The Mellow Doctrine
I know bristling Dick Cheney believes America’s enemies now perceive “a weak president,” as do sundry Republican senators, but the truth is that foes of the United States have been disarmed by Barack Obama’s no-drama diplomacy.
Call it the mellow doctrine. Neither idealistic nor classic realpolitik, it involves finding strength through unconventional means: acknowledgment of the limits of American power; frankness about U.S. failings; careful listening; fear reduction; adroit deployment of the wide appeal of brand Barack Hussein Obama; and jujitsu engagement.
Already the mellow doctrine has brought some remarkable shifts, even if more time is needed to see its results.
The Castro brothers in Cuba are squabbling over the meaning of Obama’s overtures. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has gone gooey-eyed over the Yanqui president. Turkey relented on a major NATO dispute, persuaded of the importance of Obama’s conciliatory message to Muslims.
From Damascus to Tehran, new debate rages over possible rapprochement with Washington. In Israel, I understand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is about to drag his Likud party kicking and screaming to acceptance of the idea of a two-state solution because he knows the cost of an early confrontation with Obama.
Not bad for 105 days.
The fact is the United States spent most of the eight years before last January making things easy for its enemies. It was in the ammunition-supply business.
Nothing comforted U.S. foes as much as Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, axis-of-evil moral certitude and the schoolyard politics of punishment.
All you had to do, from Moscow to Caracas, was point a finger toward the White House and domestic woes paled. All you had to do, in the recruitment schools of Waziristan and Ramadi, was show video footage of Americans humiliating Muslims. Even among allies, nobody much wanted to help the former administration.
I like this definition from Obama of the impact of the mellow doctrine on countries with divergent interests from the United States:
“What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we’re pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they’re cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem.”
I met last month with Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, after he’d seen Obama in Strasbourg. When I asked him if the perception under former President Bush had been that the United States was at war with Islam, Gul said: “Unfortunately, yes, that was the perception.”
By contrast, Gul told me, with Obama, “His views and ours seem almost the same: We have to value dialogue and follow engagement.”
When Gul and Obama confronted each other at the NATO summit over the nomination of Denmark’s Anders Rasmussen as the alliance’s secretary general, the odds of an accord seemed remote given Turkey’s objections to Rasmussen’s free-speech defense of the Mohammed cartoons. Arab states had called on Ankara to resist.
But agreement was reached after Obama guaranteed Gul that Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, would “act very carefully and have an intense dialogue with the Islamic world.” Gul smiled: “We wanted Obama to be successful on his first trip to Europe. Failure would have overshadowed things.”
There you have it: cooperation at the margins.
Deprived of an easy enemy, several countries are trying to calibrate how to become America’s friend, or at least normalize relations. They are uneasy about being left in the cold.
On a recent visit to Damascus, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was intrigued to find Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, asking him with concern whether there was “some sort of understanding” between the United States and Iran.
There isn’t yet, but Syria, like many Arab states, is already worried about losing out to any American-Iranian détente.
Conversely, Iran worries that it might lose its Syrian ally (and conduit to Hezbollah and Hamas) as a result of Obama’s Middle East peace effort. The fact is Syria’s interests in Iraq after a U.S. withdrawal will diverge from Iran’s: Syria’s priority is an Iraq in the Arab sphere.
Such strategic concerns, along with economic difficulties, explain the intense Iranian debate about the United States, and how to respond to Obama’s overtures, in the run-up to June presidential election.
In Cuba, meanwhile, Fidel Castro is talking about “definite failure” for Obama and lambasting him for preserving a “blockade” (it’s in fact an outmoded partial trade embargo), while his brother Raúl says Cuba’s ready and eager to discuss everything.
A Kansan-Kenyan cat is loose among the waddling Cuban pigeons.
The likes of aging Fidel will try to resist the mellow doctrine. But it will succeed if America’s foes understand that normal relations with Washington do not imply the loss of distinctive cultures and politics or the imposition of U.S. values, but rather the “mutual respect” which Obama has promised Iran.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist - The Mellow Doctrine - NYTimes.com How does mellow do when confronted with eye for eye subculture, we'll see.