Obama Initiates Sweeping Foreign Policy Changes; Ho-Hum Response at Home

April 28, 2009 - 4:52 AM
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Washington (AP) - In just 100 days, President Barack Obama has broken the American foreign policy mold.
 
He's turned the focus of the anti-terror war away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan, lifted decades-old restrictions on Cuban-Americans' visiting and sending money to their homeland, moved to reverse a slide in relations with Russia and reached out to tell Muslims worldwide that the U.S. is not their enemy. He's declared repeatedly he knows the United States isn't immune to mistakes.
 
The scope, sweep and breadth of the new president's engagement abroad -- two major trips, significant policy directives -- are dizzying, and all the more so given he took office in the midst of the country's worst economic and financial crises in decades.
 
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says Obama has initiated a "vast diplomatic agenda." And, he suggested in a recent opinion column in The Washington Post, "The possibility of comprehensive solutions is unprecedented."
 
That doesn't guarantee success.
 
Failure could lurk in the unforeseeable future. One hundred days are just a snapshot as the horses leave the starting gate. The finish line is distant.
 
All in all, "it's a risky gamble," says Chris Dolan, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "It's a coordinated, selective strategy of trying to improve the U.S. image, to show humility, banking in return on more cooperation from the rest of the world."
 
While the world is paying rapt attention, there's been an initial ho-hum response at home.
 
Does it signal an American public that was ahead of its most recent leaders, believing, as Obama does, that their country's image abroad has been badly tarnished, especially during President George W. Bush's eight years? Does the muted response perhaps reflect that Obama has taken on so many foreign policy tasks at once that potential critics are flummoxed about how to respond? Or are Americans simply so deeply absorbed with their frightening economic prospects that they aren't paying attention?
 
Whatever the answer, Obama's absorption with foreign policy "puts him in the mold of a grand strategist," says Andrea Hatcher, professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "The scope of what he has done far exceeds what was expected."
 
Unable to predict an outcome, students of what Obama is trying to accomplish are racing to keep current the catalog of what he already has set in motion. In his first three months, he has:
 
--Set a 2011 end date for American involvement in the unpopular Iraq war, while increasing troop levels in Afghanistan for the fight against al-Qaida and a resurgent Taliban. He named veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke to serve as special envoy to the region.
 
--Appointed former Sen. George Mitchell, famous for negotiating a peace deal in Northern Ireland, as envoy to the Middle East, signaling a determination to refocus on an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians. Most recently he invited Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders to the White House for separate talks on a peace plan. Jordan's King Abdullah II already has paid a visit.
 
--For the first time, put an American negotiator at the table along with European nations working to convince Iran that it should back away from its perceived drive to build a nuclear weapon.
 
--Lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans' returning to their homeland and on the amount of money they can send back to families still on the communist-run island. Obama has left the impression he is ready to do even more to repair the half-century of estrangement should the Castro brothers improve their treatment of dissidents.
 
--Shaken hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, disregarding the leftist president's vitriolic attacks on the U.S. during the Bush years.
 
--Made known that China's poor human rights record, while still important to Washington, is not the defining issue in the countries' relationship.
 
--Reprimanded North Korea for its test launch of what was seen as a ballistic missile capable of carrying one of its handful or nuclear warheads toward the United States or one of its allies. At the same time, he stressed a determination to bring the North back into negotiations to rid the divided Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.
 
--Sought to reset relations with Russia to reverse a dangerous slide under Bush. Obama's effort turns on an offer of negotiations on a nuclear reduction treaty to replace the START II pact that expires soon.
 
--Gone out of his way on important and early travel to Europe and Latin America to acknowledge what he viewed as past U.S. errors in relations with both regions. He also conceded that fault for the deep recession gripping the globe had its origins, in part at least, in unregulated greed among America's financial barons and freewheeling, credit-card fueled spending by U.S. consumers.
 
--Ordered the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closed within 12 months and rejected interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration that have been viewed broadly as torture.
 
--Most dramatically, released memos from the Bush Justice Department that gave legal cover for "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Obama said he would not rule out a decision by his Justice Department to launch an investigation of those who issued those legal rulings.
 
It's quite a start, but there's a long way to go.
 
Will Obama be overwhelmed by what Kissinger says is a broad diplomatic agenda that is still fuzzy about how it can be achieved?
 
In other words, it's easy to set lofty goals, but much harder to bring them to fruition.