Obama and the world


One of the great hopes for Obama was that he would mend America's damaged reputation abroad. He is widely admired, without a doubt, but he is not getting his way. Why is that? This column for the FT looks into it.

During last year's election campaign, Barack Obama's supporters stressed his promise as a leader who could restore US standing in the world. Even at home, despite the worsening economy, many of Mr Obama's fans deemed this his most important virtue. The rest of the world agreed. Understanding that nothing happens unless America takes charge, few other governments were opposed to a renewal of US leadership. On the contrary, most longed for it.

As the Group of 20 developed and emerging nations' summit in London approaches, how is that going? About as well as could be expected.

Mr Obama's campaign always exaggerated the difference he would make on foreign policy. His style could hardly be more different from the caricature of US supremacism projected by George W. Bush, but the underlying issues were unlikely to be any easier to deal with. So it has proved. In many areas of foreign and security policy, in contrast to the clear break he is attempting in domestic policy, Mr Obama is mostly rebranding Mr Bush's approach.

On Iraq, things are moving much as they would have done if Mr Bush were still in office. Likewise in Afghanistan, where the administration is proposing a surge not unlike the one in Iraq - overseen by the same general, under the political supervision of the same defence secretary - which Mr Obama found so unimpressive last year.

On Iran, Mr Obama has for the moment adjusted the rhetoric, but not the underlying condescension, the key demands, or the implicit "do as we say or else". "War on terror" terminology is used less often and less eagerly than it was by the Bush administration. This has not stopped the US attacking targets in Pakistan, a legally dubious enterprise to put it mildly, and one that looks a lot like waging war on terror. Lately the administration has even wanted North Korea's leaders to believe that the US might shoot down the rocket they are preparing to launch. How George W. Bush can you get?

What about Guantánamo, which many Americans see as a scar on the country's conscience and reputation? Mr Obama has reaffirmed his campaign promise to close the prison, and plans are afoot to do this. But the administration is in no hurry to release the people it no longer calls "enemy combatants". In a recent television interview, the president criticised some of the releases carried out by the Bush administration, mentioning that people let go have rejoined terrorist groups. To the dismay of civil-rights lawyers, the government's legal posture towards prisoners trying to challenge their detention in court is in most ways indistinguishable from that of the previous administration.

This strategy of mostly persisting with the foreign and security policies of Mr Bush while insisting that those policies have been overthrown has not yet met organised resistance from US allies. The fact that Mr Obama is so much better liked buys him a great deal of goodwill, and the desire to suck up to him still predominates.

Nonetheless, as the new president continues to seek material support for his fundamentally Bush-like security policies - more European troops in Afghanistan, a united front in dealing with Iran and other troublemakers, overseas dispersal of the G-Bay detainees - he is often going to come up empty-handed, leading to disillusionment on both sides. Friction with the allies is likely to increase.

Read the rest here.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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