Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama...idealist or pragmatist?

Friday & Saturday - The president abroad

This is day 81 in the countdown toward the 100th day of Barack Obama's presidency. The benchmark probably dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came into office with no particular ideology but promising "action, and action now" - and a readiness to pursue pragmatic policies.

Obama has returned to Washington after his most significant trip abroad since taking office. The president enjoys strong support from the majority of Americans who voted for him (Democrats give him an 88 percent approval rating) though he has made few strides in winning over John McCain's supporters (only 27% of Republicans think he's doing a good job). Obama's critics complain he spent too much time overseas in "excuse me, excuse my predecessor, or excuse my country" mode.

Still, Obama's message - "I'm personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement" - set a new tone for US foreign policy among Washington's ostensible allies in Europe, Turkey and Iraq.

•On the issues that most concern Israelis, paramount among them Teheran's nuclear ambitions, Obama reiterated that he had "made it clear to the people and leaders" of Iran "that the United States seeks engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. Now, Iran's leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people."

•As the Netanyahu government conducts a policy review on Arab-Israel peacemaking, Obama said: "Let me be clear: The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." And Obama had a message for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: "That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the road map and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president."

•Finally, as the West's top "emissary" to a Muslim world where visceral loathing of Israel knows no bounds, the US president told students in Istanbul: "This notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance - because there's two sides to every question."

Obama made an unannounced (but not unanticipated) five-hour trip to Iraq where he was warmly received by US troops. He said combat forces would be pulled out by August 2010, and all US troops by the end of 2011. He told Sunnis and Shi'ites, who've lately ratcheted-up their intramural slaughter, to take responsibility for their country because America needs to focus on battling al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

In Ankara, he paid his respects at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey. Whatever Obama may think of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose politics are rooted in political Islam, he urged the EU to make room for Turkey.

He told the Turkish parliament and the wider Muslim world that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam. America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism," he said. "We seek broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect."

Obama has been convinced - partly by venerable cold warriors such as Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger - that it might be easier to garner international support for stopping pariah states from going nuclear if the US shows a willingness to sharply reduce its own atomic arsenal.

So he parlayed news that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile into a far-reaching call for worldwide nuclear disarmament. "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up… Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal [a nuclear weapon]," he said.

THUS FAR into his presidency, it's already apparent that Obama seeks to harness idealism with pragmatism. Yet if the G-20 (on the economic crisis), NATO (on Afghanistan-Pakistan) and Russia (on Iran) remain unmoved by appeals to multilateralism, expect Obama, like Roosevelt, to go with whatever works.

What this means for Israel in pursuit of its highest national interest, blocking Iran from fielding a nuclear bomb, is that Binyamin Netanyahu needs to convince Obama that doing anything short of stopping the mullahs would be dangerously reckless.

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