Obama's Worldwide Star Power Finds Limits

Muslims in Hyderabad, India, watch a live broadcast of President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo in which he spoke of "a new beginning" in U.S.-Islam ties.
Muslims in Hyderabad, India, watch a live broadcast of President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo in which he spoke of "a new beginning" in U.S.-Islam ties. (By Mahesh Kumar -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eight months into his presidency, Barack Obama has become a global celebrity, far more popular abroad than he is at home and sometimes eclipsing foreign leaders among their own people.

He has sought to use his renown to repair America's image in the world, extending an "open hand" in major speeches on trips to more than a dozen countries. Obama has restarted talks to limit nuclear weapons, begun engaging adversaries, helped orchestrate the world's response to economic collapse and reversed Bush-era policies that had angered allies and distanced the United States from the world community.

But just as his domestic honeymoon has clearly ended, international events have demonstrated the limits of Obama's personal charm.

As he takes the stage to address the United Nations for the first time Wednesday, Obama will face world leaders -- adversaries and allies alike -- whose rebukes of the new American president serve as reminders that the world's differences with the United States transcend who is in the White House.

European nations have refused to send significant numbers of new troops to aid the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. Few countries have agreed to accept detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Scottish officials ignored Obama's plea to keep the Lockerbie bomber in prison, and U.S. efforts to head off a coup in Honduras were ineffective. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons, Iran may be doing so, and Middle East leaders have rebuffed Obama's efforts at peacemaking.

"When he came into office, there was kind of a sigh of relief around the world because he wasn't Bush," said Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "What was he going to do to solve these problems? They haven't seen that yet."

Obama's top foreign policy advisers say the president's popularity abroad has helped to clear a path for substantial policy achievement by ushering in a new era of respect for the United States in other countries.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview that the administration's conscious decision to break with the past -- and specifically with the presidency of George W. Bush -- has altered the dynamics of world politics.

"It's palpable every day with a new openness and a new willingness to listen and respect our positions and our policies, a readiness to cooperate even where in the past we have met resistance," she said. "Not just change in tone and reaction, but change in policy that has been noted and recognized."

Yet even staunch Obama defenders such as Rice concede that the expectations for the president abroad were exceedingly high.

"What did you expect?" she said. "The president gets elected and all of a sudden, you know, we reach nirvana in short order? I mean, that's a little bit ridiculous."

Unappreciated Realities

Obama began building expectations for peace in the Middle East in the first months of his presidency and raised hopes even higher with a June speech in Cairo in which he pledged that he could make things happen.


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