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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)

Obama's political struggles at home and his performance internationally have led some observers abroad to remark that a charismatic leader who seemed to be walking on water last year is only human, subject to the same bruising political battles as everybody else.

Several have noted that his effort to cultivate better relations with Russia has not produced concrete help from Moscow in the confrontation with Iran and that -- so far -- Israel has stiff-armed his plea for an end to Jewish settlements.

Obama has made good on his promises to begin winding down the Iraq war and to take steps to close Guantanamo. But at the same time, he has ramped up U.S. fighting in Afghanistan, a sore point with many Europeans and a difficult political issue for Obama's counterparts around the world. And despite shifting U.S. policy on climate change, the president is unlikely to see a global climate-change agreement materialize at the summit in Copenhagen later this year.

U.S. officials point to their success in getting Russia and China to back stiff new sanctions on North Korea as evidence of their success on the world stage.

The real test of attitudes in European capitals is likely to emerge in coming months, experts there say, particularly if Obama fails to make headway on his main foreign policy objectives or if the war in Afghanistan causes an unacceptable casualty rate among European soldiers attached to NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

"There's definitely going to be a process of disappointment that goes on internationally because U.S. interests are much more constant than many people recognize," said David Bosco, a professor of international politics at American University and the author of a new book about the U.N. Security Council. "But he remains quite popular abroad, and foreign leaders know that."

Surveys consistently show that Obama remains popular among people throughout Europe. A new poll by the German Marshall Fund put his approval rate at 77 percent across Europe and at 92 percent in Germany.

"I'm not criticizing the previous administration, because they were equally motivated, but I think the view [of other governments] was that by cooperating too closely with the Americans at that time tainted them," said one senior Obama official. "So I feel there is a greater receptivity now to engage the United States because of some of the decisions made by President Obama."

In Latin America, the aftermath of the coup in Honduras in June has prompted criticism of Obama's policies. Although the administration condemned the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya and said it would not recognize the government that took power, it has been unable to restore him to power.

Obama's election was welcomed by some of South America's most influential leaders, among them Brazilian President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva. But as in other corners of the world, the initial warm relations have cooled as the United States has pursued a Bush-era policy that consolidates the U.S. military presence in Colombia, Washington's closest ally on the continent.

A Spotlight in New York

In his speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama will lay out "his view of international cooperation in the 21st century and the need to move beyond old divisions," Rice told reporters Friday.

Rice's predecessor, John Bolton, predicted that "the greeting will be rapturous" for the new U.S. president. "It's a triumph for Obama personally, but I have yet to see his personal popularity translate into concrete steps forward," Bolton said.

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