Obama to world: Ready to lead again
The president's promises, including a "new way forward to the Muslim world," build hope for millions of foreigners who watched his speech. Others voice skepticism that it'll still be politics as usual.
The New York Times
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LONDON — President Obama used his inaugural address to promise the regeneration of an America many in recent years had feared lost.
Speaking directly to the millions who crowded around televisions across the world as much as to Americans, Obama promised that the United States was "ready to lead once more" despite the ravages of protracted wars and a depleted economy.
But he coupled that with a vision of an America that exercises its power with a sense of justice, humility and restraint, and an America that, while believing its values still light the world, pledges to promote them through cooperation and understanding as much as military might.
With a steel never so pronounced in his campaign, he challenged America's adversaries — and, recently, some of its oldest friends — who have spied an America diminished by economic distress and war, and have heralded a new world order in which America would give up much of its power.
That hesitant, regretful America was nowhere to be seen in Obama's address, which called on Americans to rally against "a nagging fear" that decline is inevitable.
While offering a "new way forward to the Muslim world," and warning dictators that they are "on the wrong side of history," he sounded not unlike former President Bush in his challenges to those who spread terror and destruction. "You cannot outlast us; we will defeat you," he said.
Some abroad bridled and some were reassured by the recurring foreign-policy motif of Obama's address — his resolve that the United States, as it rebuilds at home, will not give up its long-established role as the leader of the free world. And while many hailed the change of tone, others were uncertain that real change was coming, given the realities of American politics.
In Egypt and Lebanon, while some hailed Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, most remained skeptical about his ability to change the basic direction of American policy, and what many Arabs regard as a strong bias toward Israel.
For many, the war in Gaza, which caused tremendous anger throughout the Arab world, overshadowed the inauguration; Obama did not refer to it in his address.
"Why should I be optimistic about what he said?" said Hassan Abdel Rahman, 25, a salesman in a flower shop in Cairo, Egypt. "If there was reason to be optimistic, then we would have felt it during the war on Gaza, and if he was just, then he would have said something then — but he said nothing."
Some old adversaries suggested that they would keep an open mind. "We salute the people of the United States," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said, emphasizing that he hoped that Obama's presidency would "mark a change in the relations of the United States with the countries of the Third World."
In some capitals, Obama's renewed claim to foreign leadership and the prospect of an American leader with the kind of aura not seen since President Kennedy have provoked stirrings of jealousy, even animosity.
In Russia and France, notably, there have been high-level calls that Obama accept that America's days as the dominant superpower are over, especially in the face of the retreat from the free-market capitalism the United States has championed.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, published an essay last month saying, in language that was almost pitying, that Russia had "returned to the world stage" and would not accept the United States any longer as an imperial power. "America has to recognize the reality of a 'post-American' world," he said.
More surprising, perhaps, has been the changed tone of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who took office in 2007 with a reputation as France's most pro-American president in memory but has tempered that as he has sought to establish himself as Europe's most powerful voice. "In the 21st century, there is no longer one nation that can tell what must be done or what one must think."
Obama emphasized greater cooperation, and his vow to combat poverty, climate change and nuclear threats scarcely presaged a new era of American bullying. But even with a radical new tone, he may find the partners he seeks may be reluctant to share burdens that have until now been America's main responsibility to bear.
"We have entered a period of historical transition in which the United States will become first among equals, rather than simply top dog, hyperpower and unquestioned hegemon," said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford.
"But for Europeans, it may be a case of being careful what you wish for, because the Obama administration is likely to say, 'Good, then put your money where your mouth is, and in the first place, put more troops in Afghanistan.' "
Said Christopher Patten, a former European commissioner for foreign affairs and now chancellor of Oxford University: "Obviously, there is a risk that we will expect too much of this president — that we will learn that however hugely talented he is, he isn't a global miracle worker."
Moves that Obama has signaled, such as a plan to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to align the United States with international law on the use of torture, are certain to be greeted with relief and celebration around the world.
But on Iran's bid to acquire nuclear weapons, on his pledge to step up the allied military commitment in Afghanistan, on climate change and a host of other issues, he may find personal popularity one thing, achieving his goals through partnership and negotiation quite another.
As he prepared to leave office, Bush admonished Obama to remember that a president's first priority is to keep America safe, a challenge the new president addressed.
His pledges to "leave Iraq to its people" and push for a "hard-earned peace" in Afghanistan may yet jar with reality, military analysts have warned. His plan to increase American and allied troop strength in Afghanistan has met with a chilling message from Osama bin Laden, who, by eluding capture since 9/11, has embodied the limits of Bush's "great war on terror."
Bin Laden, al-Qaida's leader, challenged Obama in an audio message last week. Referring to Afghanistan and Iraq, he said Obama was "like one who swallows a double-edged dagger — whichever way he moves it, it will wound him."
Jorge Montano, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said that Bush had been too focused on Afghanistan and Iraq to notice that Latin America was drifting away from the United States, and that Obama might prove little different.
"Right now, the people of the United States are worried about their credit cards, their mortgages," he said. "These will be Obama's priorities, and this region will have to wait."
But as Obama took office, practical calculations largely were set aside. Commentaries hailing him found much more to admire than the fact that he is the first African-American president, significant though that is in a world whose population of 6.5 billion is overwhelmingly nonwhite.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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