Let’s be realistic about what Obama can accomplish
It seems to me that we should be very careful about holding out unreasonable expectations for President-elect Barack Obama, who will face seemingly intractable domestic and international problems when he takes office on Jan. 20.
For starters, the U.S. economy is in a free-fall and the stock market is collapsing with no end in sight. At the same time we’re spending $10 billion per month in Iraq while conditions in Afghanistan ” where the War Against Terror should be fought ” continue to deteriorate. This is the ominous situation Obama will inherit on Jan. 20, and there’s no quick fix in sight, no matter how eloquent or charismatic he may be. In short, we should guard against unrealistic expectations because things will probably get worse before they get better.
Fellow Appeal columnist Abby Johnson illustrated my cautionary comment last Wednesday. “I was overwhelmed by (Obama’s) words,” Ms. Johnson wrote. “I heard the flowing sentences that felt good and meant well, words destined to … push the messages forth. It was like discovering a cold, clear mountain stream after a parched and scorching desert hike.” Well yes, Obama is much more eloquent than President Bush but that doesn’t make him a Messiah who can part troubled waters and save the world.
Although words can inspire us and give us hope for the future, we should be realistic about what President-elect Obama can accomplish in the short term as competing special interest groups vie for his attention. I see Obama as a pragmatic liberal who will be pulled to the left by MoveOn.org and his party’s Loony Left. Simultaneously, a fractured Republican minority will try to pull him to the right on defense and national security issues. Obama has already backed off his early call for an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
For my part, I hope Obama will retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates and reach across the aisle to his defeated opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and other moderate Republicans who are willing to cooperate with the new president in a bipartisan search for solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems.
I would also caution the international community about harboring unrealistic expectations for President-elect Obama, who demonstrated his international appeal when 200,000 Germans turned out for a rousing campaign rally in Berlin. My friend Abby Johnson wrote about restoring the American dream and making the U.S. a beacon of hope in a troubled world; however, Obama’s policies will have more impact on our international image than his soaring rhetoric.
Public diplomacy ” overseas cultural and information programs designed to gain support and/or understanding for our policies ” should be a top priority for the incoming administration. This will require a complete reorganization of the State Department’s unwieldy and unresponsive public diplomacy structure.
Recognizing the pitfalls of the militarization of foreign policy, Defense Secretary Gates has called for a diplomatic surge requiring a significant State Department budget increase. He knows that the Iraq War cannot be won without effective diplomatic efforts to bring about national reconciliation among Iraq’s warring ethnic factions.
At present, hundreds of positions at U.S. embassies are vacant and diplomatic morale is low because of inadequate staffing, insufficient budgets and poor management. Because our new president needs a strong diplomatic corps to complement our foreign military commitments, the Obama administration should quickly approve Gates’ diplomatic surge proposal and reiterate the executive order designating State as the lead agency on foreign affairs, including public diplomacy. That would be a good start toward restoring our good name throughout the world.
– Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was a public diplomacy officer during his 28-year U.S. Foreign Service career.