Obama in the footsteps of George W. Bush

By Bernd Debusmann
October 15, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

Words of wisdom from an American leader: “The United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.

“If we are an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way but if we are a humble nation, they’ll respect us.”

President Barack Obama, the newly-minted winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, speaking about U.S. engagement with the rest of the world, including anti-American leaders? No, the exhortation for superpower humbleness came from George W. Bush when he was running for president in 2000.

Whether this was campaign rhetoric or conviction will never be known but if it was the latter, it ended eight months into Bush’s first term.

The word “humble” disappeared from Washington’s political lexicon after the Sept. 11, 2001 mass murders in New York and Washington and during the rest of Bush’s eight-year presidency, the United States came to be seen, in large parts of the world, as the epitome of superpower arrogance.

“Humble” is back in fashion. Nine months into his first term, Obama told the United Nations General Assembly he was “humbled by the responsibility that the American people have placed upon me” and determined to meet the challenge of collective action. Three weeks later, he stood in the White House Rose Garden to say he was “deeply humbled” by the Nobel Committee’s decision to give him the Peace Prize.

But like his predecessor, who was resented in much of the world, Obama is running into foreign policy problems as resistant to humility and the collective action the president often conjures as they were resistant to Bush’s unilateral approach. Does Obama’s rock star-like celebrity help?

So far, not really. In Germany, for example, 93 percent of those polled in a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project said they had confidence the U.S. president would do the right thing in world affairs. Would that translate into more German troops for the war in Afghanistan which is unpopular in Germany? Not likely.

In his speech to the United Nations, Obama pointed out that American unilateral actions had fed “an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.” While anti-Americanism may be on the wane in many parts of the world, there is no sign of a corresponding increase of support for U.S. foreign policy on key issues.

Nor is there evidence of a wholesale decline in the tendency of a good number of U.S. political figures to assume that people from other countries think like Americans. That has been a perennial problem in America’s dealings with the world. It was the reason, for example, why the Bush administration was so surprised by the resounding 2006 electoral victory of Hamas, the Islamist group shunned as terrorists by most of the West, in Gaza.

CONTRADICTION IN TERMS?

More recently, that’s why some in Washington were taken aback by the angry reaction in Pakistan to a bill passed in Congress this month that tripled U.S. assistance over the next five years. It was meant as part of an effort to build a new relationship with Pakistan, whose cooperation Washington needs to fight Taliban and al Qaeda elements along the border with Afghanistan.

The bill contained language on conditions tied to the tripled aid that were seen by many Pakistanis as a humiliating violation of national sovereignty and an affront to dignity, an issue particularly sensitive in Pakistan, which is one of the few countries apparently immune to Obama’s charm. (The Pew survey’s favorability rating for the United States showed a drop from 19 percent in 2008 to a dismal 16 percent in 2009).

What seemed perfectly legitimate to lawmakers in Washington — no disbursement of aid unless Pakistan demonstrated a “sustained commitment” to crack down on terrorism — was seen as an insult by the Pakistanis. Which raises the question whether a humble superpower is a contradiction in terms.

Or whether humility will impress the leaders Obama has to deal with if he wants to succeed where Bush and other presidents failed – get North Korea and Iran to drop their nuclear ambitions, persuade Israel and the Palestinians to end their conflict, defang international terrorists and last but not least, achieve his dream of a nuclear-free world.

On that, he sounded a somber note when he commented on his Nobel Peace Prize: maybe not “in my lifetime.” Sobering detail: Obama is 48.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com)

52 comments

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Neutral guy from India- we all think holocaust was terrible but does that mean Jews in Israel should be given a blank check. It is time America and its president put his foot down and say enough is enough. Two independent states of Israel and Palestine, and independent city state if Jerusalem with independent election and rule under the UN. Being a Christian in a very secular country of India does help me in being neutral..

Posted by Arun | Report as abusive

“What seemed perfectly legitimate to lawmakers in Washington — no disbursement of aid unless Pakistan demonstrated a “sustained commitment” to crack down on terrorism — was seen as an insult by the Pakistanis. Which raises the question whether a humble superpower is a contradiction in terms.”

It is indeed perfectly legitimate! Debusmann’s question is not in the slightest bit supported by this premise: in fact, this new aid package seems instead a far cry from those of the previous Administration, which handed out carte blanche millions and millions of dollars to the Pakistani government and military, most of which having gone directly into the coffers of the ISI. This aid package may actually reach those its designed to help.

Posted by Wes | Report as abusive

Ive just returned to Europe(Stuttgart, Germany) after a previous sojourn (Milan, Italy)
Believe me there is nothing in Europe that we want emulated in the States. Europeans are very feminized. This place is rife with some of the most mushy logic presented by humanity. The European Union while enjoying a high but precarious standard of living, can collapse at the rise of any crisis. Most of the anti-Americanism is carried by the young people who are oblivious to the leadership failings of Obama but see him as emblematic of what is chic,vogue, and avant garde. All very shallow.

Posted by Caudillo | Report as abusive

The only way for the president to change the world’s opinion of the U.S. is to pull all of our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and put our resources in protecting Americans in our own country.

Posted by Jack J. Lewis | Report as abusive

I hate to pop all your spend happy people bubbles, but lets look at why Americans take 30% of our wages illegaly. (16th amendment has never been ratified with the proper 2/3 vote) Give it to an orginazation known as the IRS who is funded by the agriculture department. Fist off dosent that sound absurd that we pay our taxes to a subdivision of the agricutlure sector of government..?? Secondly as ben franklyn a founder of amreica and briliant mind said “comerce with ALL nations alliances with none. This policy allows the best from every nation and no paybacks. As we all know when you do a favor for someone usually its never repayed. If it is even brought up its never equilly matched. This has been americas plague since the UN creation. We cannot be the worlds big brother. Let alone a big brother to its own people. Democrats are an opisite to the republicans but its apparent to me being loyal to neither. They have the same interests since world war 2 and that is to bankrupt america fully make our children slaves on the land that was promised to them from their grandfathers. Worst off we are going into recievership from all the nations whom we have borrowed from just to pay for the 3rd world to have machine guns bombs and yes NUCLEAR weapons that threaten the world as a whole. Worst off we have to pay interest to service these debts that I am sure 9/10 people did not want to happen. Look where dose it state in our consititution that there has to be a seperation of church and state. If so then all the 501 C3 churches are doing illegal actions. Why is our country a whore when it comes to allowing its people to be pimped out to the highest bidder. Excuse me going to throw up now,and plan on a new place to call home before im too poor to leave. 2 years remember 2 years.

Posted by ghost from the republic past | Report as abusive

“It is time America and its president put his foot down and say enough is enough. Two independent states of Israel and Palestine, and independent city state if Jerusalem with independent election and rule under the UN.”

The UN tried that before. It didn’t work out well. In fact, it resulted in the Arab nations invading Israel. And this lead to the situation we have now.

After several attempts to fight Israel, as recent as last year, the clock cannot be turned back. The new Israeli borders and settlements are just something a Palestinian state will need to accept.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

I remember in a finance lecture my lecturer explained to us how the credit crunch happened. It was something along these lines:

“A mortgage broker finds some guy (without a job) sitting on a porch and offers him a very large mortgage to buy a house, and assures the man ‘house prices are going to up anyways, so you don’t really need to worry about paying back the interest’. The guy charmed by the charismatic mortgage broker, without thinking of the consequences or ways to pay back the mortgage, took the mortgage broker’s offer.”

This was partly how banks got the toxic assets, which eventually led to the credit crunch.

Now, let’s replace the mortgage broker with Obama, and the guy sitting on a porch the American voters. The very charismatic Obama made a lot of promises, such as cutting taxes and more benefits, which sounds very attractive. However, most American voters didn’t really think clearly of the logic behind taking in less money while spending a lot more, and subsequently voted for Obama. I’m not saying Obama will create another credit crunch, but in my opinion, he is going to “change” America, although not in a way he had promised. As someone once articulated this to me, “Obama is a very good orator, but I just hope he can do half the things he promised”.

Posted by Noobface | Report as abusive

Commenting is very easy about a person or any delicated issue, but thinking in depth is difficult. human tendency is to prejudge and pass on comments may hurt any human. Obama has taken over charge as president and he has studied the Global situation to take decisions. If is a commodity, one can brief about that and talk about it without much thinking. But Presidential role is not a small one, hence it may take time to understand and react. And do not underestimate the leaders without understanding the situations.

For President Obama to progress the peace process, all he has to do is to cut all fundings to Israel. It will be a win to the peace process and a win to the American taxpayers. The billions can be used to fund a public health option in America, instead of one in Israel!

Posted by Stephen Wong | Report as abusive

Good Article Bernd!

“For President Obama to progress the peace process, all he has to do is to cut all fundings to Israel. It will be a win to the peace process and a win to the American taxpayers.”

That would be an interesting plan.

But if it ends up starting a new regional conflict, will you personally agree to allow your neighbours to horsewhip you out of your hometown and keep all your personal property?

That would be fair, I think.

Posted by JoeyJoe | Report as abusive

Anything that has anything to do with G W Bush must be HUMBLED. But the more accurate description is DESTROYED.

Posted by The Real Deal | Report as abusive