100 days: Obama dumps Bush's world view, but now what?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The "Axis of Evil" is gone. The "global war on terrorism" is no more. "You are either with us or against us" is a thing of the past, replaced by reaching out to global foes and friends alike.

President Barack Obama says that changing policy is like turning around a super-tanker, and should be done in small increments. Yet in little more than three months, he's executed an abrupt rhetorical U-turn in how the U.S. interacts with the world.

While offering to negotiate over challenges such as climate change and disarmament that his predecessor, George W. Bush, avoided, Obama has reached out to more U.S. adversaries in a shorter time than perhaps any modern occupant of the Oval Office.

The list begins with Iran, with which Washington arguably has worse relations than any other country on the planet, with the possible exception of North Korea. It also includes Syria, Cuba, Burma, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, with whose leader, Hugo Chavez, the president shook hands at a summit this month.

Senior U.S. officials from past administrations and foreign policy analysts give Obama high marks for changing the tenor of U.S. diplomacy and jettisoning ideology. Even antagonists such as Chavez and Iran's leaders have offered grudging praise.

The question is: Now what?

"Images in international relations are often as important as substance, and the new president acted quickly to change America's image," wrote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an assessment this month. "Changes in substance are a different issue."

None of the problems that Obama inherited on Jan. 20, such as Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs or gridlock in the Arab-Israeli dispute, has gotten any better. Some, particularly the growing instability in Pakistan, appear to be getting worse.

Some officials, diplomats and analysts say they worry that Obama has set so many foreign policy balls in motion that a White House burdened by its focus on economic concerns will have trouble following through.

Others caution that Obama's attempts to undo old animosities could take years of frustrating negotiations.

"None of these problems can be solved quickly . . . . All of these are huge problems. They will need strategic patience on all sides," said Germany's ambassador in Washington, Klaus Scharioth.

Obama hasn't yet had to demonstrate whether he's ready to get tough if his engagement strategy fails with countries such as Iran.

"My only hope is that if this approach is not working, the administration will not dig in its heels and will switch back to sanctions," said Elliott Abrams, who served as a deputy national security adviser to Bush.

Abrams predicted Obama will be reluctant to reverse course. That, he said, "would be to suggest the Bush administration in eight years did something right."

North Korea is an early test. Reacting to condemnation of its April 5 missile test, it kicked out nuclear inspectors and vowed to restart production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

A senior former U.S. government official, while praising Obama's overall foreign policy tone, said the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton erred in promising a tough response before the North Korean test, only to secure a weak United Nations statement afterward.

That's "an ominous indicator" for future U.S. policy, said the former official, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly.

Tone aside, Obama's first 100 days of foreign policy are less of a departure from Bush than they might seem.

He's kept up what already were good working ties with China; maintained economic and financial sanctions on Iran; made no dramatic new moves to deal with Sudan's Darfur region or other African crises; and he hasn't yet unveiled his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he's pledged to make a priority, despite the fact that Israel's new center-right government has shown no interest in negotiating with the Palestinians.

In his second term, Bush also embraced diplomacy with adversaries, albeit somewhat uneasily. He approved limited U.S. talks with Iran, and he authorized an ambitious effort to reach a denuclearization deal with North Korea that ultimately failed.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the changes that Obama has made go well beyond the stylistic, however.

"It isn't just tone that's changed. It's policy, on an astonishingly long list of issues," she said.

Mathews cited, among others, Obama's order to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 2010; his new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy; his embrace of negotiations to reach a new nuclear arms limitation treaty with Russia; his overturning of Bush's approach to global climate change; and his new policies toward the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Yet it's Obama's extending of a hand to leaders who've often showered contempt on Washington that's been the signature of his foreign policy so far.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives have lambasted such gestures as the handshake with Chavez.

Obama dismisses the idea that being diplomatic means being weak. "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," he said after the Western Hemisphere summit in Trinidad.

The public seems willing to wait and see whether Obama's approach will work. A Gallup poll in early April found that 61 percent of Americans approved of the president's handling of foreign affairs, about the same as his overall job approval rating.

Whether Obama can solve decades-old problems — or even assuage them — won't be known for some time.

His limited opening to Cuba — lifting restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans, and on U.S. telecommunications companies — won an offer from Cuban leader Raul Castro of wide-ranging talks.

Relations with Russia seem less poisonous than they were during Bush's final years. Disputes remain, however, over missile defense, how to handle Iran, and Russian designs on its neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine.

Iran poses the toughest test, as it did for Bush.

Obama repeatedly has offered direct negotiations to Tehran, while showing such signs of respect as using the country's official name, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iranian leaders' first response was largely negative, but they've since tempered their tone.

"If you listen to the noises, they are slightly different, at least as far as the religious leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is concerned," said Scharioth, the German ambassador. "There are some positive nuances."

Yet if history is any guide, talks with Iran over its nuclear program and other issues are likely to be long, slow and inconclusive.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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