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Guru America

- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 10, 2009

President Obama last week flew to Copenhagen to persuade the International Olympic Committee to award the 2016 games to Chicago, his hometown. He and first lady Michelle Obama delivered their now well-known inspirational stories about their Chicago neighborhood experiences. They even had Oprah in tow, along with a number of other Chicago big shots.

Danish crowds thronged to see the celebrity president. The paparazzi had a field day. After little more than an hour-long presidential pep talk, Mr. Obama's Chicago whirlwind entourage jetted back home on Air Force One. A few hours later, the IOC rejected Chicago's we-are-the-world bid in the first round.

The rebuff of the well-received rock star Mr. Obama was a minor affair. But the snub was emblematic of all sorts of larger problems with America's new therapeutic foreign policy.

In the last nine months, Mr. Obama has used his youthful charisma and nontraditional background to wow nations abroad with his message that a new, friendly White House can export its trademark "hope and change."

He has sent special envoys to dictators in Cuba and Syria. Yet the former has not granted more freedom to its oppressed people, and the latter has not stopped funding terrorists or sabotaging Lebanon.

It seems the more Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praises nice-guy Mr. Obama, the more he brags about plans to acquire rockets and develop a nuclear program (all the while jailing opponents).

Months ago, Mr. Obama also sent an olive branch to the Israel-hating, terrorist-sponsoring Iran. In reaction, the Iranians kept on building a new secret nuclear facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledges the regime now has the necessary expertise to build a bomb.

America recently sought an implicit grand deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: We would halt missile-defense plans in nearby Eastern Europe, which Russia believes is still in its sphere of influence; he then would pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program. Mr. Putin, of course, loved the missile-defense part of the deal but did nothing concrete to pressure his long-term Iranian friends. In the process, democratic but vulnerable Eastern European states have learned not to rely on the United States.

All these recent examples could be expanded, but suffice to say that former and present enemies now get more presidential attention than friends.

The president's much ballyhooed "reset button" for dealing with adversaries is apparently based on three assumptions: Too many nations abroad did not like us because of President George W. Bush. With Mr. Obama in office, they will once again be fond of America as they melt before his charisma, unique heritage and friendly outreach. As a result, the world at large will become a calmer, safer place guided by us.

Only one of these propositions is correct: More foreigners now really do say they like the United States better after Mr. Obama was elected in January. They apparently appreciate his heartfelt apologies for two centuries of American sins and his assurances that America is now an equal in the family of nations.

But the other two assumptions are terribly wrong. Dictators like those in Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela predated Mr. Bush. They hate the United States not just because of Mr. Bush's tough-guy rhetoric. The problem is that their agendas - getting nukes, bullying neighbors, taking back disputed land, supporting terrorists, jacking up oil prices and stifling political dissent - are not reconcilable with America's traditional vision of a democratic, free-market global system.

What keeps the so-called civilized world civilized each day is largely the willingness of the United States to invest vast resources to protect admirable but weaker nations. America keeps Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and democracies in Asia and Latin America safe from regional bad actors. That way these countries can help spread shared ideas about freedom and progress to less fortunate others.

And for all the tragedy in Afghanistan and Iraq, America removed the Middle East's two worst regimes - the Taliban's and Saddam Hussein's - and is trying to foster civil societies in their places that will benefit both the region and the world at large.

America's job is expensive, dangerous and unpopular. But our role largely explains a half-century of unprecedented global prosperity - and so far the absence of World War III.

In contrast, the more Mr. Obama blurs the difference between allies and enemies, the more he depresses the former and encourages the latter.

At the present rate, America will become ever more liked - and ever less respected. We saw a little of that in Copenhagen.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.