Obama Aims To Change World Perceptions Of U.S.

Series Overview

The Obama Tracker

NPR's Obama Tracker charts significant events and developments in the new administration, and actions the president takes as he settles into the job.

President Obama started putting his mark on U.S. foreign policy from his very first hours in office. He quickly and deliberately presented a more conciliatory, multilateral approach to world affairs, analysts say.

While trying to grapple with a global economic meltdown, the new president initiated immediate reviews of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. He started to open diplomatic channels with previous enemy states such as Cuba and Iran. He reached out to Europe and sought to thaw U.S.-Russia relations.

Leslie Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Power Rules, says Obama understood that the more contentious policies introduced by the Bush administration had created a breach between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

"He made his first priority dissipating anti-Americanism around the world. He wanted to show people that we weren't out of touch, we understood their problems, and we weren't going to behave like a nutty, dictating superpower," Gelb says.

Gelb says 100 days is not enough time to measure Obama's performance in foreign affairs because the "hard stuff is still to come," such as how the president will handle the withdrawal from Iraq, what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or how the U.S. would respond to another terrorist attack.

Guantanamo Decision Sent Potent Signal

Obama's first foreign policy initiative was ordering the closing of the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Scott Silliman, a Duke University law professor, says that action sent a potent signal to the world that things were going to be different under the new administration.

"Guantanamo came to represent everything that the U.S. was doing wrong in the war against terror," says Silliman. "There was no ally going all the way back to 9/11 that really supported what we were doing at Guantanamo."

Obama quickly outlawed torture, prohibited the CIA from holding detainees in secret prisons, and declared that all detainees must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Obama Retains Some Bush Policies

Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says these were good, initial moves by the president. But he complains that the Obama administration has "apparently wholeheartedly" adopted a range of Bush administration policies. It is a trend that Warren calls "deeply troubling."

Among other things, the Obama administration has fought to retain the state secrets privilege that was used broadly during the Bush administration, Warren says. Under the privilege, the government is allowed to ask courts to exclude evidence from legal cases based solely on the government's argument that doing so might endanger national security.

The administration also has appealed a federal court ruling allowing detainees held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to challenge their incarceration in federal court, much as the Guantanamo detainees have been allowed, Warren says.

On many other issues, Obama is holding off on making important decisions until he has heard the results of wide-ranging reviews that he ordered.

Analysts say Obama's pragmatic approach extends across many aspects of his administration's foreign relations and national security policies.

Shortly after taking office, Obama dispatched envoys on "listening" tours to places such as the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he was careful not to make demands on leaders during his own recent overseas tours.

Balancing 'Niceness' With U.S. Power

Josef Joffe, a senior fellow at Stanford University and publisher-editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, says Obama has come across on the world stage as too nice.

"If you want to be Mr. Big, if you're the biggest kid in the block, every once in a while you have to be not only nice, but you also have to put your foot down, too, to establish a reputation for power and deterrence," Joffe says.

So far, Obama has not done that, says Joffe. He warns that the president should not allow himself to be perceived as weak.

Gelb, of the Council on Foreign Relations, dismisses that notion, saying Obama has opened the door to negotiations; he hasn't given anything away.

"I think showing ... a willingness to compromise creates a good atmosphere, more receptivity for the later application of real American power, which is carrots and sticks," Gelb says.

In the end, he says, you have to do that because "that's the only thing that changes the minds of other leaders."

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