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Shared interests define Obama's world
In engaging adversaries, the president sometimes unsettles allies

By Scott Wilson
Monday, November 2, 2009

President Obama is applying the same tools to international diplomacy that he once used as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, constructing appeals to shared interests and attempting to bring the government's conduct in line with its ideals.

Obama's approach to the world as a community of nations, more alike than different in outlook and interest, has elevated America's standing abroad and won him the Nobel Peace Prize. But on the farthest-reaching U.S. foreign policy challenges, he is struggling to translate his own popularity into American influence, even with allies that have celebrated his break from the Bush administration's emphasis on military strength, unilateral action and personal chemistry.

Conservatives think Obama is undermining U.S. power abroad by failing to recognize the degree to which countries, whether allies or adversaries, are immune to appeals to shared interests. And critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum say Obama has too often muted his public support for American ideals -- notably human rights and democracy -- in his pursuit of common goals.

The limits of Obama's cool, interests-based approach are visible in Afghanistan, where European allies continue to resist sending additional combat troops to fight an increasingly unpopular war, and in his attempts to assemble a common front against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. In Afghanistan, his efforts to reinvigorate the relationships neglected by the previous administration have yielded few tangible results on the battlefield. In Iran, months of careful, culturally sensitive diplomacy have met with a recalcitrance that U.S. conservatives say will never change.

"He's said that from the very beginning we're going to reverse the perception that the United States is arrogant, unilateral and doesn't want any one else's assistance," said William Cohen, the former Republican senator from Maine who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration. "He's said to others, 'We want your help -- now what can you do?' Now let's see what will be done."

Bridging interests

Obama's commitment to work within a set of international organizations and treaties is an echo of the last sitting U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Woodrow Wilson, except that in Obama's world the United States is more of an equal partner with other nations and less of an unquestioned leader.

As a community organizer, Obama worked to identify the common interests of neighborhoods suffering through the economic aftermath of plant closings and of the politicians elected to represent them. The role requires patience -- a word used consistently by his advisers in regard to reviving Middle East peace talks or reaching out to Iran -- and cultivating a lower profile than the other parties involved.

"There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible given inevitable differences among nations," Obama told an ebullient outdoor audience in Prague in April as he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. "But make no mistake: We know where that road leads. When nations and people allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens."

The speech was the first of four addresses that effectively won Obama the Nobel Peace Prize last month for creating what committee members called "a new climate in international politics." In an address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama told the gathered leaders: "Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests.

"But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared."

On some of the most challenging foreign policy issues that Obama faces, however, his appeal to the shared goals of economic prosperity, national security and a healthy environment has been overtaken by the stronger pull of national interests. This has been true in his dealings with allies and adversaries alike.

During his April trip to Europe, Obama told the Group of 20 summit that he "came here to listen and not to lecture" at a time of economic crisis. But he was unable to secure pledges of additional stimulus spending from such economic powers as France and Germany, historically fearful of inflation.

At the NATO summit that followed, Obama could not win commitments from allies to send significant numbers of additional combat troops to Afghanistan, a resistance among elected European leaders that remains as he considers whether to send as many as 44,000 more U.S. troops.

The Iran challenge

And for months Obama has applied his world-as-community approach to Iran. The promised outreach involves France, a traditional ally, and Russia, a sometimes erratic partner, as he undertakes the first direct diplomacy with the Islamic republic since its founding revolution three decades ago.

The effort began when Obama, two months after taking office, delivered a surprise message to the Iranian people and leadership on the occasion of Nowruz, the traditional Persian new year. He said the United States seeks "a future where the old divisions are overcome."

In addressing the Muslim world from Cairo University less than three months later, Obama said that "no single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons" and declared that Iran has the right "to access peaceful nuclear power" if it lives up to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iranians went to the polls weeks later in balloting widely perceived to be rigged in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama condemned the ensuing government crackdown on street protests but declined to call for the government's overthrow, despite public pressure in the United States to do so.

At the same time, Obama sought help from Russia, which has large financial interests in Iran and has resisted stiffer sanctions against its government. His administration has appealed to Russia's interest in preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon, namely that allowing it to do so would destabilize the Middle East, drive up world oil prices and potentially stir up Islamic militancy in the Caucasus.

"He puts a lot of faith in his persuasiveness and has injected humility as a new element in U.S. foreign policy," said Lee H. Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who served for years as the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It drives a lot of Americans through the wall. But the idea behind it is, 'How do you best get countries to do what you want them to do?' It remains to be seen how successful he is."

In September, taking a tangible step to improve relations with Russia, Obama abandoned Bush-era plans to station a ballistic-missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland designed to protect the United States from Iran's arsenal. The Russian government had for years complained that the system posed a security threat to the country, already squeezed by NATO's expansion, in a region it has long considered part of its sphere of influence.

Obama announced a scaled-back system that he said would better protect Eastern Europe from attack. The Czech and Polish governments accepted the new plans last month, but conservatives argue that the shift only rewarded an aggressive Russian government to win its help with Iran.

"This was a clear signal that Washington is more interested in currying favor with its strategic competitors than in building or even maintaining its alliances with its traditional allies," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There is no evidence the Obama doctrine is reaping benefits. On the contrary, the United States is increasingly viewed as weak and unreliable by some of its traditional allies."

U.S. and Iranian officials held the highest-level talks in three decades in early October, and later that month they agreed to a plan that appeared to mark a victory for Obama's approach.

Under the draft agreement, Iran would ship most of its low-grade nuclear fuel to Russia for further enrichment so it could be sent back to Iran later for use as medical isotopes. The deal, conceived by the Obama administration, would leave too little uranium inside Iran to produce a nuclear weapon in the short term.

But last week Iran's government reversed course in a sign that its own domestic calculations are still exerting more influence than Obama's brand of international diplomacy.

"There is no naivete here," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications who helped Obama write many of his foreign policy speeches. "The president knows that nations do not always live up to their responsibilities -- otherwise this would be easy. But if you walk away from the basic bargain that all nations have rights and responsibilities, then you have less ability to marshal the cooperation to resolve these issues, too."

Pragmatism and values

The rights and responsibilities of nations and cultures was a theme at the core of Obama's June speech in Cairo, the most celebrated of his four major addresses. It also recalled the bargain he argued for in Chicago: that the right to healthy neighborhoods came with the responsibility to look after them.

The argument's pragmatism colored other elements of his address. To an audience of students, politicians, clerics and academics, Obama argued for democracy on practical grounds, saying "governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure."

But critics on the left and right have accused the president of sacrificing some of the U.S. principles he has publicly celebrated on behalf of a diplomacy that administration officials often describe as willing to accept progress if a perfect outcome is not possible. Rahm Emanuel, who represented Chicago in Congress before becoming Obama's chief of staff, called him "a realist with a set of ideas."

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama "has a very strong aversion of anything that smells of preaching to others from a position of moral superiority, and that sometimes has caused the administration to pull back from direct criticism of dictatorships and their abuses."

"There's an appropriate reaction to the crusading moralism of the Bush administration, but it sometimes goes too far in the direction of hoping that reasoned and quiet persuasion will convince cynical and self-interested authoritarian governments to change their ways," Malinowski said.

Obama also has made it clear through Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he does not intend to lecture China, which is among the largest holders of U.S. debt and an essential player in any agreement on climate change, over its human rights record. He will travel to Beijing this month -- putting off a meeting with the Dalai Lama until he returns to Washington -- in part to seek Chinese support in talks with Iran and in Afghanistan.

And last month the Obama administration outlined a new policy on Sudan that calls for a mix of incentives and potential punishments to entice the government in Khartoum to stop the violence in Darfur and preserve a tenuous peace in the south. As a candidate, Obama called for a no-fly zone over Darfur that the U.S. military would help enforce, an idea absent from the new strategy.

"In France and in the United States, we have a particular conception of democracy but we cannot impose it," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to Washington. "But that doesn't mean we have to give up on human rights. On the contrary, we will insist on them wherever necessary. But we must do so in a way that takes into account their customs and national interests."

Vimont continued: "France has always believed in this, and we're seeing familiarity with what President Obama is saying. This is a point that President Obama must explain to American public opinion."

Balancing friend and foe

The line between domestic and foreign policy blurs in Obama's West Wing. Administration officials say Obama thinks America's strength originates from its economic health, military capability and democratic values -- but only to the extent the country lives up to them. He has frequently held his own story up in his travels abroad as an example of American mistakes and progress, and as a community organizer, Obama advised neighborhood residents to treat city officials with respect in order to always occupy the moral high ground.

Many in the Middle East criticized the Bush administration's call for democratic rights in the Arab world at a time when it was practicing what the International Committee of the Red Cross described as torture and holding Muslim terrorism suspects without trial at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama abolished torture in interrogation, and he promised to close the prison by Jan. 22, 2010, a deadline he is struggling to meet as only a few countries have agreed to take some of the more than 200 suspects detained there.

"There's a traditional ability to project power, but then there is something the president adds to that -- our values and our leadership," said Obama adviser Rhodes. "Our ability to extend civil rights at home, for example, is a foreign policy tool and part of our power that will do far more than any words we might say about promoting democratic change."

But in reaching out to adversaries, Obama has unsettled allies, particularly in parts of the world where the United States has few other friends.

Obama has eased travel restrictions to Cuba and made it easier for U.S. companies to do business on the island, calling on Raúl Castro's government to improve its human rights record in return. But he has not pushed Congress to pass a languishing free-trade agreement with Colombia, a top priority of President Álvaro Uribe, who recently agreed to allow the U.S. military to operate from Colombian bases. That decision enraged Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and more moderate governments in the region, costing Colombia billions of dollars in trade.

Obama also has spoken candidly to Israel's government, calling its West Bank settlements "illegitimate" while asking Arab nations to make a series of diplomatic and economic gestures toward the Jewish state. His call for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction -- a Palestinian condition for opening peace talks -- has so far been ignored.

Although Obama has said U.S. support for Israel would never flag, the relationship promoted by the previous White House, where a picture of Bush and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was for a time among the first on display in the West Wing, has become one that a foreign diplomat described as "no longer intimate." A recent Jerusalem Post poll found that just 4 percent of Israelis consider Obama "pro-Israel."

"Our interests are the same with our allies and our adversaries," Rhodes said. "We're saying the same thing to everybody. Our interests are the same no matter what country we're talking to."

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