Mary Dejevsky: Critics of Barack Obama's foreign policy need to get real

Why has there been for so long such a clamour for world leadership?

Related Topics

Do I detect just a tiny rivulet of disappointment with Barack Obama and his foreign policy? Even, in some quarters – such as the softer, fuzzier sections of US liberalism – a slowly swelling tide? I'm not talking about the words he has uttered, at least not the words of his set-piece speeches. His recent address to the Muslim world (no less) at Cairo University was a masterpiece of oratory, cultural sensitivity and political savvy. At this more rarefied end of the policy spectrum he is at his impressive best.

No, it is in his responses to unforeseen events where the doubts have started to seep in – Iran being the latest and most egregious example. Are the ideological and moral lines not quite clear? We appear to have a rigged result, if not actually a rigged election, and seven people – at the most recent count – killed marching for democracy, as a theocratic regime fights for its life against a surprise assault from modernism. Is there any doubt about whose side the Western world should be on?

Yet all Barack Obama could do was pronounce himself "deeply troubled" – and not by the situation as a whole, but "by the violence I've been seeing on television". When he elaborated, he hardly personified righteous indignation. "I think," he said, "that the democratic process, free speech, the ability for folks to peacefully dissent, all those are universal values and need to be respected."

This careful statement was of a piece with Obama's seemingly laid back presidential style, and it is starting to bring him flak. He is accused of following rather than leading, reacting rather than trying to make the weather, exposing his inexperience of international issues. Even as I type the words "Obama's foreign policy", the doubters' scorn rings double forte in my ears: what Obama foreign policy?

When two US journalists were sentenced to 12 years' hard labour for illegal entry into North Korea, Obama said he was "deeply concerned", and left it to others to say they were exploring every channel to secure the pair's release. When North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test, Obama spoke of making the international non-proliferation regime more "robust".

When Israel chose the hardliner, Benjamin Netanyahu, to head the government, over Tsipi Livni, the moderate foreign minister in the previous government, the US President did not write off the peace process. And when that same prime minister set out his requirements last Sunday, Obama welcomed Netanyahu's acceptance of a two-state solution, while ignoring the potential deal-breakers. What price a foreign policy that absorbs the information without rushing to make a judgement and take a stand?

Well, the rest of the world had better get used to it, because this may be the shape of US foreign policy for a good while to come. And what a refreshing change it could be, too. Do you remember when Obama made his first trip to Europe as President – when he was feted at the G20 London summit and European leaders competed for his favours? Perhaps you also remember the slightest hint of disappointment when he declined to take command, and how this was put down to his inexperience and his incomplete foreign policy team?

A more perceptive response might have been to ask why, on both sides of the Atlantic, there has for so long been such a clamour for world leadership, and why, if there has to be such a thing, everyone expects it to reside in Washington. Both as candidate and President, Obama has repeated that he does not see it as the role of the United States to dictate to others how they run their countries or live their lives. What he has said so far about Iran fits comfortably within this frame. There is no point in the US giving succour to aggrieved opposition voters, if it has neither the will nor the power take its encouragement to its logical end.

What happened in the former Soviet republic of Georgia last summer is an object lesson in how not to encourage false hopes, whether in an opposition or a national leadership. After two terms of a Harvard MBA who turned out to be a starry-eyed idealist in disguise, the US has elected a hard-headed and unapologetic realist – one prepared to gauge US interests and calibrate his response.

This does not mean that Obama will not espouse moral or democratic values. It does mean, though, that he recognises the limits of American power and will address each foreign policy case on its merits. In parts of the world, including "new" Europe, which relied on the advocacy of George Bush, this will not be a very welcome message. Elsewhere, it should come as an immense relief.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'