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Jason Stanford: Obama's secret diplomatic victories

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Jason Stanford
August 4, 2014

I get it. When foreigners challenge America, we want our president to scream bloody murder and then send in the Marines to make sure it happens. Forget about talking softly. Go straight for the big stick. By contrast, diplomacy looks weak, like some tin-pot dictator from a nothing-burger country is pushing us around. But in case anyone cares to notice, the world may be falling apart, but Barack Obama has put together a string of surprising diplomatic victories.

The extension of the negotiating window with Iran came and went with little notice. The nuclear freeze in Iran should be a big deal. Thanks to our negotiations and economic sanctions, Iran has diluted its highly enriched uranium, agreed to in-person inspections and video surveillance, and ceased work on its heavy water plutonium reactor. But this progress is less well known than some state secrets, a mystery not just to Americans at large but most political insiders, as well.

Another recent--and oddly secret--diplomatic victory took place in Syria. Of course, with Syria in the middle of a civil war, it looks like the country's main export is bad news. And when Obama leveraged Russia's relationship with Syria to broker a deal to get rid of the latter's chemical weapons, Republicans said Vladimir Putin made Obama look weak.

A funny thing happened on the way to the GOP's deification of Putin: While Syrians were busy shooting each other, the country's last supplies of chemical weapons--600 metric tons of it--left Syria on a Danish ship under the supervision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This is probably the best news you've never heard.

"Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict," said OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu.

The one diplomatic success that Americans share a vague awareness of is how Obama has corralled the European Union into imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia, isolating Putin. By getting Europeans to put the screws to Russia's banking, oil and gas, and military sectors, Obama can play his brand of strong-arm diplomatic ball, forcing Putin to choose between his country's economic well-being and his fantasies of restoring the Russian Empire.

All of this is exactly the opposite of what Republican critics predicted when Putin invaded Crimea. They said Obama's weakness in Syria emboldened Putin to wreak havoc in Ukraine. Now--not that Obama's been good at telling the story--America got rid of Syria's chemical weapons and surrounded itself with Russia's closest trading partners. Putin looks politically injured, snarling not like a mighty czar but like a wounded bear caught in a trap.

We should not be surprised that when it comes to foreign affairs, Obama has been more Graham Greene than Michael Bay. In the 2008 Democratic primary, he shocked many, me included, when he said he would negotiate with Iran "without precondition." He had a 62 percent approval rating for his handling of international affairs two months into his first term, and he won the Nobel Peace Price largely because he promised to end the wars that George W. Bush started.

But he never articulated a grand vision for American leadership in the world, which leaves observers puzzled and frustrated when he approaches each world crisis pragmatically, trying to coax workable solutions from civil wars and downed airliners. He doesn't crow about his diplomatic victories, so all we hear is the cable news cacophony, and consequently half the country thinks he's doing a lousy job with international relations.

But Obama is the president he said he'd be. He speaks softly and carries Seal Team Six, but the most effective weapons in his foreign policy arsenal have proven to be economic sanctions and negotiation. Obama has learned the lessons from Iraq. This time we're using diplomacy--and it's working.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at stanford@oppresearch.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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