JACOB WEISBERG | GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
FEW presidents arrive in office with large plans around foreign affairs.
Yet most live to see their reputations defined by it.
For Barack Obama, whose time in office coincides with a series of tectonic shifts in global structure - the Arab revolutions, the relative decline of American power, the rise of China - that pattern shows every sign of holding.
But what kind of foreign policy leader is he? How Obama thinks about America’s role in the world turns out to be one of the thornier questions about his presidency.
A briefing for the British prime minister, David Cameron, in advance of this week’s state visit to Great Britain, the first by an American president for eight years, might begin with the following thumbnail profile: Obama’s views fit neatly into none of the conventional categories like “realist” or “idealist,” “interventionist” or “isolationist.” At the time he began his presidential campaign, less than four years ago, Obama had no discernible approach to foreign affairs.
He had been an Illinois state legislator, a professor of constitutional law and briefly a US senator who was mainly concerned with issues of social policy.
His most notable stance was clear opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which he called a “dumb war” at a 2002 peace rally in Chicago.
At the same time, his personal background pointed to an unusual kind of engagement with the rest of the world.
He is not only America’s first black president, but one of our first truly multicultural politicians, with an African father, an Asian stepfather and a childhood spent between Indonesia and the Pacific mixing bowl of Hawaii.
As a candidate, Obama displayed a less America-centric view of the world than Americans are used to from their politicians.
As is often the case, his foreign policy emerged in reaction to the most glaring mistakes of his predecessor.
That meant emphasising multilateralism and respect for international laws in place of unilateralism and scorn for the United Nations.
It proposed engagement with rather than demonisation of the regimes George W Bush described as “evil.” It focused on Afghanistan as the war we ought to have fought more effectively; over Iraq, the war we oughtn’t to have fought at all.
Responding to Bush’s inept idealism and militarised approach to democracy promotion, Obama initially shied from ideas of humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion or advocacy of human rights - what Democrats more typically call for.
Instead, he declared his “enormous sympathy” for the foreign policy of George Bush senior.
Obama cited the first Bush team’s prudent, non-triumphal management of the Soviet empire’s collapse as his model.
After winning the election, he reached out to Bush senior’s foreign policy alter ego, Brent Scowcroft, for advice.
As a decision- maker, Obama has lived up to Bush senior’s positive example.
If his two national security advisers have seemed less than pivotal figures in his administration, it is because Obama is the kind of commander-in-chief who functions as his own national security director.
As both the Nato intervention in Libya and the strike against bin Laden show, Obama is a strong executive, capable of weighing probabilities and yet acting quickly and decisively.
He is not the lawyerly or wishy-washy figure his opponents have often caricatured.
Like Cameron, the American president views himself as a pragmatist.
He has approached international problems on a case-by-case basis and shows little interest in having his name associated with a grand doctrine.
This ad-hocracy can, however, produce policy that seems muddled or contradictory.
At the time of the green revolution in Iran, Obama held back from criticising the crackdown because of his eagerness to open a dialogue with the Ahmadinejad regime.
When that position was criticised as callous, the president belatedly identified himself with the protesters.
This lack of an articulated philosophy has been frustrating at times to both of the two principal camps in his administration - call them the realists and the ethicists.
The realists - who predominate at his National Security Council and have been led by outgoing defence secretary Robert Gates - did not see fundamental American interests at play in Libya.
The ethicists, who are centred at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, favoured intervention on the basis of a “duty to protect”.
They would like more aid for the Libyan rebels, advocacy of human rights, a push for internet freedom and stronger promotion of democracy around the world.
In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged what he described as the “tension” between a foreign policy based on interests and one based on values.
Lately, he has expended many words trying to square that circle.
But his pragmatic, split-thedifference approach has enmeshed him in a series of contradictions.
The United States has supported revolutions in Egypt and Libya while calling upon the regimes in Bahrain and Syria to reform rather than abdicate.
Obama has issued no call for democratic transformation in totalitarian Saudi Arabia, where the American interest in stability is greatest.
With a virtual Berlin Wall messily collapsing in the Arab world, he has pitched his response somewhere between the idealist Ronald Reagan (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) and the realist George Bush senior, who said nothing to agitate the Soviet politburo when it finally did fall.
At the moment, the realist Obama is in eclipse, the humanitarian Obama ascendant.
In his 2009 Cairo address, the president had spoken against any nation imposing its system of government on any other.
In last week’s speech on the Middle East, he declared democracy in the region as American policy and concluded with the words: “We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” It is ironic than Obama seems to be following the trajectory of the younger Bush, who was elected as a foreign policy realist like his father and evolved in office into an idealist zealot.
Unlike his predecessor, Obama does not fixate on his personal bond with fellow world leaders.
But in their conversations this week, the American president and the British prime minister may find that they have a good deal in common: the desire to reverse a historical legacy in the Middle East at a time of diminished credibility and constrained resources.
Both face a stalemate in Libya and rising scepticism about their chances for success in Afghanistan.
What unites the two men is an instinct to address these problems in their particulars rather than through an overarching philosophy.
It is around this shared pragmatism that their chapter in the special relationship may be written.
(Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy.)