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E.J. Dionne Jr. on Europeans' reality check on Obama

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, December 14, 2009

PARIS Europeans are coming to terms with the fact that President Obama is not a miracle worker and with the reality that everything he does is not magic.

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Oh, yes, most Europeans are still happy Obama is president. They remain fascinated by him and grateful for the direction of his policies.

A French diplomatic veteran ticked off all the good news: Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo, the ban on torture, the continued withdrawal from Iraq, his reaching out to Iran and North Korea, engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the quest for nuclear disarmament, the effort to "reset" relations with Russia. And there is America's new stance on global warming, on display in Copenhagen. This repositioning matters not just to elites but also to a rank-and-file green movement emerging as an alternative on the center-left to social democratic parties, notably in France and Germany.

But these are the days of European second thoughts: Obama is still interesting, he's still not George W. Bush, but what can he show for his efforts? His Israeli-Palestinian initiative has gone nowhere. The fruits of his overtures to Iran, Russia and North Korea are far from obvious. Where is the climate change legislation that was supposed to pass Congress?

And why did Obama skip the anniversary celebrations of the Berlin Wall's fall? Okay, Europeans say, we understand that he sees that the future lies in Asia, but must he rub it in? Can't he find one European leader to bond with?

In the midst of such complaints and questions, I listened with a group of Americans and Europeans to a live broadcast of Obama's Oslo speech before the opening of a conference organized by the French Institute of International Relations. For me, the address was Obama's answer to his critics, American and European.

To begin with, the president reminded us why he had seized the imaginations of so many in the first place. The speech was commonly described as a defense of "just war," and it was -- a rigorous, unblinking argument for why violence and the threat of violence can be necessary on behalf of the right and the good.

But even more, the speech revived a school of foreign policy thinking that allied realism with idealism. Obama's address was suffused with a candor about the imperfections of human nature taught by Reinhold Niebuhr, his favorite theologian, and with an insistence that human rights and social justice are not simply desirable in themselves but necessary for stability.

His lengthy tribute to heroes in struggles for freedom and his argument that "peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please" warmed human rights activists and even some neoconservatives. But this was paired with the assertion that diplomacy, even with brutal regimes, needs to be seen as part of an effort to "balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time." And it showed just how much Obama respects the realist tradition that, to make his point, he was willing to praise Richard Nixon for his opening to China.

But Obama's realism encompasses social justice, and he nodded to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. "True peace is not just freedom from fear," Obama said, directly channeling FDR, "but freedom from want." Last came his religiously inspired insistence that the idea of "love" is neither romantic nor naive but provides the "spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls" and helps us not to despair in the face of history's ambiguities. It was especially moving that in supposedly secular Europe, the "spark of the divine" is what won Obama applause.

It turns out that there is an Obama doctrine based on a quest for moral balance. Its central insistence is that it's possible to be tough-minded and idealistic, to adhere to a realism rooted in values.

One speech will not resolve Europe's minor bout of Obama malaise. A comedown was inevitable, said one of my interlocutors, since "he seemed to promise the impossible, and because he was so eloquent, we believed him." And Obama still has many defenders, including former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, who said Europeans should help, not criticize, him.

Every realist understands the importance of execution, and the president has work to do on the diplomatic practice of Obamaism. But the theory is sound, and the promise is still there.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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