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Gulliver's troubles: Obama, the Nobel and the real world

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
  • Aaron David Miller: Obama wants to fix things, but is up against the cold real world
  • Obama is a Gulliver, tied up by tiny tribes whose interests may not be America's, Miller says
  • He writes: Many of Obama's foreign policies reflect that reality trumps rhetoric
  • Miller: What's needed is brutally honest evaluation of what's possible and power and strategy to do it

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is at work on a new book, "Can America Have Another Great President?"

Washington (CNN) -- O, the cruel and unforgiving world in which we live.

Almost a year into his presidency, Barack Obama, a newly minted Nobel laureate -- only the third sitting U.S. president to receive the prize -- finds himself bumping up against the harsh realities of international conflict and diplomacy.

The awarding of the Nobel, which the president didn't seek, reflects a real gap between expectations and delivery -- a gap widened considerably by the president himself.

Even a sympathetic observer might conclude that a good bit of the president's foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, reflects the triumph of hope over experience and rhetoric over reality.

Whatever else the president takes away from his first year, it's critical that America's foreign policy reflect the world the way it is, not just the way the president wants it to be.

I'm sure that Nobel committee members thought they were doing the president a favor in giving him the prize. If there ever was an example of no good deed going unpunished, at least for the president, this is surely it.

The prize was intended no doubt as a down payment for what the Europeans wanted from America's foreign policy as well as a not-so-subtle message: Hello, Barack Obama, nice to see you. Goodbye, George W. Bush, we're glad you're gone.

Part of the president's conundrum is that he can't fix problems such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Arab-Israeli peace, but he can't walk away from them either. For someone who sees himself as a potentially transformative leader, an agent of big change both at home and abroad, this is particularly difficult.

President Obama isn't a diplomatic Hercules; he's really more a Gulliver, tied up by tiny tribes.
--Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar

Yet he's trapped, really, in a transactional world not of clear black and white choices, but grays -- the color of intrigue, deception, non-state actors, dysfunctional regimes, and corrupt and extractive powers determined to get what they can from America.

The Middle East, to be sure, is less a land of diplomatic opportunity than a landscape dotted by minefields, traps, intractable problems and headaches. And lofty rhetoric, speechmaking and engagement without strategy don't help matters.

President Obama isn't a diplomatic Hercules; he's really more a Gulliver, tied up by tiny tribes, whose interests may not be America's. When he's not being tied up by them, he's trapped by his own rhetoric and the endearing illusion of many American presidents that they have the power and responsibility to somehow fix all of this.

After all, what could possibly be wrong with engagement, diplomacy, and talking? Nothing really, if you have a clearly thought-out strategy and the leverage to make it work. What's more, the locals that live in the neighborhood -- whether they are Arabs, Israelis, Afghans, or Pakistanis -- must own up to their share of responsibility.

Larry Summers, with whom I worked when I was at the State Department in the 1990s, used to say that in the history of the world, no one ever washed a rental car. Because quite simply, you care only about what you own.

Sometimes when I hear the president speak on these matters, I get the distinct feeling that he seems to own these conflicts and their solutions more than the locals themselves.

The pressure to improve America's image in the world after eight years of George W. Bush's foreign policy and the need to really enhance U.S. credibility and achieve success after eight years of Bill Clinton's are both understandable.

But a year into this administration, the results of engagement are telling.

The Iranians continue to play us as the centrifuges spin toward the development of a nuclear weapon, and the one year deadline is looming with no clear sense of how diplomacy or sanctions can stop them.

The Israelis, the Arabs and the Palestinians have each respectively delivered a big "no" to the president: No to a comprehensive settlement freeze, including natural growth; no to normalization with Israel; and no to a return to negotiations without a freeze.

And in Afghanistan, we see the price of rhetoric -- "war of necessity" -- and the difficulties of matching means to ends.

It's arguable whether stopping al Qaeda from returning to its bases there, which was the key goal laid out in the president's West Point speech, is even possible. And arguable whether it's worth the cost of an additional 30,000 American troops and the likely expenditure in both lives and treasure.

After all, it wasn't a bunch of guys training on AK47s or running obstacle courses in the Afghan mountains that hurt America on 9/11: Terrorists training in flight schools in the United States and planning in Hamburg, Germany, did far more damage.

Too harsh on the president? Other administrations have run off the highway in their first year, particularly off the Middle Eastern highway, and they've adjusted and learned. Maybe President Obama will too.

But the key in the end isn't caring, commitment, rhetoric, engagement or apologies for previous American transgressions. Instead, it's a brutally honest assessment of what can be accomplished on any of these excruciatingly difficult problems and the leverage, power and strategy to go with it.

And that, as the president surely knows, is worth a lot more to America than a Nobel or two.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.