Obama's Gripping Style Overseas

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

President Obama's weekend of summitry in Latin America will be remembered most for his cordial encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The images of that handshake between the smiling leaders spoke vividly to the changes Obama is bringing to U.S. relations abroad.

The affable exchange drew criticism from Dick Cheney and other Republicans as irresponsible and an equally stiff defense from the president and his spokesman as appropriate. The underlying question is whether Obama's new style will make the United States stronger or weaker as the administration confronts a series of intractable problems around the world.

Does Obama's desire to deal more respectfully with leaders hostile to the United States make him more or less likely to carry out effective negotiations to achieve his strategic goals? Will Americans conclude over time that his approach to global threats makes the United States safer than under George W. Bush's presidency or less safe?

No one should be surprised that Obama has adopted a different style and tone from his predecessor in his first meetings with world leaders. He signaled early in the presidential campaign that he would not stand on past diplomatic conventions, even if the foreign policy establishment disagreed. The moment of definition came on July 23, 2007, during a Democratic debate in South Carolina.

Obama was asked an explicit question. Would he, in his first year as president, be willing to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba? "I would," he replied. "And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."

Obama was roundly criticized for that answer by his rivals for the Democratic nomination -- most notably by Hillary Rodham Clinton, now his secretary of state. Sounding much like Gingrich did yesterday, she called him naive and irresponsible. Despite the attacks, Obama stood his ground, convinced that his critics were defending an old paradigm.

Having won the presidency, he has begun quickly to act on that conviction. He has signaled new openness toward diplomatic discussions with Iran, but with limits. He said in Europe that the United States had shown "arrogance, and been dismissive, even derisive" toward its allies, while noting that there has sometimes been a casual, insidious anti-Americanism among the Europeans.

Last week, he softened U.S. policy toward Cuba. In return, Cuban President Raúl Castro said last week that everything was now on the table, but Obama still prodded the Cubans to act first. The weekend meetings brought him face to face not only with Venezuela's Chávez but also with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. For that, he drew the wrath of Republicans at home.

"I find it disturbing the extent to which he has gone to Europe, for example, and seemed to apologize profusely in Europe, and then to Mexico, and apologize there and so forth," Cheney told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity in an interview.

Obama was asked Sunday whether he was worried about being perceived back home as soft. "We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was -- is -- that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness," he said. "The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense." Shaking hands with Chávez does nothing to endanger U.S. strategic interests, he argued. Nor does having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.

The president was also asked how he would define an Obama doctrine in foreign policy. After his trips to Europe and Latin America and his meetings with many world leaders, how should Americans and the rest of the world interpret what sets his approach apart from those of other presidents?

Obama was understandably reluctant at this early stage in his presidency to offer a lengthy or overly precise answer. But what he said underscored that his early steps are very much in reaction to former president George W. Bush's style of interacting with the world. Obama said he believes that the United States remains the most powerful nation in the world but that it cannot solve problems by itself. That means listening as well as talking when working with other nations. He said the United States should stand for a universal set of values, live those values whenever possible -- and acknowledge mistakes when they occur.

Obama defended his approach as an improvement on the past. He said he is prepared to jettison doctrines and practices that now seem outdated, or that failed to produce real results. But he said there were limits to what he could achieve.

"In Europe, people believe in our plan for Afghanistan, but their politics are still such that it's hard for leaders to want to send more troops into Afghanistan," he told reporters on Sunday. "That's not going to change because I'm popular in Europe or leaders think that I've been respectful towards them. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means that among the population there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done."

Obama sees irrefutable logic in all this. "On this one, I think I'm right," he said Sunday -- the same posture he took when he was criticized during the campaign. His popularity at home remains strong, and it is far too early to know what Americans made of his performance over the weekend.

The opening rounds of his diplomatic outreach to the world provide no real answers to the bigger questions. In time, it will be clearer whether Obama's approach produces different results with Iran or North Korea or elsewhere. He benefits now from the backlash against Bush's presidency. In time, his foreign policy will have to stand on its own record.

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