Obama's Year One: Medius

If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign promised anything, it was to “rebrand” the United States of America. After decades—centuries, according to some critics—of throwing its weight around, capped by eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the world’s sole superpower was no longer viewed as a dutiful member of the international community, much less a beacon of freedom and democracy. And who better to repair the damage than a man whose very election would expiate the country’s worst historical sin? The Texas cowboy would yield to a cool “citizen of the world,” who had opposed Bush’s war in Iraq, loudly repudiated torture, and pledged to join the fight against global warming. We would find it easier to be great, the argument went, because we would once again be seen as good.

After almost a year in office, President Obama has governed as he campaigned. When the president won his contested Nobel Peace Prize, it was for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Bono, the U2 frontman and antipoverty activist, lauded Obama for promising to help cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. “Many have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America,” Bono wrote. “In my view these . . . words, alongside the administration’s approach to fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change, improving relations in the Middle East and, by the way, creating jobs and providing health care at home, are rebranding in action.”

In a recent CNN interview, the president himself cited rebranding as one of his major accomplishments:

I think we’ve restored America’s standing in the world, and that’s confirmed by polls. I think a recent one indicated that, around the world before my election, less than half the people, maybe less than 40 percent of the people, thought you could count on America to do the right thing. Now it’s up to 75 percent. That builds good will among publics that makes it easier for leaders to cooperate with us.

Tellingly, the president made this comment while in China, during a time-out from meetings with that country’s Communist leaders that were widely regarded as fruitless, if not downright humiliating. The Chinese, to whom the United States owes hundreds of billions of dollars, had dismissed Obama on a range of issues, from human rights to economic policy. They not only refused to bolster their currency, as the United States wished, but also lectured the visiting Americans on the need to get their own financial house in order. Obama’s hosts arrested dissidents and confined his interaction with the Chinese people to a stage-managed “town hall.”

“President Barack Obama returns from his maiden Asian swing with none of the concrete accomplishments that White Houses typically put in place before big trips,” Mike Allen of Politico observed, with considerable understatement, “setting up a stark test for his idealistic theory that the United States should act more like a wise neighbor than a swaggering superpower.”

Rebranding, in other words, has a price.

Obama was not wrong to believe that many people in the world wanted a different style of American leadership, or that he was well positioned to offer it. I could not identify the precise polls to which he referred in his CNN interview, but it seems beyond dispute that Bush was unpopular in most countries, and that this was impairing perceptions of the United States.

Many of the same global villagers who had rallied to America’s side in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks turned away in dismay after realizing that the response would include the invasion of Iraq and the scandals of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This was a terrible reversal. You don’t have to concede that the criticism was justified to acknowledge that it was real, and that it was impeding America’s ability to advance its interests.

Moreover, to the extent Obama wished to emphasize diplomacy over, say, preemptive war, he was merely restating a belief in “soft power” that previous presidents have also articulated. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each attempted an outreach to Iran. During the 2000 campaign, Bush himself said that “if we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us” (emphasis added).

Obama is indeed very popular in Western Europe—Germany and France, especially—and the United States has recovered influence there since his inauguration. Nevertheless, Obama’s reliance on soft power, and particularly the soft power of his persona, has been excessive and, as he himself formulates it in interviews such as the one he gave to CNN, even naive. Public opinion of the United States, whether favorable or not, hardly influences governments, like China’s, which can and do ignore their people’s wishes. Beijing’s desire to “cooperate with us” doesn’t seem to have changed a bit since January 20, 2009.

Another problem is that it’s difficult for America, or Obama himself, to be equally popular with countries or peoples who are in conflict with each other. India, for example, felt slighted by some of the president’s more exuberant rhetoric about working with China and other East Asian nations, and by the increasing attention he has given to Pakistan. Things have been much worse in the Middle East, where Obama has invested heavily in overtures to the Muslim world, attempting to persuade Arabs that they have at last found a U.S. president who understands their concerns and may contest Israel in the interests of peace.

Yet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, buoyed by polls showing deep doubts about Obama among Israeli Jews, has resisted Obama’s pleas for a freeze on Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories; when the administration appeared to back down, Palestinians cried betrayal; as of this writing, the “peace process” is going nowhere.

This brings us to Iran, whose nuclear ambitions will present the greatest threat to global peace on Obama’s watch, and where Obama promised the clearest break with past American policy. He repudiated the Bush administration’s threats, extended an offer of direct negotiations, praised Persian culture and history, and peppered Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with personal letters. He abolished the “axis of evil” and made a point of calling the Shiite theocracy in Tehran “the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Yet Khamenei has responded with nothing more than suspicion and hostility. “Every time they have a smile on their face, they are hiding a dagger behind their back,” the supreme leader said on November 3. “Iran will not be fooled by the superficial conciliatory tone of the United States.” While Obama was in China, Iran rejected a United Nations call for the regime to send enriched uranium abroad for processing. Obama had been banking on that. Now the president has been brought back to square one, trying to rally Russia and China to support sanctions, just as his predecessor did—with the same dubious prospect of success.

To be sure, America is not necessarily worse off for having tried Obama’s approach. But we have paid a steep price nonetheless—and not just in lost time. The most important event in Iran, and perhaps the world, during 2009, was the regime’s clumsy theft of a presidential election, followed by its bloody crushing of a broad-based protest movement.

This event vividly exposed the tyrannical essence of the Islamic Republic, the democratic yearnings of the Iranian people—and the contradictions of Obama’s rebranding strategy. One of its goals, perhaps its main goal, is to reassure the nations of the world that the United States intends to deal with them, as they are, through multilateral institutions and other instruments of conventional diplomacy. No more regime change; no more destabilizing crusades for democracy in the Muslim world.

This may indeed reassure some governments that we are not “hopeless” (the term that Obama adviser Susan Rice used during the campaign to describe U.S. conduct abroad). But what about their citizens? Do we seem more or less hopeful to them? What does Obama’s effort to negotiate with their theocratic overlords offer the Iranians who risked their lives in the streets? What do his similar gestures to the rulers of Cuba, Sudan, and Burma offer their freedom-hungry people? Clearly committed to talking nukes with whatever government emerged in Tehran, no matter how badly its own behavior tainted its legitimacy, the president fumbled for the right words to address the Iranian uprising. He never quite found them. And so our reputation—our brand—suffers.

There was no easy alternative to the path Obama took; among other things, a heavy-handed U.S. intervention in Iran might have served as an excuse for the regime to crack down even more brutally. Nor am I saying it’s better to be feared than loved: that would be matching Obama’s oversimplifications with one of my own. Obviously, America needs to be both admired for its values and respected for its might. But the proper balance is, and always has been, elusive. That is true because Americans themselves have long debated what our values ought to be and where our interests truly lie. Excesses in one direction have often brought reactions in the other. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik gave way to Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy, which, in turn, stimulated Ronald Reagan’s redoubled opposition to the Soviet Union. We appear to be going through another such course correction, or overcorrection, now.

I would hope, however, that the president has at least learned that the meaning of the American brand is not entirely under his control. Hostility toward this country and its foreign policy has many determinants. The words and deeds of the president are not necessarily first among these. There’s probably not much we could ever do to make an enemy out of Canada. Conversely, there are some in this world—the theocrats in Tehran come to mind—who will never appreciate the United States, much less do business with us in any normal sense.

Perhaps the best proof that America remains, Obama’s doubts notwithstanding, an exceptional country, may be gleaned from the extent to which peoples and governments around the world make it the repository of their dreams, fears, hatred, admiration, resentment, and trust—regardless of reason and reality. We can do our best to take all that into account, but, in the end, we have to steer by our own stars. As the old song says, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

Charles Lane is an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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