- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

President Obama has dramatically shifted the tone of U.S. foreign policy in his first 100 days in office, apologizing for what he views as past misdeeds and reaching out to longtime adversaries.

So far, there are few concrete achievements, and critics say the president has been too quick to embrace foes such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Others say the U.S. image abroad has improved significantly and established a basis for future progress.

Already it is clear that Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy agenda is ambitious and his worldview very different from that of his predecessor.

If the defining phrase of former President George W. Bush was, “If you are not with us, you are against us,” Mr. Obama has made it clear that, in his eyes, the United States has no permanent enemies, that most conflicts have shades of gray and that other countries, like the U.S., have the right to act in their own interests.

The question now is whether countries such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela will reciprocate his overtures and change policies that have hurt the United States and it allies.

“President Obama has made an impressive start in changing America’s image and the goals and concepts that shape the operational realities of its national security strategy,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a longtime foreign policy and military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“He also took a series of actions that demonstrated that he was far more of a pragmatist and realist than President Bush, far less ideological, and far more committed to proactive diplomacy,” Mr. Cordesman said. “While any lasting change depends on his successes in the years that follow, a range of polls show that President Obama was able to reverse much of America’s lost prestige and popularity in a matter of months.”

Mr. Cordesman pointed out, however, that “changes in substance are a different issue,” and they are not likely to take place at least until a year into Mr. Obama’s tenure, when he “can present his first true budget to Congress.”

Meeting Chavez

Mr. Obama has sparked some controversy among U.S. conservatives by talking publicly about past U.S. mistakes on overseas trips. He has also gone out of his way to appear sensitive to other cultures and traditions.

Freedom and democracy - whose promotion was a cornerstone of Mr. Bush’s policies - have not been a priority, and Mr. Obama has hardly mentioned either, except in reference to Cuba. Mr. Obama, who recently lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money there, indicated that the Cuban government would have to do something on the democracy and human rights front before the U.S. would lift the trade embargo in place for more than half a century.

During the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Mr. Obama acknowledged the “broad applicability” of freedom and democracy, but also said that “other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories.”

“If we are practicing what we preach, and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand - that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues,” he said.

At that summit, Mr. Obama had friendly exchanges with - and shook hands with - Mr. Chavez, who has had a strained relationship with Washington and called Mr. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations in 2007.

Some Republicans responded with anger.

“It sends a terrible signal to all of Latin America and a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News. “I don’t think there is any downside to talking to him, but I think being friends, taking a picture that clearly looks like they are buddies, hurts in all of Latin America.”

Mr. Obama, noting how reporters and photographers shadowed Mr. Chavez, said shaking hands and exchanging polite comments did not mean that he agrees with the Venezuelan’s policies.

“It means that, where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we are pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they are cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem,” Mr. Obama said.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said the U.S. “ought not to be afraid to talk to people,” and if adversaries fail to respond to Washington’s overtures, the world will be asking “Who’s at fault here?” which will place the burden on those countries.

Iran, N. Korea?

Iran has been sending mixed signals about meeting with the U.S. since the Obama administration dropped a previous U.S. condition that Tehran suspend enriching uranium. North Korea has shot off a missile, expelled arms inspectors and threatened to restart its nuclear reactor.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the top Middle East expert in the Bush White House, said the Obama administration is “making a mistake” by not saying that “all options are on the table” in its public statements on Iran. That is a phrase often used by presidents and implies that the use of force should not be ruled out.

“They are obviously going to try to negotiate a deal with the regime, and will use the threat of sanctions as a lever,” Mr. Abrams said. “It isn’t enough. The threat of force should always be in the background.”

Mr. Obama, in contrast to his predecessor, has sought to signal that he is not going to promote the overthrow of the Iranian government. He and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton refer to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s official name, offering implicit recognition of its legitimacy.

While Iran appears to be making an effort to understand the administration’s intentions and is still weighing its options, North Korea has misread Washington’s overtures for direct talks as a sign of weakness, diplomats and analysts say.

“President Obama has managed the North Korea issue very well, [but] Pyongyang has played things terribly - miscalculation, misperception and internal politics are driving [North Korean] policy in a dangerous and self-destructive direction,” said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York and a former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Northeast Asia.

He noted that the reasons for North Korea’s actions most likely have to do with succession. Leader Kim Jong-il reportedly suffered a stroke last summer, and recent television footage showed him much thinner and frailer than he used to be.

“The next move is Pyongyang’s,” Mr. Revere said. “If the North’s recent rhetoric is any guide, we are in for a very difficult period - military incidents, more missile launches, and even another nuclear weapons test cannot be ruled out, even if these would further isolate North Korea. The patience and solidarity of the United States and its allies and partners will be tested in the months ahead.”

Relations with Russia look more promising.

During his first overseas trip, Mr. Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of 20 largest economies in London. Both the U.S. and Russia have repeatedly emphasized their desire to “reset” their relations, after serious tensions in the last few years. They are about to begin negotiations on an accord to replace a soon-expiring treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama also appears on track to fulfill promises to withdraw from Iraq by 2011, although a recent uptick in violence has raised concerns that the timetable may change.

“It has been impressive to see the administration move quickly to embed U.S. forces with both the Kurdish and federal Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, preventing a clash between those forces in March,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This willingness to ‘surge’ locally showed that the administration was prepared to invest ongoing effort to stabilize a part of Iraq that was backsliding.”

Afghanistan, Pakistan

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s most daunting task is making progress in the war in Afghanistan while keeping Pakistan from collapse. He has called Afghanistan and Pakistan part of the same challenge of fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban and backed a Senate bill co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, to authorize $1.5 billion a year for Pakistan over the next five years.

“He was forced to rush his decisions before all of the necessary planning and budgeting could be completed, given that the war had reached a crisis point, and was effectively being lost at the ideological and political level,” Mr. Cordesman said. “Pakistan was acting as a sanctuary for jihadist movements, and action had to be taken immediately to deal with the 2009 [election] campaign season in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Mr. Obama sent an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and appointed Richard C. Holbrooke, an accomplished diplomat often called a “bulldozer,” as his special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. That appointment was made on Mr. Obama’s third day in office, along with the naming former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A spate of other envoys have also been named to deal with issues ranging from climate change to Eurasian energy.

Mr. Mitchell’s task has been complicated by the election of right-wing politician Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister.

“The administration has yet to define a policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues, which is understandable,” Mr. Abrams said. “Israel’s new government is being given a chance to get organized and define its own policies. This may reflect a pragmatic approach by the administration, which is a very good sign. There are efforts to draw it into a confrontation with Netanyahu over settlement policy, but I hope the administration will be too smart for that.”

During her first visit to the Middle East, Mrs. Clinton publicly disagreed with Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated statements that he would not be pursuing Palestinian statehood. She insisted that the administration will not change its mind.

Because Mr. Obama has been deeply engaged in efforts to deal with the global recession, Mrs. Clinton has taken the lead on most foreign-policy matters. Her first overseas trip - to Asia - garnered media coverage around the world. She has also impressed her foreign colleagues with her knowledge and understanding of issues she had not dealt with in depth previously.

“She has done a very good job, but the test will be whether she can be seamless with the president,” said Mr. Baker, whose success was in part attributed to his closeness to President George H.W. Bush. “As secretary of state, you can’t succeed if foreign leaders perceive any daylight between you and the president.”

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