Obama tries out role as apologizer-in-chief

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ISTANBUL | America, to hear President Obama tell it, is an occasionally arrogant nation struggling with shameful legacies of racism and discrimination, one that bears a large share of the blame for the world's economic and climate crises. Oh, and our train service is lousy.

Mr. Obama's just-concluded eight-day trip abroad, his first major international foray, also marked the debut of a more humble foreign-policy style, one that sought to use cultural concessions and admissions of past mistakes to disarm other countries before challenging their own policies and attitudes toward America.

Repeatedly on a trip that included stops across Europe and in Iraq, Mr. Obama tried to pre-empt criticism of the United States by expressing it first himself - a sharp break from the practice of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama told Europeans that “America has shown arrogance” toward their continent, conceded that the United States bears much of the blame for the world's economic plight, and said in a speech broadcast throughout the Middle East that America is still dealing with its “darker” legacies of discrimination and mistreatment of minorities.

David Axelrod, one of the president's closest advisers, said Mr. Obama's approach is one “he's always believed in.”

“He's always been someone who's brought people of different views together by trying to reach a higher level of candor and honesty and understanding. And that's worked well for him,” Mr. Axelrod said during an interview in Istanbul.

“He offers these [concessions] from a basis of pride in the country. But part of the pride we have in our country is that we're always seeking that more perfect union, always addressing our own imperfections,” he said. “That's a good quality, but by acknowledging that, it opens the door to be able to say, 'Now you have your responsibilities. You have your challenges,' ” he said.

But some fear that this approach plays into the hands of those around the world who are rooting for the world's lone superpower, already weakened by military and economic stresses, to be taken down a peg.

“From my perspective as a conservative, feel-good foreign policy is not leadership. It is arrogant and naive at the same time,” said Mary Matalin, a longtime political adviser to Mr. Bush and his father.

“And from my perspective as an American citizen, it is demoralizing. He is going to pound our sense of exceptionalism out of us if it's the last thing he does,” she said.

Mr. Obama's self-critique went beyond military and economic matters. In Turkey, he called Mr. Bush's failure to sign the Kyoto global warming pact a “mistake.” In Germany, he admitted to being “jealous” of Europe's high-speed rail networks and the brevity of its political campaigns.

But each concession was typically followed by a specific request or challenge to his hosts to work with America or to understand the U.S. perspective.

Mr. Obama called on the global economic powers to unite behind his leadership on an approach to the crisis. He told NATO allies that they needed to do more in Afghanistan, and advisers made clear that the White House is expecting more than just the 5,000 soldiers and trainers, most of them noncombat forces, committed at the NATO summit, and soon.

The president pivoted from his admission of American arrogance to rebuke “insidious” anti-Americanism in Europe and challenged Turkey to give its own minorities the same rights that the United States eventually granted to blacks and American Indians.

Stewart Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Program on International Institutions and Global Governance, called Mr. Obama's approach “a calculated wager that greater U.S. diplomatic flexibility will translate into more effective collective action.”

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