The National Catholic Review
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After he returned from a diplomatic mission to Iran that led to the release of two American hikers, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick explained the impetus for the trip. “The political channel doesn’t do too well right now,” he said of the meeting with Iranian religious leaders. “There should be another channel. The other channel is the religious channel.”

The same week, Nicolas Sarkozy of France called for European and Arab leaders to take a greater role in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “Let us stop believing that a single country or a small group of countries can resolve so complex a problem,” President Sarkozy said. “Too many crucial players have been sidelined for our efforts to succeed.”

The two events underline an emerging reality of 21st-century diplomacy: the U.S. government no longer serves as the world’s negotiator in chief. That fact may be troubling to some, but it should not be. The cause of peace is better served when it is embraced by the entire international community.

The waning influence of U.S. power has been difficult to ignore. Weakened by two wars abroad and an anemic economy at home, Washington simply does not command the same respect it once did. In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel publicly challenged President Obama on his plan for Middle East peace. It is hard to imagine a previous Israeli prime minister treating Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan this way, even if he enjoyed the same support from Congress as Mr. Netanyahu. Clearly, the prime minister knew the political winds were shifting.

Washington has also failed in other international endeavors; free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama languished for months. Even the New Start treaty with Russia carries with it the whiff of political disappointment. While previous missile treaties helped pave the way for political reforms, change is unlikely to come to Vladimir Putin’s Russia anytime soon. The Obama White House should not be blamed for these failures. A Republican president would face the same constraints on American power.

There have been positive developments, too, notably the campaign in Libya. Here the United States wisely chose not to take the lead in the military action. The White House was ridiculed by the right for describing its policy as “leading from behind,” but that approach was just what was required. By allowing France and Britain to direct the campaign, the United States both strengthened the bond of the international community and furthered the cause of peace. President Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been called “consequentialist,” a sophisticated way of saying that he cares more about results than appearances. This tactic may not sit well with some Americans, who seem to prefer isolationism to a reduced role for the United States in foreign affairs. Yet at this point in American history, a lower international profile is necessary; it could also prove surprisingly effective.

The United States ought to follow that policy in relation to the statehood of Palestine. Unfortunately, on this issue the United States seems to care more about appearances than results. In his speech to the United Nations, President Obama spoke strongly against Palestine’s bid for U.N. recognition despite wide international support for the proposal. His remarks were political, not practical, and threaten to isolate the United States and Israel even more than they already are. At this crucial juncture it would be better for the United States to step away from negotiations and allow other countries to explore paths to peace. President Sarkozy has proposed one such plan; and other international leaders, including members of the Arab community, should be encouraged to do so as well. Recall that the first direct agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization originated in Oslo, not Camp David.

It is also important to remember that not all successful diplomatic initiatives originate from the halls of power. Cardinal McCarrick’s mission to Iran is a classic example of what can be achieved by leaders who are not associated with the U.S. government. In other regions Catholic peacebuilders play an essential role in bringing warring factions together. In South Sudan the church will be a crucial player in the country’s journey toward democracy. The U.S. government should allow these initiatives to flourish without undue interference. It can begin by revisiting the section of the Patriot Act that makes it a crime for any group, including those working for peace, to have contact with designated terrorist organizations. Political reconciliation will not be achieved if we prohibit contact with unsavory individuals. In the new world order, the United States must be concerned about peace above all and must work with all willing parties to move closer to that elusive goal.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 10/8/2011 - 8:54am
A summary of the general stance of America on President Obama's performance: he should not be held responsible for his great failures, but he should be given credit for his relatively minor role of defeating Libya on the cheap (as defense billions go). And with this second point I agree. The fact that he has wisely followed the later Bush administration's military strategy, from maintaining intact Bush's great leaders Gates and Petraeus to largely duplicating and intensifying such issues as the surge and drone warfare, has resulted in the one area of reasonable success for the president. (True, he halted scaring terrorist murderers by waterboarding to save lives while continuing waterboarding Americans in training, but he more than made up for that with the macho crowd by plugging a defenseless and captive Bin Laden in the head and dumping him in the ocean. For those looking for the common thread in these actions, check out votes.)  In doing so, he did not have to call even more attention to another of his many failed commitments by housing Bin Laden at Guantanamo.
Unlike President Bush, who was disliked but given grudging respect in the Middle East for his consistent support for democracy, a political system equally disliked by both autocrats and Islamists but desired by most of the populace, President Obama has managed to be both disliked as much or more than President Bush, as well as disrespected in the region.
America also recounts the weakened president being "publicly challenged" by Benjamin Netanyahu, a sign of disrespect and weakness for the President not his fault but the fault of a weakened nation. Could it possibly have had something to do with President Obama's attempt to make critical Israeli land concessions that would endanger Israel as a precondition for resuming talks, in effect to give away the store prior to negotiations? The real disrespect and embarrassment indicative of a weakened president was the spanking delivered by the ranking member of the Senage, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who very publicly and vehemently chastized and rejected the very basis of his own president's statements. Imagine how that played out on AlJazeera. 
America rightly points out that the two trillion dollar wars have been costly to the US. The one Senator Obama voted against is now winding down roughly according to the withdrawal negotiated between President Bush and Iraq's democraticly elected leadership with a reasonable chance for Iraq to grow a nascent democracy. The one Senator Obama voted for and accelerated, much more in doubt. But these costly wars are coming to a fundamental conclusion. They are not the great problems that confront our economy, which are first and foremost an unaffordable and rapidly expanding entitlement armageddon approaching and a tax system that needs to be overhauled. When President Obama had democratic control of both house and senate, his own bipartisan commission presented a plan that would have substantially and broadly addressed both issues, putting America on a plan that would have restored confidence in the economy. A great chance for leadership, and President Obama took a pass on his own commission's proposals. 
Now he has proposed an election ploy in an attempt to ram down the throat of his opponents a bill they don't like. He will then attempt to ape President Truman's line that it is a "do nothing Congress." Problem is, it isn't supported by Senate Democrats either. When a proposal was made to vote on the President's plan in the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid manuevered to duck it. Democrats don't want to be seen supporting it prior to their election bids. Yet the president's TV presentation is as strong as his wisdom and leadership is weak. Who knows?
What a mess this man has created. 

John Lyons | 10/7/2011 - 3:37pm
Does anyone care to take a stab at guessing what the international power projection and peace keeping situation was like in the early 1900s in say, Turkey and Armenia when the Turks decided to eliminate their Armenian Christian minority?

France had gun boats off the coast. France was the lone power in the area that could have landed troops to either protect or evacuate the Christian refugees.
France chose not to intervene.

Where was the UK, Germany, Austria-Hungary or USA? Oh that's right, none of these powers had the naval strength or political will to get involved in that region.

That the USA will necessarily pull its forces out of particular theaters is almost a given due to our catastrophic financial sitution. That this means local populations will need to fend for themselves and no "international force" will come to their rescue is also a given.

Which country (China, India?) will fill the power void is not known, but one of the two or both WILL.

So all those domestic critics of the US military-industrial complex will live to see the day when the offensive projection of military power will be coming not from the USA with our values but from the far East with far-Eastern values and quality control.....

Some may cheer this prospect. The Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Philippineos among us though will probably not cheer.

It's very easy to critique the US's role in world affairs if one ignores history and what other great empires have done and are doing in their parts of the world. It isn't pretty.

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