Obama’s accomplishments: The shift to softer power

During his first inaugural address in 2008, President Obama made a sweeping pledge to undertake the task of turning our ship of state in a new direction.

The President warned that course corrections would not be easy or quick. He predicted change would come slowly and incrementally and would be difficult to achieve. He could not have been more right. Those of us caught up in the euphoria of Obama’s election were ill prepared for what followed the celebrations of that first night.

Little could Obama—or we—imagine how ugly and destructive Republican opposition would be to the person and proposals of our forty-fourth president. Little did Obama know, too, how many from the progressive wing of his own party would lose trust in him and bitterly denounce what they saw as a lack of courage to push through policies for a more progressive future.

I know very little about the finer points of how politicians and diplomats conduct the day-to-day of domestic or foreign policy. But I’ve got an open mind (I think), and I can see what’s happening around me. It seems clear that Obama and his administration have been steadily pursuing a major course correction in foreign policy (and, unfortunately, less successfully in domestic policy) since that first inaugural address.

In other words, Obama has been living up to that first day’s pledge.

And at least some of that course correction looks like it’s working.

Case in point: Syria. Diplomacy and the threat of military force successfully maneuvered Syria/Russia into disclosing Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons for the first time ever and into allowing U.N. inspectors to monitor the destruction of those weapons.

Second case in point: Iran. Isn’t that the world’s pariah that’s finally sat down at the negotiating table after years of economic sanctions to talk with the U.S. and the international community without the shock and awe of airstrikes by the U.S. or Israel?

Maybe I’m missing nuances available only to the cognoscenti, but the easing of tensions with Syria and Iran certainly look like foreign-policy successes to me. Not all of Obama’s foreign-policy decisions have been  so successful. Most prominent is the policy of drone strikes that has taken the lives of far too many innocents along with the lives of intended terrorist targets. The drone program must surely be judged a failure based on “collateral damage” alone.  I’m not alone in predicting that this cornerstone of Obama’s national-security program will surely be judged harshly by history.

However, progressives who slam Obama and his tenure in office should take a moment to reflect soberly on the contrast between Obama and the previous administration. Have some of us forgotten how flat-footed and belligerent foreign policy was during the Bush era? Remember how countries were labeled evil as if we and the world were living inside an adolescent’s dream video game? Remember how just talking to adversaries was verboten in the neo-con playbook of Cheney and Rumsfeld?

(Recently, that bit of stupidity made an encore following Nelson Mandela’s funeral when conservative media manufactured a brouhaha over President Obama’s handshake and exchange of politesse with Cuba’s Raul Castro. How dare he, they snarled.)

Observing Obama’s appointments at the State Department and the Defense Department, it seems the President has quietly committed in an incremental fashion to a rebalancing toward the use of soft power, a concept first articulated by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, that refers to an approach that encourages parties to acknowledge shared goals through dialogue and exchange.

Who could have predicted that it would be Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense in Obama’s first administration and a holdover from the Bush administration, who first articulated Obama’s step away from the prevailing emphasis on hard power—that is, military force, the threat of military force, or coercion—that gripped Washington during the Bush years. Gates was the first to call for enhancing soft power when he called before Congress for a “dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security—diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, economic reconstruction and development.”

From Robert Gates to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—who traveled the globe tirelessly in support of civil-society activists and understood the power of women’s rights for advancing economic development and peaceful societies—to Secretary of State John Kerry to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, it’s clear that Obama’s appointment of those individuals represents a commitment to the use of soft power on the international stage.

And now, as we enter the sixth year of the President’s time in office, it’s becoming ever clearer that Obama’s turning of the unwieldy American ship—particularly in the foreign-policy realm—was more than just a metaphorical flourish that defined the speech of his life.  It turns out it may indeed be a promise kept.