Obama attempts to reshape U.S. image abroad
ISTANBUL, Turkey – President Barack Obama concluded his inaugural overseas tour Tuesday after presenting to the world a starkly different image of the United States than his predecessor had, returning home from encounters with exuberant U.S. troops in Iraq, fawning crowds in Europe and Turkey, and foreign leaders who welcomed a new partnership with the country but did little to support its goals.
Obama left Istanbul shortly after 2 p.m. local time and made an unscheduled stop in Baghdad, where he addressed U.S. troops and received a briefing from Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq. He also met with President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the several-hour stop, his first visit to the country as president.
Throughout his trip abroad, Obama portrayed a proud but flawed United States to his audiences, using a refrain of humility and partnership in an attempt to rally allies around such issues of mutual concern as the global economy, climate change and nuclear proliferation. He talked about the nation’s “darker periods” of slavery and repression of Native Americans, and its past sanction of torture that he has ended. He also spoke with pride about the United States’ diversity and its central role in rebuilding post-World War II Europe, while condemning “anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious.”
Despite his celebrity reception at nearly every stop on the six-country tour, Obama was unable to persuade European allies to increase fiscal stimulus spending or to send additional combat troops to Afghanistan for long-term deployments.
“Why didn’t the waters part, the sun shine and all ills of the world disappear because President Obama came to Europe this week?” said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top aides. “That wasn’t our expectation. … We understand … that this involves solving the problems, the difficult, thorny problems we face in the world.”
Obama advisers pointed to the Group of 20 agreement to commit more than $1 trillion in new money to the International Monetary Fund and other programs to revive the global economy and protect the poorest nations from the economic downturn. He announced new strategic arms-reduction talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. And, the advisers said, the president, through his tone and policy proposals, outlined a broad framework for improving U.S. relations with the world.
“There was a sense that America was back. So many of the leaders basically said, ‘It’s nice to have America back at its place,’ ” said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
But his conservative critics at home said Obama displayed more style than substance. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the president “maintained, and if anything added to, the feeling of bonhomie that the rest of the world now regards him.”
“On the substantive front, there wasn’t all that much, and what there was, if you hold it up to the light, there should be many questions about it,” he said, referring to Obama’s goal, outlined in Prague, of eliminating the world’s nuclear arsenals. Donnelly added that “in the case of Afghanistan, the silence was deafening.”
“People already liked Obama, that’s nothing new,” he added. “And at some point there needs to be a ‘therefore’ clause. The president already had the world’s goodwill, but he has yet to translate that into action for the public good, especially on the security issue.”
Obama used his time in Istanbul on Tuesday to reach across cultural barriers – meeting with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, slipping off his shoes to tour a 400-year-old mosque and urging an audience of university students to “build new bridges instead of new walls” throughout the world.
“The world will be what you make of it,” Obama said in the town-hall-style meeting here, where he emphasized, as he has in several earlier forums, the growing power of young people to change politics and policies.
From the moment in London last week when he handed Queen Elizabeth II an iPod, to rousing appeals to youth in speeches in Strasbourg, France, and Prague, to Tuesday’s session in Istanbul, Obama used his trip to signal a generational change in the White House and the power of youth to affect global decision-making.
Echoing a theme and strategy from his presidential campaign, Obama urged young people to harness their collective power on issues as varied as climate change, nuclear proliferation and the fight against Islamic extremism. In Strasbourg, he told them that “this generation cannot stand still.”
“Each time we find ourselves at a crossroads, paralyzed by worn debates and stale thinking, the old ways of doing things, a new generation rises up and shows the way forward,” the president said, adding a favorite campaign mantra: “This is our generation. This is our time.”
Obama told the students in Istanbul that he believes in setting ambitious goals, including establishing a constructive relationship with Iran, ridding the world of nuclear weapons and forging a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He also said he would like to change the way the United States is viewed in parts of the world.
“America, like every other nation, has made mistakes and has its flaws,” he said. “But for more than two centuries, we have strived at great cost and sacrifice to form a more perfect union.”
Obama, who is relatively inexperienced in foreign policy, met over the past week with the leaders of Russia and China and others from across Europe, Asia and Africa, discussing such topics as the global financial crisis and nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent journalist and broadcaster who has covered several previous U.S. presidential visits, said Obama was impressive in Turkey.
“He said things that were not very light music to our ears, but we could swallow it,” Birand said, referring especially to Obama’s refusal to disavow his earlier statements that the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire before and during World War I was genocide.
“He was very clear on what he expected from the Turks,” Birand said. “He is not a guy who just came in and gave us some angles.”
At each stop, Obama sought to enlist young people to shake old political orders and assumptions.
“Young people, they can get rid of some of the old baggage and the old suspicions,” he said in a wide-ranging exchange with students here. He cited his talks with Medvedev as an example of new thinking, saying he and the Russian president had come of age in the twilight of the Cold War and viewed each other differently than leaders of earlier generations.
Watching the 47-year-old president touring Istanbul’s ancient sites, Mehmet Karaman, a 20-year-old student, said: “Obama is a new chance for the world. He’s young, and after seeing what the older generation has done, he knows it’s better to reach out and listen to young people.”
Emre Erdogan, head of the Turkish research firm Infakto, said Obama’s message is resonating with Turkish youth.
“Turkish young people are not optimistic about their lives,” he said. “They are looking for a sense of confidence and security in their lives. Obama gives them hope.”