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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The US has an image and branding dilemma. On one the hand it wants to be Saviour of sundry and all, while simultaneously vesting interests. This dualistic approach destroys credibility. On the other hand its enemies are targeting its political spearheads, which quite frankly, are soft targets on their own. Maybe the US should market its political system, with all its checks and balances, rather than the figure heads. It might also be clever to commend the image and branding of its friends and opponents in order to restore and create goodwill.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

I think a better title would’ve been “Obama following in the footsteps of George Bush.”

Since he’s a mirror image in every major issue, just different rhetoric.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

It’s nice when other countries love you, but that doesn’t mean they are looking out for your interests. If the US doesn’t look out for its interests, who will? Russia? France? Germany? Yet the US is asked to consider others’ needs. Who else does this? And that make the US “arrogant”?

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Obama as a mirror image of Bush is really going way too far. There are some issues on which he hasn\’t strayed far (Afghanistan), but to say he is a mirror is just ridiculous: health care reform, active engagement with Iran and North Korea (whether successful yet or not, the attempt is there), cancellation of missile sites in Europe and an improved relationship with Russia, a more multi-national integrated approach on regional issues such as Honduras, a new attitude and approach to the UN and its potential, a better attempt at breaching partisan divides, a more engaging attitude toward politicans on the other end, a more considerate and respectful tone with the Muslim world, discarding the good vs. evil rhetoric and the guns waving democracy-spreading rodeo that Bush seemed to think the world was in. A mirror image? Ridiculous.

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive

Obama is a great man with a difficult job.

I guess the US is always thinking that getting into internal affairs of other countries is a good thing for them (the US)… So they take out presidents, put others in their place, do whatever they like and create a mass culture of worship towards their president.

There are no differences between Democrats and Republicans! My god! What is it going to take to convince people of that? These bastards think that THEY are going to be the supreme rulers of the New World Order. Well, they got another thing coming. Get rid of all of them.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

FYI Paul:–US only looks after it’s and Israel interests.
Obama is only a figurehead and actually the president is Hillary Rodenhurst cLinton with the side kick V.P. Rahm Emanual.
Very dangerous times await obtuse Americans–as/in Paul :^/

Posted by Les Pisrael | Report as abusive

Obama is a great man. He was elected president. He won the Nobel Peace prize. He should quite while he’s ahead. Soon.

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

The Americans continue to overestimate their power and to confuse rhetoric with reality.

There seems no measure of wisdom, or perspective, in them – only self-absorption and self-projection as if that quintessential American conceit – the power of positive thinking – will alter reality. They are children. Foolish, soft, spoiled children, with no spine to them.

They make promises of commitment to allies they will leave to twist and die in the wind. They promise miracles of transformative strategy and insight only to repeat past blunders, failing to learn the same elementary lessons again and again and again.

They are increasingly a nation divided between the very rich and everyone else, unable, even for a moment, to put aside the most parochial of self-interests for the common good.

They are indeed an example to the world – of the worst sort: Craven, feckless, shallow, without commitment or purpose, only a bit of rhetoric or the artificial emotion of a movie score.

The present administration is in a sense typical: Well intentioned, full of officially designated ‘terribly bright’ people, yet dysfunctional and ineffective, full of speeches that once seemed to hold promise and which now hold only the echoes of noble intent once envisioned already lost in failure, compromise, the resort to the resolutely ordinary, the appeal to an infinite number of self-fracturing self interests.

Principally, American culture lacks depth, substance, resolute purpose. It has offered the world the charms of its youth, its popular entertainment, it has its exceptional individuals of real merit and accomplishment – but, in the end, it means little, if anything – the briefest, the shallowest of empires, now fading.

No president, no congress, no symbol can save a people from its own failures, its own shortcomings.

Look around. Tell me what you see.

Posted by arc tenebrous | Report as abusive

Nobody ever said that Obama was a political messiah who would solve the issues of the world.

The problem is that this is the image that Obama presented in order to win the election. He knew that pandering to the public desires for hope and change would bring an easy election victory.

But there is a reason that politicians avoid trying to win elections through such means. Because they eventually have to live up to the image they presented to the public.

This is something Obama will learn soon enough. If he is unable to live up to the image he sold to the American public, then he will deserve the results.

The Obama administration is swiftly learning the practical reality of government. That spin must eventually give way to substance, and that many policies of the previous government were simply practical.

And even in those areas where change could occur, such as healthcare, the democrats are afraid to proceed alone. Because they either don’t have the unity, or are afraid of the political consequences of failure. Hence Obama’s insistance on bipartisanship, even with a supermajority government.

So now we see the Obama government settling comfortably in the status quo, but becoming increasingly worried as it wonderes what to do about the very idealists that Obama relied on for his election victory.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Please Yankee Go Home!!
Take of your own people and stop dreaming of empires that are fading by the minute. There is nothing exceptionalist about America, except being able to kill millions from the sky. The world survived without you for century’s and without a doubt will until time stands still. Just go home with your bases and militarist ideals and I add you hypocritical culture of individualism. The opposite doctrine is collectivism, in other words people working as a group to better society. Just go away.

I am an American. I was born here and raised to believe that I am among the very lucky to make that claim.
Over the course of this past decade I have lost faith in America. Not because of past mistakes and broken promises but because America spends way too much time and money trying to fix pathetic adolescent countries around this demented world without fixing our own problems here at home.
America needs to recognize that all the so called sovereign nations we have attempted to civilize will remain ungrateful no matter how much aid and protection we provide.

Posted by robert brennan | Report as abusive

Obama is a leader, a genuine human being and his stress on humbleness shows it all. I guess he believes in the more popular saying “With great power, comes great responsibility”. He is one politician which the world has come close to respect so far. I guess he just needs better support from the rest of the world and from his own country(I am not an American) to be able to bring peace to this world.

If word does reach him through this debate, I would just tell him this.. Peace will bring prosperity which is most sought after in these troubled times. The world doesn’t want a WAR and I don’t think the United States wants it to. There are many selfish elements working towards goals and aspirations of a few. But Obama does have a genuine concern about the masses.. I do feel it…. May be its just me!! But this man needs some trust, some co-operation from all the nations and some time.. He will bring a CHANGE which he promised in his campaign to not only the US, but the entire world.

Posted by A. Martin Francis | Report as abusive

It is ultra-conservative cynicism to equate Obama with the last George Bush. They represent two different views of the world, and two opposing ways of doing things. Obama genuinely seeks peace and craves discussion with the rest of the world, two things that put him in a camp opposed to that of Bush.
The Nobel Prize Committee appreciates and understands this better than commentators who so far are unable or unwilling to see this crystal clear difference between the two men and the two administrations. And that is why the Committee took the unprecedented but commendable step to encourage him, President Obama, with this year’s award.
Obama is bound to continue with his work of peace. He has to live out and imbue his Presidency with his core values of tolerance and the uncommon ability to appreciate the other person’s viewpoints, friendly or not.
Just as in the election, Obama will surprise his critics in the end.

Posted by Iboro Otongaran | Report as abusive

Equating Obama’s agenda to W’s is unfair. It’s only in foreign affairs and a craven submission to corporate interests that they’re identical.

Posted by Lloyd | Report as abusive

Ok, maybe Obama isn’t an EXACT replica of Bush, but here’s a list of things he has the exact same stance as Bush.

Taxation
Border Security
War in Iraq 2008 and beyond
War in Afghanistan
Threatening Iran
Lack of demanding transparency in the Federal Reserve
Bailing out corporate America
War on Drugs
Torture abroad, aka extraordinary rendition
Support of dictatorships like those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt
Support of the Patriot Act
Growing the national debt
Weakening of the dollar
Expanding the federal government, especially in the federal budget

Well those are the obvious ones off the top of my head, I’m sure I missed a few.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Scanning some of the posts on this blog has reminded me with astounding potency why I never, under any circumstance, read posts on blogs: Tenebrous, with his whining, coffee shop self-righteousness. The US has made mistakes. Lots of them, in fact. It is also worth noting that the US tries to help more than any other nation. Major disasters happen and I can guarantee you that nine times out of ten the majority of the aid flooding into the region is coming from the US. So we can fuss that the United States is arrogant. So is every one else. The US population, on the whole, is shallow. So are the citizens of EVERY OTHER nation as a majority.

Pakistanis can gripe that they are insulted by the strings attached to the US tripling it’s aid to Pakistan… but they are not required to accept the aid. Diplomacy itself is a “strings-attached” game. To get, you must give.

And as far as “losing faith in America”, America is not a person. It is not a being. It is a… wait for it… collective. A group of people that are invariably connected to the people of the rest of the world. So yes, we work on problems with other nations and not just our own. Isolationism is not practical or realistic.

But please, I beg of all the angsty posters, do not pose as the righteous individual critical of the evil masses. You are the same as the rest whether you are a citizen of the US or any other country. But please, if you are aware of a country where everyone does the right thing, never wrongs another and maintains a culture full of depth… point it out on the map for me. Please.

Posted by Michael DeFord | Report as abusive

Sooner than later, Obama will have to choose between being liked, and between actually doing something for the US national interest, and for peace, democracy and human rights that mostly coincide with that interest.
Let’s face reality: Sadly, the US is the main thing that stands between the world and total chaos. Being the policeman of the world is a nasty job, and people don’t always like the police, which sometimes makes mistakes, but still – it does a necessary job.

BTW, that Nobel Peace prize thing is turning out to be a political trick imposed on the committee by its head, the former Norwegian prime minister – Not the best day for the image of the Nobel Peace prize, or for the image of Norway…

Posted by yr | Report as abusive

I also am an American who wants to believe in the hope of peace. However, the comments above that speak to Obama’s leadership are simply premature. Further, I have grave reservations about someone who speaks quite often about humility. Humility requires the example of action.

Obama may prove to be a quality leader but he has not achieved it yet. The press here and around the world have coronated him, possibly even annointed him, and I doubt he will ever be able to live up to the expectations that are being placed on him. Only a very few people really know who Obama is at this point. Hopefully those who believe he is great are correct.

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive