Gil Troy: Center Field: Obama at 100 days

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-11-09

Barack Obama has just completed his first hundred days as president, an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as they were by the aborted Bay of Pigs attack against Cuba. George W. Bush’s presidency ended less successfully than it began. Still, a presidential character starts forming during this honeymoon, while story lines emerge that determine a president’s destiny.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been saving America’s economy, but he cannot ignore foreign policy. Domestically, Obama wants to match Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, presidents who restored hope, revived the economy, and redefined Americans’ relationship with government – in this case correcting Reagan’s anti-government drift. Regarding foreign policy, Obama appears to follow Theodore Roosevelt with a twist. TR advised: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” So far – and the presidency remains young – Obama is speaking softly to enemies, treating friends coolly and carrying a medium-sized stick.

OBAMA’S FOREIGN AFFAIRS messaging has positioned him as the “unBush,” apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe, smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and denouncing torture. He has offended many British and Canadian citizens while signaling he is ready to rumble with Israel. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified combat in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

Obama has suggested it does not cost anything to be friendly, to engage, to consider negotiating. He enjoys tweaking conservatives. He knows that when they criticize his chatting with Venezuela?s dictator or his sweeping bow to Saudi Arabia’s king, it helps the world consider him reasonable.

Such kowtowing to dictators and Europeans can backfire, especially when Obama slights America’s closest friends. British newspapers attacked Obama for not scheduling a podiumto-podium press conference when Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Washington, and for giving Brown a pedestrian gift of 25 DVDs with classic American movies. Among other gifts, Brown presented Obama with a pen holder crafted from the timber of a 19th-century British warship that fought slave traders.

Some Canadians resent Obama’s initial green light to congressional protectionists, fearing a trade war which could make this traumatic recession another Great Depression. Others were insulted when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano foolishly equated Canada’s peaceful if congested border with Mexico’s violent, porous one.

President Barack Obama arrives for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, Saturday, May 9, 2009 PHOTO: AP

Moreover, while avoiding confronting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama has retreated from Bush’s pro-Israel embrace. The first foreign leader Obama called was Mahmoud Abbas, clearly saluting the Palestinians and implicitly criticizing Israel’s Gaza operation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has forgotten her enthusiastic support for Israel as a senator and a presidential candidate. Treating a nuclear Iran as Israel’s problem not America’s and the world’s, she said Israel would have to make concessions to the Palestinians to ensure American pressure against Iran. Most ominously, Obama seems ready to fund a Palestinian unity government. This move would end the sensible boycott against Hamas, without first demanding Hamas change its genocidal charter or terrorist ways.

DEMOCRATS USED to be America’s foreign policy idealists. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy spoke eloquently and acted righteously. They defended the world against German aggression, Nazism and Soviet communism while establishing noble but effective multilateral institutions. The Vietnam War and, now, the Iraq war, soured many Democrats on high-flying ideals. Obama seems to govern in that spirit.

Obama will eventually have to start distinguishing America’s friends and enemies. Obama happily dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to AIPAC with a “tough love” greeting, but will he confront America’s critics or fairweather friends with a “you’re not going to like my saying this” message too? Rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s War on Terror, Obama will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. His administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the US and China. And Obama needs to learn what it took Bill Clinton years to learn – that Palestinian rejection of Israel’s very existence and Palestinians’ addiction to terror pose the major obstacles to Middle East peace not Israeli settlements or sentiments.

MEANWHILE, OBAMA’S cool temperament moderates his actions, making his policies less radical than his gestures. His tough-minded approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan suggests he understands the threat al-Qaida and the Taliban pose. His gradual troop reduction in Iraq reflects a similar sobriety and maturity, letting the realities of governance eclipse the rhetoric of campaigning.

Obama’s actions regarding the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy at his best, as he played good cop, then bad cop. By sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike Bush. By nevertheless boycotting because too many Muslim and authoritarian delegates pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Yet Obama has opened a dangerous Pandora’s box by exposing so many of the CIA’s torture tactics. He seems to want to root his moral center in the traditional American disgust for torture and America’s repudiation of the Bush administration. He is a brilliant communicator and strategist, beloved by the media, who outmaneuvered experienced opponents like Hillary Clinton and John McCain to become president. Obama is betting he can woo back America’s wavering allies and outfox America’s enemies. He trusts that America’s staunchest allies, including Great Britain, Canada and Israel, will persevere, judging him by his actions not his gestures.

Still, another terrorist attack on American soil, an aggressive nuclear-armed Iran, the Taliban overrunning Pakistan, a defiant, dictatorial Russia or some unexpected disaster could feed a media spin that Obama’s concessions emboldened America’s enemies a la Jimmy Carter and derail his administration. Obama is emerging as a leader ready to make big changes and take big chances. Succeeding will require great skill, clear values, incredible good fortune – and America’s true friends working alongside it.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

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