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With First 100 Days, Obama Seeks 'New Basis For Relationships' Abroad

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) held talks with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in London on April 1. Obama is planning to visit Moscow later in the year.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) held talks with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in London on April 1. Obama is planning to visit Moscow later in the year.

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. president's first 100 days in office is a milestone that has no official meaning beyond offering journalists an opportunity to review what has -- or hasn't -- been accomplished in those first three months in the White House.

Despite unprecedented domestic concerns, such as the economic crisis, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent a significant chunk of his young presidency focused on foreign policy. Indeed, he has traveled to nine countries and held face-to-face meetings with 44 foreign leaders since January 20.

Throughout his first 100 days, many observers say, Obama's tone toward the rest of the world has been one of humility and engagement, such as when he told the Muslim world that America is not its enemy, and that the United States "is not at war with Islam."

Daniel Hamilton, director of the U.S. Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, believes Obama’s pragmatic message has been well received abroad.

“His message has been [that] the United States doesn’t always do everything right, there’s some reason for some of the critique," Hamilton says. "But on the other hand, you can’t blame the United States for all the world’s problems, or even a region’s problems, and let’s have a new basis for a relationship.”

Critics, however, have taken Obama to task, especially on his recent European tour, for what they describe as his apologizing for U.S. behavior over the past eight years. Former Vice President Dick Cheney went so far as to say he believes Obama's policies and actions have made the country less safe.

"He is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack," Cheney told CNN.

Clean Break

Obama's decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year and to ban the use of torture techniques in interrogations, for example, certainly represent a clean break with the policies of the previous Bush adminstration. But Obama still needs to convince skeptics abroad that the United States is a legitimate international actor that other governments might want to follow.

A closer look at Obama’s three-month-old foreign policy record reveals some of the steps he's taken toward building these new relationships.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (right) gives a gift of a symbolic "reset" button to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
On Russia, Obama has signaled his intention to wipe the slate clean and rebuild frayed connections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a mock button to illustrate Washington's stated desire to "reset" relations with Moscow. The first meetings have already been held on nuclear arms control, an issue that Obama has made a focus since his Senate days.

Washington and Moscow are still at odds over U.S. plans to establish a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, though. Obama has pledged to pursue the shield but told Russia that if Moscow helps remove the threat of a nuclear Iran, there won’t be any need for such defense.

Hamilton says while there is room for cooperation on issues like Iran and counterterrorism, the U.S. president will have to strike a balance between moving ahead with those goals while resisting attempts by Moscow to reestablish a sphere of influence in its post-Soviet neighborhood.

Obama plans a visit to Moscow before the end of the year.

'Obama's War'

On Afghanistan, Obama ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. and allied efforts in the region and concluded that more countries need to offer military and development assistance.

Since then, he has sent 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, prompting references to Afghanistan being "Obama's War." He has also pressed European leaders to shoulder more of the responsibility for stabilizing the region, and has made a compelling case for why Afghanistan’s fate is tied to the fates of other countries.

Obama appointed Richard Holbrooke (above) as his special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Europe has been cool to his request for more troops, but Hamilton believes there is a new awareness that they must do more to help.

“It probably won’t be everything that the administration wanted, but I think there’s a new tone there, and a recognition that the fate of Afghanistan affects Europe as much as it does the United States,” Hamilton says.

Obama also made a dramatic adjustment to the U.S. strategy on Afghanistan by bringing Pakistan into the equation, and appointing a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, as U.S. envoy to the two countries.

Obama and his military advisers argue that without help from Pakistan, the problem of terrorist safe havens in Afghan border lands cannot be solved.

'Mortal Danger'

But the U.S. leader's approach relies heavily on the acquiescence of the Pakistani government, which is far from a sure thing. Recently, Pakistani leaders allowed Taliban fighters to take over the Swat Valley as part of a peace deal. The militants have implemented a harsh form of Islamic law there and now control a district less than 100 kilometers from Islamabad.

Clinton recently called the situation in Pakistan “a mortal danger” to the world. But Hamilton says Pakistan's security services remain focused on India as the main source of potential threats and don’t seem to feel the same urgency that the Obama administration feels.

It’s been a frustrating period of time for him. A lot hasn’t happened yet. And many of the overtures were rebuffed immediately or used for domestic political purposes in the midst of the Iranian campaign.
“They’re not accustomed to this sort of approach, and I think there’s been some very tough back-and-forth with the administration and with Ambassador Holbrooke, to try and sort of set this relationship on a different course. But it’s very problematic," Hamilton says.

"And I’m not sure that the Pakistani central authorities are yet there, where the administration wants them to be, so I think this will be very tough and it will take some time," he adds.

During last year’s presidential election campaign, Obama was frequently criticized by his opponents for proposing that the United States talk to Iran, one of the three countries in former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

'Frustrating Period'

Three months into the Obama presidency, U.S. diplomats have done just that -- albeit in a meeting that was unplanned and lasted only moments at a conference in The Hague. But Obama has made several overtures, offering the Iranian people greetings on the Persian new year, exploring the idea of talks without preconditions, and offering to “extend a hand” if Iran’s regime “unclenched its fist.”

But the June 12 presidential elections in Iran have thwarted Obama’s outreach efforts, Hamilton says.

“It’s been a frustrating period of time for him. A lot hasn’t happened yet. And many of the overtures were rebuffed immediately or used for domestic political purposes in the midst of the Iranian campaign," Hamilton says. "I think we’ll just have to acknowledge that, and see how the election campaign ends and what type of Iranian leadership we have to work with.”

On Iraq, Obama came into office on a promise to end U.S. combat activities in Iraq within 18 months. He has since moved that date back a few months -- to August 2010 -- and said he will keep as many as 50,000 troops in place to advise and train Iraqi forces through the end of 2011.

On the stalled Middle East peace process, Obama has appointed the experienced negotiator George Mitchell to be his envoy and sent Clinton to the region in a show of good faith. He has invited the Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian leaders to the White House this summer for peace talks, and reached out to longtime U.S. adversary Syria as a potential partner.

Obama’s biggest foreign policy splash has been on Cuba -- the Caribbean island nation living under Communist rule for more than 50 years. He made the frank admission that past U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed and needs changing. He then loosened restrictions that limited Americans from traveling to Cuba to visit relatives there and on sending remittances to them.

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