100 Days of Latitude

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Inter Press Service

100 Days of Latitude

by
Jim Lobe

U.S. President Barack Obama looks on at a town hall meeting held at Fox Senior High School in Arnold, Missouri, April 29, 2009. Wednesday marks Obama's 100th day in office. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

WASHINGTON - One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama appears to have largely succeeded in putting U.S. ties with the rest of the world on a significantly more positive track, even as the foreign policy changes he has made thus far have been more rhetorical than substantive.

While Obama has delivered on various campaign commitments - such as closing the Guantanamo detention facility within a year of his inauguration, re-affirming his intent to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by 2011, and lifting restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to their homeland - it remains unclear how far and how fast he is willing to push on key policy issues, such as the Middle East or climate change, once he runs into serious resistance.

Nor is it clear yet how committed he will be to the remarkable number of new policy directions he has announced since taking office, but which remain under formal review or have only just begun to be explored or implemented. These include engaging diplomatically with Iran and Syria, pressing urgently for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, conditioning future military aid for a Taliban-threatened Pakistan, and working for "a world without nuclear weapons".

"I think the tone and the atmosphere are on target and so the table has been set on many different fronts. But the hard part is implementation and there's no question that on some of the many fronts, Obama will not get he wants," according to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

"On many of these issues, he will, first, have to overcome both domestic and international resistance and, second, he will have to do triage and set priorities, because, at this point his plate is too full, and resources are too constrained," he added.

Still, the sheer number of new foreign policy initiatives that Obama has announced - in the face of a historic economic crisis that has necessarily consumed most of his time since he took the oath of office - has clearly conveyed a message of change, if not yet the concrete reality.

Obama, whose domestic approval ratings are hovering around 65 percent, has no doubt benefited from the mere fact that he is not George W. Bush, whose unilateralism, which reached its zenith in the 2003 Iraq invasion, and cowboy swagger brought U.S. standings in world opinion to by far their lowest point in modern polling history.

Indeed, just before he actually took office Jan. 20, an average of two out of three respondents in a BBC survey of opinion in 17 countries around the globe said they anticipated that U.S. relations with the rest of the world were bound to improve under Obama, prompting one of survey's consultants, Steven Kull of the Washington-based Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), to question whether could maintain "this enthusiasm given the complexities he now faces."

Judging from the rapturous popular welcome he received earlier this month in Europe - next to the Arab world, the region most critical of Bush's reign - as he made his way from London to Istanbul, as well as the warmth shown him by Latin American leaders, even including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad two weeks later, it appears that the enthusiasm has endured.

Indeed, a Harris poll released in early April found that Obama enjoyed a much higher approval rating (80 percent) in the five most populous western European countries than any of their own, and that, of 19 leaders with whom he was compared, only the Dalai Lama approached him in public esteem (74 percent).

Even the Arab world, whose respondents in the BBC poll were most sceptical that Obama's election would bring positive change, has shown greater receptivity, according to one recent Dubai-based poll. More than four in 10 of its respondents said they had gained a higher opinion of the U.S. after three months with Obama in office.

Whether that goodwill will translate into greater actual cooperation with Washington, however, not only remains to be seen, but also depends a great deal on what specific policies Obama chooses to pursue and how hard he will pursue them.

Indeed, thus far he has hewed to what 'Newsweek International' editor Fareed Zakaria has called a "centrist" course that in many respects falls far short of the kind of decisive break from Bush (whose foreign policy moderated significantly in his second term) that many abroad - and many of Obama's core constituents in the Democratic Party - expected.

Thus, as noted by John Feffer of the left-wing Foreign Policy in Focus, when Obama "retired the aggressive phrase 'global war on terrorism' in favour of 'overseas contingency operations,' it didn't fundamentally change U.S. counter-terrorism policy." Indeed, some of Bush's staunchest supporters, including neo-conservative thinker Robert Kagan, has publicly praised his performance.

His deployment of 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as well as the continued use of Predator drone attacks against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan -even if accompanied by promises of more non-military aid to its government - follow a trajectory that Bush and the Pentagon had initiated well before the November elections.

And while he has repeatedly made clear that, in contrast to Bush, he is determinedly multilateralist and sees the United Nations and international law as critical sources of legitimacy for U.S. action, he has declined to break from some of his predecessor's practices, such as "extraordinary renditions" of terrorist suspects to third countries. Obama has also discouraged talk of investigations, let alone prosecutions, of individuals who either directly violated or authorised violations of the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture under the Bush administration.

And while his appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East peace and his repeated statements in favour of a two-state solution have been widely applauded in Europe and the Islamic world as a refreshing and hopeful contrast to Bush, his administration's maintenance of a tough line against Hamas and his failure so far to prevail on Israel to ease its embargo against Gaza have created gnawing doubts about his willingness to exert serious pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if that means taking on the so-called "Israel Lobby" here whose influence among Democrats is just as great as it is among Bush's Republicans.

On Iran, which, along with Pakistan and the Israeli-Arab conflict, is seen as the most difficult and potentially most explosive foreign policy issue of the foreseeable future, Obama's remarkable Nowruz pledge to pursue engagement without "threats" and "grounded in mutual respect" appears increasingly at odds with Lobby-backed legislation to enact new economic sanctions against Tehran. And just last week, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, voiced her support for imposing "crippling" international sanctions if Tehran does not agree to U.S. and western proposals to limit its nuclear programme.

"For the most part... the administration's Iran strategy remains reactive, ill-defined, and suspiciously similar to the Bush administration's carrot-and-stick diplomacy during its final years," wrote Suzanne Maloney, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on Iran at the State Department.

Indeed, noted Zakaria approvingly, Obama's overtures toward Cuba, Syria and Iran have been "modest and preliminary," a stance that "has pushed the envelope to change policy ...yet always acting in a sober and calculating manner."

Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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