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.”
Stephen Hess, a veteran of White House staffs from Presidents Eisenhower to Nixon, said that Mr. Obama’s “mantra of admitting past U.S. errors is a subtle and effective play on anti-Bush feelings in Europe.”
This tactic “gives him cover for continuing some policies not notably different from Bush’s,” such as continuing the U.S. mission in Iraq and escalating U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bush’s preferred method was to hold out his beliefs and call on others to make the right choice, leading by getting out in front of those he wanted to bring along. Mr. Obama’s preference is to offer to work alongside those willing to work with him.
There were moments when Mr. Obama’s determination to show deference to other cultures - countering the image of America as a cowboy nation, uninterested in anything beyond its shores - bordered on the bizarre.
Asked in Strasbourg, France, about a proposed Afghan law that human rights groups say gives husbands the right to rape their wives, Mr. Obama condemned the law, but also said America should be “sensitive to local culture.” His bottom line was that in Afghanistan, the U.S. focus “is to defeat al Qaeda,” but the comment came across as a rationalization of abuse against women.
How Mr. Obama’s pitch in Europe will play in other theaters is a matter of dispute.
Ned Walker, an ambassador to both Egypt and Israel under President Clinton, said that while Mr. Obama “made the right moves” from a “Eurocentric” point of view on his trip, in the Middle East, there is risk involved with “appearing to be too soft, too willing to say, ‘mea culpa.’ ”
“While people challenge American arrogance, they also depend on American strength,” he said.
Michael Green, a former top White House adviser to Mr. Bush on Asian affairs now at Georgetown University, had similar concerns.
“I am not a fan of the U.S. president declaring the end of our pre-eminence. It may satisfy European ears, but not our allies in Asia, who still live in a dangerous world,” he said. “That said, he is right to be in listening mode, and it can be effective the way he is doing it.”
One young Turkish student reflected already nascent doubts about Mr. Obama during a town-hall event on the trip’s last day, wondering whether in practice, Mr. Obama will not be that different from “the Bush.”
“Some say just the face has changed, but [the] core is the same still,” he said to Mr. Obama. “[The U.S.] will have a fight with the Middle East, and they will have a fight with Iran.”
This question appeared to stump Mr. Obama, who listed Iraq and climate change as points of difference with Mr. Bush, but then stammered and made several long pauses when trying to explain that there were some things he would not change from the previous administration.
“It is true, though, that there are some areas where I, I, I agree with many of, uh, many of my friends in the United States who are on the opposite political party. For example, I agree that al Qaeda is an enormous threat, not just to the United States, but to the world,” Mr. Obama said.
“Four years from now, or eight years from now, you can look back, and you can see maybe what he did wasn’t that different, and hopefully, you’ll come to the conclusion that what I did made progress,” he said.
Mr. Patrick, from the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “The early signals from Obama’s trip are mixed.”
“The president certainly stole the show, adding to his already high popularity among foreign publics,” he said. “What he got in return for this new U.S. diplomatic flexibility is unclear.”