Foreign policy now an Obama strength

President Barack Obama begins his re-election campaign with something almost nobody would have predicted four years ago: a sense of success and political advantage in the foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats.

The tight, wary control that was often apparent when Obama discussed foreign policy in his first two years has been replaced by an easier informality. The pre-scripted phrases and the gaze into the middle distance, as if he were reading a teleprompter, are mostly gone, too, at least in private, aides say.

He conveys the sense that managing foreign policy is an iterative skill, which he has learned through trial and error. This former anti-war activist and community organizer certainly didn't run for president so he would have authority to kill people. But that's just what he does every time he authorizes a drone strike against an al-Qaida target.

The Obama team seems almost dismissive of the foreign-policy savvy of his likely Republican rival, Mitt Romney. They see Romney as out of his depth on this subject, making gestures to his neoconservative supporters and talking tough, no matter the issue - almost in a caricature of the chest-beating unilateralist.

The trickiest test for Obama this year is Iran. He thinks the Iranians may be moving toward the confidence-building measure the P5+1 group has proposed, which would involve sending Iran's small store of 20 percent-enriched uranium outside the country in return for fuel rods and medical isotopes enriched at that level, from abroad. And if Iran agreed to stop enriching above 5 percent, that would effectively mean closing its facility at Fordo, near Qom, which was built for higher levels of enrichment.

There's still a lot of haggling ahead. Obama doubts the Iranians will decide to accept this package soon enough to delay the oil and other sanctions that are scheduled to take effect June 28 and July 1. But if a deal can be reached over the summer, he believes that would be enough to convince Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Iran's "zone of immunity" for building a weapon had been delayed - making an Israeli attack unnecessary.

On Syria, the other Middle East tinderbox, Obama knows that Kofi Annan's peace effort is failing, because of the former U.N. secretary-general's inability to halt violence and begin the transition from President Bashar al-Assad. Obama knows that Russia is the key to avoiding a civil war, but he doesn't think the Russians will commit to oust Assad unless they're convinced he can't govern, and that only a new government will contain extremism in Syria. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama thinks parts of the Syrian opposition would be worse than Assad - and he worries that the protracted struggle is empowering precisely these people. Obama is hoping to do business with Putin, whom he sees as the ultimate transactional leader.

What's striking about Obama's management of foreign policy is that he knows what he knows. To take one delicate example, he understands that China depends on good relations with the U.S. during its bumpy time of leadership transition - and he knows it's important not to gratuitously embarrass the Chinese leadership.

Obama is beginning to think about what he would do in a second term, and it's a predictable list - addressing climate change, reducing nuclear weapons, reviving the Palestinian peace process, managing the "Arab Spring" and improving development assistance for Africa. But it isn't so much the specific things he wants as the one big thing he has learned - which is how to make decisions in the Oval Office. This sense of having learned on the job is what he'll try to sell the country come November.

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