The Obamas’ European Odyssey was a success – despite the predictable complaints of some US critics. The President and First Lady took the continent by storm, helping to rebuild America’s partnerships and restore America’s image after several troubled years of decline.
The hole dug by the previous Administration’s neglect, arrogant unilateralism, and ideological recklessness was deep. But, by re-committing the U.S.: to international cooperation, to working as a partner with allies and institutions, and to listening – the President took an important step in rebuilding the foundations of trust.
The sad fact is that the way that President Bush and his colleagues from the Project for a New American Century sought to project American leadership only served to make the U.S. weaker and less respected, while leaving the world more volatile and dangerous. Ironically, their efforts to secure US hegemony, only exposed U.S. weakness, hastening the advent of the very multi-polar world they sought to forestall.
From its earliest days in office, the Bush Administration set a tone of unilateralism and disrespect for international cooperation by walking out on Kyoto, rejecting the International Criminal Court and withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
They, then, squandered international support and goodwill that came in the aftermath of 9/11, by launching a reckless war in Iraq. Instead of acting through the UN, they took a "with us or against us" approach, crafting what they called "a coalition of the willing." They compounded this insult by deriding the nations who refused to join as "the Old Europe" – all of which divided the Continent’s leaders, while turning European public opinion against the U.S.
This, in turn, caused other initiatives taken by the Bush Administration to be viewed with mistrust. Russia, already experiencing a rebirth of national fervor and increasingly wary of U.S. intentions, complained of being cornered by the eastward expansion of NATO. Russian suspicions were only aggravated by U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s independence and the announced intention of placing U.S. anti-missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic. In turn Russia became more aggressive, raising tensions with some of its neighbors as it sought to carve out and secure its "sphere of influence" to its south and west.
As the Afghan war effort foundered and Iraq devolved into civil war, the U.S. found itself increasingly isolated. With Bush’s other failures, in Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the volatility in the region resulted in emboldening Iran.
Given this stage set by the last Administration, both President Obama and the First Lady did what was required to "reset" our relationships with allies and adversaries, alike. In all his European deliberations, the President accomplished what was possible. Not every problem was solved. And while the President might have hoped to secure greater European support for the war in Afghanistan and increased spending to stimulate the European economies – he asked, but did not insist. Recognizing that it will take time to restore the trust needed to lead on tough issues, the President used his visit wisely. As one advisor, David Axelrod noted, "You plant, you cultivate, you harvest. Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable."
One of the President’s most important accomplishments was in reengaging the Russians in far-reaching arms reduction talks. This, it is hoped, will provide a basis for deeper engagement on other issues, like securing Russian support on Iran’s nuclear program and reducing tensions between Russia and its neighbors.
As impressive as this new President was in his dealings with world leaders, even more impressive were his interactions with the public. In Strasbourg and Ankara, for example, Obama held town-meeting style events with students. In his remarks, and in his answers to questions asked, he was always at ease, displaying both his humor and his ability to provide guidance on complicated issues. One journalist commented afterward, that he could not imagine any other current world leader who would have performed as well.
Important in all of this, in addition to the tone and style, was the personal story of the Obamas themselves. That America, having been plagued so long by racism, the legacy of centuries of slavery, had elected an African American President, sent a powerful message: that the change represented by the Obamas is real, and the American values they embody will not only guide our future relationships, but are worthy of emulation.
All of this was lost on some U.S. critics, especially those from the right, who refused to understand the importance of the approach taken by Obama. Believing, as they do, that the way out of the hole dug by the last Administration is to dig deeper, they upbraided Obama for not demanding that Europe do more to support the U.S. in Afghanistan or match our stimulus spending. The President was criticized for being weak in his dealings with Russia, "prostrating before the Saudi King," acknowledging "American arrogance," "not standing up for American honor," and failing to challenge Islam.
But those critics miss the point that it is exactly the behavior they argue for that had left American weak and isolated in the first place – and it is precisely this situation that the Obamas sought to remedy.