Obama in the footsteps of George W. Bush
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)