Waiting For A Break: Obama On 'Strategic Patience' In Foreign Policy | KUOW News and Information

Waiting For A Break: Obama On 'Strategic Patience' In Foreign Policy

Dec 31, 2014
Originally published on January 5, 2015 7:22 am

President Obama has two more years in office to match his grand ambitions to the grim realities in foreign policy.

He spoke of his plans in a year-end interview with NPR, shortly before leaving Washington for the holidays. Obama defended his strategy and vision, despite continued chaos in the Middle East and Russia's defiance of the West regarding Ukraine.

The president's challenge is to make good on goals he has pursued for years. When we spoke, he had just restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, bypassing critics who said he was rewarding a despotic regime.

This made me curious about a still more provocative step: normalization with Iran.

Administration officials speak optimistically about reaching a final nuclear deal with Iran, though a negotiating deadline has twice been extended.

The President said that if Iran only would seize its chance to make a deal, the Islamic republic could emerge as a "very successful regional power" — an outcome that, the President knows, would dismay most of our Middle Eastern allies and many of his critics in the U.S.

Iran talks are part of Obama's long-running effort to approach the Middle East in a fresh way. His strategy is radically different from that of his predecessor, President Bush, but their efforts have had something in common: unintended consequences.

Obama came into office criticizing the invasion of Iraq, but his more limited interventions in Libya and Syria have failed to prevent chaos. Shouldn't the U.S. have done more?

Obama's notion of "strategic patience" — pushing carefully forward until "something breaks" in the United States' favor — is tied to another idea. He does not want to focus the full attention of the world's only superpower on Tripoli, Damascus or Kabul. He thinks the future lies in other places — like the cities of East Asia, or, for that matter, U.S. cities that need better infrastructure and schools:

Our 40-minute conversation with Obama began with his assertion that he has arrived at a pivotal moment, in which he might turn from reacting to emergencies and instead pursue long-delayed goals.

For Obama it's clear that part of the freedom he seeks is the freedom not to act, or at least not to act precipitately. He wants to save American resources for the battles that, in his mind, matter most.

This is the last section of a three-part interview with the president, which also covered his views on the upcoming Congress and race relations. We'll be hearing other perspectives in the coming days, starting on New Year's Day with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Shortly after restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Obama welcomed us into the Oval Office. We asked if he thought he could take an even bigger diplomatic step.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Is there any scenario under which you can envision, in your final two years, opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'd never say never, but I think these things have to go in steps.

INSKEEP: That's how we began the final part of our year-ending talk. The president expressed views on Iran that suggested his wider view of the world. He is struggling to match big ambitions with tough realities. Never say never to normal relations, he says, but the first step is reaching an elusive agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: They've got a chance to get right with the world.

INSKEEP: Obama spoke carefully about how Iran could do that. He says Iran needs to change. It must curb its, quote, "adventurism," supporting militant groups like Hezbollah that threaten Israel. Yet his tone was warm enough that when we released a transcript of this interview in recent days, people in the United States and Iran found it striking. The president said there is a way the U.S. could someday live with a strong Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: They have a path to break through that isolation, and they should seize it because if they do, there's incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international roles. And that would be good for everybody. That will be good for the United States. That would be good for the region. And most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.

INSKEEP: The president's remark has already prompted fierce criticism from skeptics of a nuclear deal as well as a stream of optimistic social media messages from Iran. The president gave that interview while sitting by the Oval Office fireplace. He was at the end of the year of crisis across the wider Middle East. The rise of ISIS was only the most visible sign of trouble. In a speech in September, President Obama proclaimed America's legacy of freedom, but that does not mean he's found the key to spreading it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: You disagreed with invading Iraq partly to democratize that country. You had your own efforts, and Egypt has not turned out very well.

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: It came full circle and is back under military rule. Libya is in chaos. Syria is in chaos. Tunisia is maybe the only thing that has arguably come out of the...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Arab Spring that is remotely positive. Do you feel that you understand proper and potentially successful ways to extend democracy in the Middle East over your final two years?

OBAMA: Well, I think it is important to distinguish between the actions that we take to promote democracy and human rights and rule of law and good governance, and the humility to understand that in the end these things are going to happen because the people in these countries demand them.

INSKEEP: Sometimes, the president said, people do successfully demand change, though he admits it's hard for democracy to spread in the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: You have to almost start from scratch in many of these countries. What we can do is to be opportunistic and find places where somebody is ready and willing to move forward and do everything we can to help. And Tunisia is a great example of that - not perfect, still dangerous, still troublesome, but you've seen a civil society develop, elections take place, a Constitution get drafted, Islamists being willing to be involved in the political process without trying to take it over completely and accommodations to the fact that economic and social reforms are required by country to succeed. You haven't seen it in Libya. It's broken off into tribal elements.

INSKEEP: Which raises a question; is there a responsibility by the United States to do more in Libya having been involved in overthrowing...

OBAMA: Yeah, well...

INSKEEP: ...The Gadhafi regime?

OBAMA: Yeah, I think that the challenge that we're going to have is a recognition that we are hugely influential, we're the one indispensable nation, but when it comes to nation-building, when it comes to what is going to be a generational project in a place like Libya or a place like Syria or a place like Iraq, we can help, but we can't do it for them.

I think the American people recognize that. There are times here in Washington where pundits don't. They think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned. Where we're successful is where we see an opportunity, we put resources in; we support those who are trying to do the right thing for their society. And every so often, something breaks.

But I think that one of the things I've learned over six years - and it doesn't always suit the news cycle - is having some strategic patience. You'll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius...

INSKEEP: For taking Crimea...

OBAMA: ...And he had outmaneuvered all of us, and he had, you know, bullied and, you know, strategized his way into expanding Russian power. And I said at the time, we don't want war with Russia, but we can apply steady pressure working with our European partners, being the backbone of an international coalition to oppose Russia's violation of another country sovereignty and that over time this would be a strategic mistake by Russia. And today, you know, I sense that, at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn't so smart.

INSKEEP: Are you just lucky that the price of oil went down and therefore their currency collapsed...

OBAMA: Well...

INSKEEP: ...Or is it something that you did?

OBAMA: Well, if you'll recall, their economy was already contracting, and capital was fleeing even before oil collapsed. And part of our rationale in this process was that the only thing keeping that economy afloat was the price of oil. And if in fact we were steady in applying sanction pressure, which we have been, that over time it would make the economy of Russia sufficiently vulnerable that if and when there were disruptions with respect to the price of oil - which inevitably there are going to be some time, if not this year, then next year or the year after - that they'd have enormous difficulty managing it.

I say that not to suggest that we've solved Ukraine. But I'm saying that to give an indication that when it comes to the international stage, these problems are big. They're difficult. They're messy. But wherever we have been involved over the last several years, I think the outcome has been better because of American leadership.

INSKEEP: There is another place the U.S. is involved where it's harder to show improvement. It's the area dominated by ISIS - or ISIL as the president calls it - the group that has seized much of Iraq and Syria, setting up its own state. The U.S. has ordered limited air strikes and sent troops to Iraq, though only as advisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Has your limited response to ISIS in Iraq and Syria been driven in part by a sense that this is a very dangerous threat, but not the biggest problem the United States faces in the world, and you do not want to be distracted from far bigger things going on elsewhere?

OBAMA: I think we can't underestimate the danger of ISIL. They are a terrorist network that, unlike al-Qaida, has not limited itself to the periodic attack, but have aspirations to control large swaths of territory that possess resources and effectively an army that pose great dangers to our allies and can destabilize entire regions that are very dangerous for us. So I don't want to downplay that threat. It is a real one. It's the reason why I've authorized, as part of a broader 60-nation coalition, an effort to fight back and to push them back and ultimately destroy them. But it's not the only danger we have.

INSKEEP: The president said he wants to avoid spending, quote, "another trillion dollars on Iraq." And as we neared the end of our talk in the Oval Office, he said he would rather spend money tending to the sources of American strength - schools, roads and research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: Our best tradition is when we just lead by example and when we are strong and secure and we're standing up for what we believe in. And we're in a great position to do that right now. And my last two years, my intention is going to be to make sure that - that I build on the great work that we've done over the last six years. And I hope that I can bring the country together to do it.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: I appreciate it. Thank you.

INSKEEP: President Obama in the Oval Office just before the holidays. We have video of this conversation at npr.org. What you've heard is our final political interview of 2014. The conversation continues in 2015. Tomorrow, New Year's Day, we speak with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.