Tuesday, September 22, 2009


When Barack Obama was running for president, his opponents criticized as naive his stated intention to rely more on diplomacy and engagement, and less on sabre rattling and military force, in dealing with other countries. Obama's response was to insist that he was not talking about merely giving other countries what they want but entering into tough negotiations with them.

So far, we have reason to be concerned about the new president's negotiating skills. Our first red flag would have been the way he has negotiated with Republicans and, more importantly, with members of his own party over health care reform. While he has consistently stated his preference for the so-called public option (government-run insurance in competition with private insurance), he signalled early on that the lack of a public option was not a deal-breaker for him. This was tantamount to guaranteeing that there would be no public option. After all, why would any legislator opposed to it change his or her mind, knowing that its omission would not result in a presidential veto? Instead, once Obama had decided that the public option was not a deal-breaker for him, he could have continued to insist on it until the crucial final horse-trading and then given it up in exchange for something else he really wanted. This is what is known as a bargaining chip. Anyone who has dealt with businesses or unions or politics knows this.

Is this strange negotiating behavior indicative of how the president would deal with other countries? So far, the signs are not good. Last week President Obama announced that he was abandoning the missile shield that had been planned for Eastern Europe. Some observers thought this was a good idea. Some thought it was a bad idea. But one thing that foreign policy wonks could agree on, whatever their positions, was that Obama had given away a very valuable bargaining chip for free. Russia hated the idea of the missile shield. And America has wanted Russia's support in putting pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear project, something the Russians have declined to give. The logical thing would have been to give every indication of proceeding with the shield but negotiating to give it up in exchange for Russian cooperation.

Now maybe this has happened. Maybe there were secret communications to this effect or some sort of understanding so that the quid pro quo is not too obvious. But so far there is not a shred of evidence that this is the case. Or maybe the Russians will decide to help out with Iran on their own, to reciprocate for Obama's gesture. It's possible, but would you be willing to bet a lot of your own money that this is the case? Barring any forthcoming evidence to the contrary, it looks like the president gave away a huge bargaining chip for free. So much for a new age of skilled diplomacy and tough negotiating.

Interestingly, when Obama sat down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos for one of his many interviews on Sunday, Stephanopoulos brought up the first summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev and how Khrushchev "cleans his clock." Already at this point, Obama was visibly bristling. The reporter asked the president if he felt he had had such a moment yet. After stumbling around verbally for a few seconds and saying "I don't mean to be immodest here," Obama turned the subject back to health care, saying that he had been "humbled" by his inability to get people to understand the issue: "It's -- this has been a sufficiently tough, complicated issue with so many moving parts that, you know, no matter how much I've -- I've tried to keep it digestible, you know, it's very hard for people to get their -- their whole arms around it. And that's been a case where I have been humbled..."

This may be the first time we have seen the president to be aware of the limits of his own considerable powers of persuasion.

No comments:

Post a Comment