On some matters, the Obama administration is trying to make substantive as well as semantic changes, some out of an impulse, common in most new administrations, to renounce the darn-fool ideas of the jerks in the previous administration. Vice President Joseph Biden promised to push the "reset button" on Russia, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a big, red reset button. Wrong word, the Russian said, in what I'd guess was a bit of disinformation.
The president himself in a video saluted the Islamic Republic of Iran -- not words Bush used -- on the occasion of a (non-Islamic) new year's holiday and has ordered diplomatic approaches to that nation. None of this has evoked even a grunt of emollience from the leaders of those countries. But, as Obama said in his news conference, he didn't expect that, and he believes that in time, persistence will pay off. Well, maybe.
In the meantime, an administration of a party that called for respecting our allies has shown disrespect to some and is not getting much respect from others. The administration, at the behest of U.S. labor leaders, is not pushing the free-trade pact with Colombia, the third-largest nation in Latin America. It has banned Mexican trucks from the United States, in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It has waffled on installing the antimissile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic, which those nations accepted, risking the wrath of Russia. It gave a frosty reception (and some nonplayable-in-the-United Kingdom DVDs) to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and granted a quick Saturday meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva. It sent a policy letter to the president of Italy, a head of state who plays no role in policymaking, thus ignoring the pro-American prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
These are rookie mistakes, perhaps, and probably mendable in time. But as Obama embarked on his first presidential tour in Europe, he seemed to face a reception considerably less enthusiastic than he got from the ecstatic crowd in the Tiergarten in Berlin last summer. Economic stimulus packages like America's? Most European leaders are not interested. Military assistance in the "good war" in Afghanistan? Sorry, our troops are occupied elsewhere, and many of those already there must observe rules of engagement considerably more restrictive than those of the NYPD.
So this new administration, like others, is running into reality. Much of the Obama foreign policy seems sensible, and, well, every administration makes some mistakes. But I wonder whether it will turn out to be a political asset. Continued military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan could disillusion left-wing antiwar voters who flocked to the polls in 2008. And to the extent that the Obama term is the Bush second term, recall that after his confrontationist first term, Bush won re-election, while after his accommodationist second term, his party got clobbered.
But prediction in these times is perilous, though not as perilous as the unknown dangers we may face ahead. Good luck, Mr. President.
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