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Engagement succumbs to political imperative.
HALIFAX, Canada — A year ago, Republicans and Democrats at an international security forum here had one deferential message: wait to see what U.S. President Barack Obama announced as America's new strategy on Afghanistan.
A year later, just days after a U.S. election handed the House of Representatives to Republicans, lawmakers exercised less moderation in addressing their global colleagues.
On the question of what the United States should do if sanctions do not stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said America should "sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime."
The statement, which dominated the conversation among attendees at the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday, represents a new political reality in Washington: Obama had his chance, a short two years to solve the world's problems through diplomatic engagement. Now other, hawkish voices will seize the opportunity to demand results from Obama in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
"We need to step up our engagement strategy against the Iranians," Graham told GlobalPost at the end of the day's sessions. "I would like to see more leadership from the White House in terms of making sanctions crippling and behavior changing."
The administration has already accepted that its approach to Iran needs to be closer to Graham's hard line than the strategy Obama advocated during his campaign.
Michele Flournoy, U.S. undersecretary for defense policy, admitted that the administration has adopted a new approach.
"We first sought to engage the Iranians. They did not respond in a terribly productive way to that, and so we have moved with the international community toward a pressure track with the imposition of sanctions," she said Friday in Halifax.
It seems that Obama's signature foreign policy belief, that listening and discussing can lead to understanding, could succumb to political pressure given the new dynamic in Washington. It is no coincidence that during his current visit to India, the president is focusing on jobs and trade, and avoiding thorny issues like relations with Pakistan.
Following the election, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, the burden is on Obama to find common ground with American lawmakers on issues from Chinese currency regulation to nuclear nonproliferation. "And that’s going to require, I think, a different approach to Congress than President Obama has taken in his first couple of years," Ornstein said.