support of our ally’s self-defense response in Gaza, the first seven years of President Bush’s leadership brought no apparent or effective efforts to resurrect a meaningful peace initiative. Only the efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice resulted in a last-ditch engagement, and the current war — launched in the nethertime between the inauguration and Israeli elections — has blurred the picture on whether a constructive outcome is reasonably likely. Notwithstanding the reservations of some hawkish groups, President Obama, who visited the Western Negev last summer, has consistently spoken in favor of both Israel’s right to self-defense and the urgent need for a two-state solution. Expect Secretary of State Clinton to be substantially engaged in brokering a lasting peace effort. While she will certainly ask Israel and the Palestinians to exhibit reason, restraint and compromise, those who expect her and the new chief executive to sell out Israel underestimate this team at their peril.

* Afghanistan: On the heels of September 11, 2001, President Bush ordered forceful military action in Afghanistan to overthrow the brutal Taliban regime and expel Al Qaeda terrorists led by Osama bin Laden. This action, supported heavily by the American people at the time, was a direct and powerful response to a hit on American soil. We have every reason to believe that President Obama would respond in similar fashion. In fact, the new executive has indicated that Afghanistan and its Pakistani border represent the main theater in the fight against radical Islamists, and he supports a troop increase there to combat the Taliban and work to capture bin Laden.

* Iraq: There’s a clear contrast between Presidents Bush and Obama with respect to Iraq. Obama consistently opposed the war as a distraction from what he believed should be the central focus in Afghanistan. Though Saddam was captured and executed, and the “surge” resulted in some tactical successes, the cost in lives and resources has been astronomical. Expect the new team, led by holdover Defense Secretary Gates — an appointment that demonstrates impressive maturity and humility — to effect a pullout with all deliberate speed.

* Iran: An apparent contrast lies in the incipient Obama Administration’s willingness to engage in dialogue with even the most repugnant of governments. The new President took big heat during the campaign for expressing willingness to have conversations with Iran and other enemies of our country. The Bush Administration, however, itself participated in the six-party talks with North Korea with some encouraging results, and had low-level talks with Iranian representatives. And we recall how the similarly hawkish and ardently anti-Communist President Richard M. Nixon sat at the table with China to normalize relations 30 years ago. Still, we anticipate more ongoing discussion and dialogue with Iran in the new administration than we’ve seen exhibited the past eight years.

* World View: The “Bush Doctrine” justified anticipatory American military action against any nation perceived as a future threat to the U.S. This paradigm is likely to be eschewed by President Obama and his forceful but balanced Secretary of State Clinton. If campaign rhetoric is any indicator, interventions in matters tangential to U.S. security are more likely in places of human rights transgressions such as Darfur or Zimbabwe than in areas of remote threat. And as Attorney General nominee Eric Holder’s testimony on Guantanamo indicates, the Obama Administration seems inclined to pay more heed to human rights and world partnership concerns in its foreign policy.

Surely the policies of the Old Cowboy will be rewritten by the New Sheriff, but to what extent remains unclear. The Obama Administration has invited those of quite disparate political stripes to meet and to discuss international policies, so we know there’s an attempt to understand all sides of the foreign relations debate. If this equanimity holds and the administration’s actions match the early rhetoric, we may see a very effective balance between the dove and the radar gun.