Obama Takes Foreign Policy Risk 12/20 12:39
President Barack Obama has been criticized as cautious on foreign policy,
but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest a willingness for bold and risky
action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close aides.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama has been criticized as cautious on
foreign policy, but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest a willingness for
bold and risky action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close
It's a pattern Obama followed during clandestine talks with Iran that led to
an interim nuclear deal and in under-the-radar discussions with China on a
climate change agreement announced last month.
Such diplomatic breakthroughs have buoyed Obama and may help counter charges
that his responses to other international matters, including the rise of
Islamic State militants and Russia's aggression in Ukraine, are weak and
"Around the world, America is leading," Obama said Friday in a year-end news
conference. The president cited the announcement that he was normalizing
diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of Cold War
acrimony with the communist island nation and "turning a new page in our
relationship with the Cuban people."
The secret talks with Cuba, like the negotiations with Iran and China, were
carried out by a small number of officials who slipped in and out of Washington.
The Iran talks were handled by State Department officials William Burns and
Jake Sullivan, who have since left the administration. The point person on
China was White House counselor John Podesta. Leading the Cuba mission from the
White House were deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and senior Latin
America adviser Ricardo Zuniga, who met with Cuban officials nine times in
Canada and at the Vatican.
In each instance, the advisers' close proximity to the president was
intended to send a message to their counterparts that they were negotiating
with Obama's full authority.
The overtures to Iran and Cuba were gambles for Obama. The U.S. was
negotiating with two countries with whom it had not had diplomatic relations in
decades. Leaks about the talks could have undermined what little trust there
was on either side.
In opening a direct channel with Iran, Obama also risked angering Israel,
which sees the Islamic Republic and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon as an
existential threat. In shifting course on Cuba, the president risked
antagonizing congressional Republicans and a few Democrats, though his new
position largely puts the U.S. in line with how the rest of the world deals
with the small island just 90 miles off U.S. shores.
There are few guarantees that Obama will achieve his goals. The president
has given the negotiations over a final nuclear deal with Iran a 50 percent
chance of succeeding, and he acknowledged on Friday that substantial political
and social change may be slow to come to Cuba.
On other foreign matters, Obama has proved less willing to gamble,
especially when potential military options are up for discussion. For example,
his policy on Syria's civil war has been seen by critics and allies as slow and
The president has faced questions, too, about whether he has acted
aggressively enough in helping Ukraine counter Russia; his response so far has
relied chiefly on economic penalties. They have contributed to a precipitous
fall in Russia's currency, but there is little indication that economic pain is
causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back from Ukraine.
"It's great when you can do something with two guys in the White House,"
said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies. "When you get a higher level of complexity, people are
baffled at what the administration is trying to do."
Beyond diplomacy, Obama also has taken risks by approving rescue attempts of
hostages in Syria and Yemen, and aggressively used drones and special
operations forces against terrorists, including the 2011 raid in Pakistan that
led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Yet Obama sometimes has helped perpetuate the image of a president paralyzed
at the prospect of risk. When Obama was asked this year to outline his foreign
policy doctrine, he described it a strategy that "avoids errors."
"You hit singles, you hit doubles," Obama said, turning to a baseball
analogy. "Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run."
Some supporters cringed, believing that description misconstrued an
appropriately cautious approach in a complicated world.