Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Friday, 14 May 2010 10:58 UK

Obama abroad: Flip-flop or holding the line?

US President Barak Obama shakes hands with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in Washington (12 May 2010)
The new US administration has extended the hand of friendship to Afghanistan

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Not so long ago, relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration were tense and frosty.

Mr Karzai was seen in Washington as very much part of the problem in Afghanistan.

This week, in contrast, he has had the red carpet rolled out for him in the US capital.

Indeed, the apparent flip-flop in approach to the Afghan president seems to be a theme running through much of the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Think how tough the Obama team were on Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlement building, only to back away from an all-out confrontation without any really convincing evidence that settlement construction had been halted.

So what is going on?

Engagement with enemies?

For critics of the administration, the answer is obvious.

This administration's foreign policy reflects the character of Barack Obama himself, his self-confidence about his own ability to effect change in accordance with liberal left ideals
Professor Eliot Cohen
Johns Hopkins University

Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University in Washington worked closely alongside Condoleezza Rice in the state department during the previous Bush presidency.

"To a remarkable degree, this administration's foreign policy reflects the character of Barack Obama himself, his self-confidence about his own ability to effect change in accordance with liberal left ideals," he said.

"Think Middle East peace and engagement with our enemies for example."

It also shows "President Obama's insensitivity to the cultivation of America's allies - witness his treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Karzai", Prof Cohen said.

In essence, the apparent shifts in the US approach to both Israel and Afghanistan "reflect the encounter of preconceived notions with reality, or really with two realities, namely, that you don't make your allies behave better by slapping them around, and you don't win over serious enemies by attempting to ingratiate yourself with them".

'Less talk, more action'

US foreign policy watcher Charles Kupchan at the Council on Foreign Relations takes a rather different view.

"President Obama's foreign policy has actually been quite consistent. From the start, he has preferred engagement - interspersed with moments of tough talk - to isolation," he said.

"He has confronted President Karzai on corruption and governance failures, but continues to work with him; like it or not, Karzai is the only game in town.

"On balance, Obama has been pragmatic, not ideological. During his first year, he had trouble turning his visions into reality. But in the second year, implementation of policy has improved - less talk and more action."

President Barack Obama speaks at the Nuclear Security Summit on 13 April 2010
Engagement has been the watchword of President Obama's foreign policy

Engagement has been the watchword of the Obama administration's foreign policy, the case in point being Iran, but also efforts to "reset" relations with Russia, attempts to engage the Burmese military regime and so on.

Many have commented on the paucity of results so far. Iran's nuclear programme seems restricted more by its own technical limitations than anything else.

But Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House, said there were some merits in the process itself.

"Engagement changes the dynamics for US foreign policy even if it does not achieve immediate and specific results," he said.

"Opening bilateral discussions with Iran has not changed Iran's behaviour as yet, but has increased the willingness of Europeans to back more serious sanctions.

"And 're-setting' with Russia has not stopped Russia from pursuing a policy of reasserting influence in Ukraine and the Caucasus, but has made discussions with them over Iran more constructive."

Failing peace

So much for Iran, but what about the tensions between the Obama administration and Israel?

Critics have lambasted the president for what they see as a pointless attack on a good ally.

Others have argued strongly US pressure on Israel is long overdue and that it should be stepped up and maintained.

The problem was not the toughness, but that the toughness seemed detached from any strategy
Nathan Brown
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has chronicled and analysed the failings of the Middle East peace process for longer than he would probably care to admit.

He was less concerned about the pressure on Mr Netanyahu, but rather about the context in which it was being brought to bear.

"If the Obama administration is serious about pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace, then some tension with the Israeli government is inevitable - its positions are simply quite far from US ideas about a settlement," he said.

"The problem was not the toughness, but that the toughness seemed detached from any strategy. Now, after more than a year in office, the Obama administration finally seems to be piecing together a strategy."

Nonetheless, Mr Brown is far from convinced that this strategy is based upon a sound foundation.

"The basic problem is that it assumes that the conditions prevailing five or 10 years ago still hold," added Mr Brown. "They do not."

"The Palestinian side is split and weak. Israeli public opinion - and not just right-wing leaders - betrays signs of having checked out of the peace process.

"Pursuing peace talks as if Hamas does not exist, Gaza is irrelevant and the Israelis are on board is unrealistic."

Coming test

In answer to the fundamental question about the consistency of the Obama administration's foreign policy line, Mr Niblett said: "The shifts reflect a willingness to adjust and not be didactic if things are not working. It is part of the pragmatism that permeates the Obama administration."

But he cautioned that there were clearly limits to the US policy of engagement.

"The test will be how the Obama administration adapts its policies through this second year," said Mr Niblett.

Indeed, the coming weeks and months will provide perhaps the greatest test of President Obama's whole approach to the world.

If the Israel-Palestinian talks make little progress - as most experts expect - does the Obama team have an interim approach to prevent or contain any renewed outbreak of violence?

With US outreach efforts to Syria stalled, can another conflict on Israel's northern border with Lebanon be avoided?

And perhaps the biggest question of all, even if another round of sanctions against Iran can be agreed at the United Nations, what then?

If Iran's nuclear programme continues, will the Obama administration have to come to terms with at least a "nuclear-capable" Iran.

Or might it seek to change the status quo by some other means?

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