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Could Obama's Speeches Reflect a Foreign Policy Shift?

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"Evil does exist in the world." This bald assertion is probably not what the Norwegian grantors of the Nobel Peace Prize expected to hear from Barack Obama. It sounds like something that the definer of the axis of evil might say, without the Texas twang.

This was not the Obama who told the crowd in the Tiergarten in July 2008 that the Berlin Wall came down because the world stood as one, when of course the wall had remained in place for 28 years precisely because the world didn't.

This Obama in Oslo said, "Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms." No litany of apologies here, as in some other speeches he has made abroad, and no airy dismissal of American exceptionalism, the idea cherished by former presidents of both parties that the United States is a special and specially good nation with a great mission in the world.

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Instead, Obama celebrated what the United States has done, and in words clearly implying that no other nation could have done so.

The Norwegians may have awarded Obama the Peace Prize because he has replaced the reviled George W. Bush. But the speech Obama gave, despite a few veiled digs at his predecessor, sounded much more like Bush than they surely expected or wished.

Yes, the digs were there. Obama said he had reaffirmed the Geneva Conventions, which of course the Bush administration affirmed, as well. And he said the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein not in 2003 when he defied United Nations resolutions, but in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait.

The most striking thing in Obama's Dec. 10 speech in Oslo, and in his Dec. 1 speech at West Point announcing his new Afghanistan strategy, was his emphasis on human rights.

"We must make it clear," he said at West Point, "to every man, woman and child around the world that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples."

"America," he said in Oslo, "will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal." As George W. Bush used to say.

There is a dissonance between Obama's words here and his actions over the last 11 months. This is an administration that promised not to bring up human rights issues with China, that made only tardy and grudging criticisms of the crackdowns by the mullah regime in Iran, whose envoy to Sudan has made emollient noises to its noxious rulers and downplayed the depredations in Darfur.

Obama seems to recognize this dissonance, and perhaps regrets it. At Oslo, he cited Richard Nixon's meeting with Mao, Pope John Paul II's preaching in Poland and Ronald Reagan's negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev as precedents for his truckling to the Iranian regime -- in each case with some violence to the historical record (maybe he needs at least one speechwriter over 40).

Still, it was good to hear him decrying "genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo or repression in Burma," hailing "the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Tehran" and denouncing Islamists for their attacks on innocents in the United States and elsewhere.

Every American president since the 1940s has balanced, in different ways, the need to seek American interests with the goal of advancing human rights. This president has tilted the balance heavily against human rights, in favor of propitiating enemies like Iran and hostile powers like Russia.

The results have been disappointing, to say the least. "As the world grows smaller," Obama said in Oslo, "you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are." But you would be wrong, as it seems Obama has been wrong in his hopes to reach accord with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or to secure some quid pro quo for his unilateral concessions to Vladimir Putin.

Is it too audacious to hope that Obama's assertion that "evil does exist in the world" and his emphasis on human rights signal a U-turn in a foreign policy that has seemed a reflexive rejection of everything his predecessor said and did? Maybe not.

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