Obama's Worldwide Star Power Finds Limits
Skepticism Abroad Echoes Doubt at Home

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.

He asked Israel to ease its embargo of the Gaza Strip and freeze construction in West Bank settlements. He asked the Arab states to take steps toward "normalization" of ties with Israel. He made restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a top priority, announced plans to repair relations with Syria and said he would engage, rather than confront, Iran.

On Saturday, the White House announced that Obama plans to hold a three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York on Tuesday. It will be the first meeting between the two since Netanyahu took office.

"It is another sign of the president's deep commitment to comprehensive peace that he wants to personally engage at this juncture," special envoy George J. Mitchell said.

But progress has been slow, and the frustration has built on all sides -- among Israeli officials upset that he focused public demands on them; among Arabs, especially Palestinians, over his inability to wrest concessions from Israel; among human rights activists who say his idealism has not been borne out in action.

"I think there has been too little appreciation of realities and too much well-intentioned belief in the power of rhetoric and goodwill," said Mark Heller, principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Rice countered that Obama has made "significant progress on a wide array of issues" relating to the Middle East peace process, which she noted has been a difficult problem for "every prior administration."

But White House officials said they do not expect an agreement on settlements to be announced at the three-way meeting next week. The Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip has said that Mitchell's inability to negotiate that agreement with Israel proves Obama's shortcomings.

It is "proof of the failure of the Obama administration in helping the Palestinian people," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement, reflecting a broad skepticism among Arabs about whether Obama's overture to the Muslim world would make a difference on the ground.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have also expressed concern that his policy of engagement toward Iran is allowing too much time to pass without any steps to slow Tehran's nuclear program. Israel and other nations say they suspect that Iran is intent on building a weapon; Iran says its program is peaceful.

The United States has agreed to hold discussions with Iran and several other countries on Oct. 1, prompting fears in Israel and among critics of the administration that delay will inevitably result.

"It is not just here that the administration is starting to be mugged by reality," Heller said. "They used nice words and tried to engage . . . In the meantime, the scorecard on North Korea is not much better. On [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez it is not much better. We don't see reforms pushed in Cuba."

'Process of Disappointment'

Writing recently in Le Figaro, one of France's leading daily newspapers, Pierre Rousselin, one of the paper's top editors, offered an assessment that might still be considered heresy in Europe: "Barack Obama is not the Messiah."

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 Inácio 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.

Despite the warm greeting, the media's attention -- and as a result, the world's -- may be riveted on others.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be speaking shortly after Obama. In a preview of his speech Friday morning, Ahmadinejad told an anti-Israel rally in Tehran that the Holocaust was "a false pretext to create Israel" and said confronting the regime is a "national and religious duty."

That kind of rhetoric will put the spotlight squarely on Obama's policy of engagement and the upcoming talks between U.S. and Iranian officials in Istanbul.

"I don't think there's much likelihood that there will be an interaction" between the two leaders, Rice said. "There's no obvious venue in which that would occur, and certainly we have no meetings or anything of the sort planned."

A day later, Obama will chair a meeting of the 15-member Security Council, where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi , who gave a hero's welcome to the Lockerbie bomber, will be in attendance. An interaction between the two in the small council chambers could be awkward.

Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Obama's visit to the United Nations will be welcomed by most of the world's leaders.

"Most of them want him to succeed," Gelb said. "Now they are looking for him to put up the goods."

Schneider reported from Jerusalem. Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Glenn Kessler and correspondents Edward Cody in Paris and Juan Forero in Bogota and special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.

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