One of the main jobs of a foreign correspondent is to serve as a mirror to reflect the image of how the country of his or her readers and audience is perceived by the rest of the world. In my decades of reporting from overseas it wasn’t just adversaries that had a distorted picture of the American political process. Often allies didn’t understand it very well either.
During the Watergate period most of the world was astounded when Richard Nixon was forced to resign the presidency over what was mostly seen abroad as a partisan political scandal. Significant world leaders such as Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat said as much to me on more than one occasion.
However, experienced foreign correspondents from other countries often “get” America because they view this country with detachment. I offer the headline and the lead paragraph of a major analysis of America by the respected German magazine Spiegel, published online on the eve of Tuesday’s election.
“Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation.
“The United States is frittering away its role as a model for the rest of the world. The political system is plagued by an absurd level of hatred, the economy is stagnating and the infrastructure is falling into a miserable state of disrepair. On this election eve, many Americans are losing faith in their country’s future.”
The long and detailed article which follows is scathing in its criticism of Republican Party obstructionism and often nativist policies. But it is also unsparing in its critique of President Barack Obama who is portrayed as sometimes rather hapless. I am not embracing this sharp, slap-in-the-face analysis, although parts of it may be taken as a bracing wake-up call.
All of that said, in the wake of President Obama’s re-election, most of the reaction from abroad has been positive. That reflects a sense of relief in most capitals based on the old adage that it’s always better to deal with the devil you know.
Gov. Mitt Romney was largely unknown overseas. But he had spooked at least two big powers — Russia and China. Twenty years after the Cold War had ended Romney said Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” And he promised that “on day one” he would declare China a “currency manipulator,” meaning that it was artificially keeping the value of its currency low to make its exports cheaper. But such a specific declaration would have automatically invoked mechanisms in the World Trade Organization, which many analysts feared could have led a trade war. The other negative about Romney as seen in the rest of the world, is that while he had no apparent foreign policy experience himself, he had surrounded himself with advisers from the George W. Bush administration, many of whom were neoconservatives, unapologetic for their eager support for and their roles in the Iraq War.
But just because Obama appears to have been favored in most world capitals, doesn’t mean he has smooth sailing ahead. In addition to an increasingly complicated relationship with China, the world Obama will face in his second term is littered with mine fields that could blow up at any time. Afghanistan continues to look unstable. Several Middle East countries remain in the throes of revolution — Egypt and Syria bear very close attention. And Iran is still the most likely place in which a major conflict could occur.
Yet the advantage a second term brings any American president is that it allows him to conduct foreign policy pretty much as he thinks is best for the country. He no longer has to give undue consideration to hostile elements in the U.S. Congress. And he can make decisions free of even the slightest consideration for their impact on his re-election.
This is going to be very important as we move into the next phase of the ongoing crisis with Iran. If another Middle East war is to be avoided, at some point in the coming year there is going to have to be a negotiated settlement. We know what the basic elements of any successful diplomatic deal will have to contain.
— Iran is going to have to stop reprocessing uranium above the 5 percent level.
— It is going to have to agree to put its existing reprocessed uranium — some of which is close to nuclear weapons grade — under strict international control.
— Iran is going to have to accept intrusive international inspections of all its nuclear facilities.
— In return the United States, China, Russia and the European Union are going to have to accept that Iran does have the right to reprocess uranium to the level of 5 percent (a right which it actually has under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
— These same countries will have to agree to lifting the severe economic sanctions they have imposed on Iran, according to a mutually agreed upon timetable.
It is going to take quite a while to negotiate such a deal — not years but certainly many months. Meantime there will be those who will argue that the U.S. is being too conciliatory with Iran. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also likely to be claiming that Iran is on the verge of having a nuclear bomb and therefore must be attacked immediately.
Frankly, I think the successful Cold War policy of containment, which deterred communism for five decades would also work with Iran, but President Obama has said he is not going to allow Iran to become a nuclear power. So I take him at his word that if all else fails he will use force.
But now that he is in his second term, the president will be able to resist the pressures of his critics — be they in Congress or Jerusalem. He will make the decision of when to use force in Iran, based on his judgment of what is in the vital interests of the United States — nothing else.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.
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