Crises at home sap Obama s outreach abroad

August 1, 2010 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Aug  1 – President Barack Obama\’s foreign policy of grand gestures has given way in his second White House year to a diplomatic slog in pursuit of elusive but occasionally promising gains.

Obama piled up eyecatching foreign trips in 2009, with a soaring appeal to the Muslim world in Egypt, an online town hall meeting in Shanghai and a starring role at his Nobel peace prize gala in Norway.

But domestic crises have torn at the administration this year, from health care reform to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and Obama has rarely left US soil.

He made a quick trip to Prague, to sign a nuclear deal with Russia — one of his big wins so far — a swift visit to Afghanistan, and spent three days in Canada for the G8 and G20 summits.

But his limited travel has watered down the "biography as foreign policy" approach which saw Obama leverage his exotic background to appeal for a new beginning with Muslims and declare himself the United States\’ first "Pacific President."

Three times, domestic politics forced Obama to postpone a homecoming of sorts to Indonesia, where he spent some years as a child, and no foreign travel is expected before his India, South Korea and Japan trip in November.

So presidential diplomacy has shifted to talks with visiting leaders, bilateral meetings at a nuclear summit in Washington and telephone chats with world leaders.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have shouldered the burden as road warriors.

Seeking to showcase success, the administration lists new UN sanctions against Iran, improving ties with Russia, engagement in Asia and a repaired US global image.

Yet for all the hype of Obama\’s inauguration, few foreign policy challenges — such as Iran\’s nuclear program for instance — have eased fundamentally since he took office.
China, taking a hardnosed view of its interests, has meanwhile more often frustrated Obama than aided him.

Nuclear North Korea is increasingly belligerent and a row over the US base in Okinawa may also sully his second visit to Japan in November.

And the administration rising Islamic militancy in Africa has sparked fears that recent thwarted terror attacks on US soil, may presage a more deadly future strike.
Obama\’s political foes lie in wait meanwhile, framing a foreign policy narrative for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible Republican candidate, accuses Obama of ideological fudging on Islamic extremism.

"These are difficult times." Gingrich said last week.

"It requires us to think carefully and long about a grand, national strategy. It requires us to recommit ourselves to freedom."

Obama\’s critics say 18 months of work on the Middle East peace process has yielded little but a row with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, there are signs Obama\’s pressure may soon yield direct Israeli-Palestinian talks — though few analyst predict success.

One region where Obama is objectively making progress, is Asia, and he has committed to annual summits with regional leaders from 2011.

"The Obama Administration is starting to connect the dots in Asia," said Ernest Bower, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Secretary Clinton is leading the way on follow through on early commitments to substantively engage in Asia."

Bower however warned it was important that foreign policy professionals in the administration secure the precious days of time in Obama\’s diary his ambitions in the region require.
Obama\’s most fateful decision so far was to surge 30,000 extra troops into Afghanistan in a fundamental change of war strategy.

But with bloodshed rising and progress elusive, Obama faces fierce pressure to demonstrate success, as the war hangs like a cloud over his presidency.

In Iraq though, there is more hope, with Obama set to honor a campaign vow to get all US combat troops out of the country by the end of August.

Another problem area: strategically vital Turkey. Obama spent considerable time — including a visit last year — courting Ankara, but its anti-Israel stance, and bid to block UN sanctions against Iran defied US wishes.

Barely a month went by in 2009 without Obama touching down in Europe.

But spats over economics with weakened European leaders have left some in Europe frustrated and some in Washington seeking scapegoats.

"The United States made some tough decisions to stabilize our financial system and to inject some recovery into their economy," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"Europe didn\’t do, quite frankly, as much and that has no doubt stunted our growth and stunted world growth."


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