Some months down the road, no doubt, not every ambition and initiative of the Obama administration will be compared with the Bush administration. For now, however, the comparisons are unavoidable, and as the stark contrasts keep piling up, among the most significant is the difference between the two administrations on foreign policy.
In less than two months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has effectively put the world on notice that the new administration has pushed a reset button, even if her Russian is flawed. The long haul, of course, will provide the answer to whether the Obama administration strategy works, but if these initial months are any indication, the approach will not fail for lack of effort.
Most conspicuously, Clinton almost immediately flew to the Middle East and set a tone that was firm in establishing the U.S. view that peace between Israel and the Palestinian people would require not only a two-state solution but also an approach that considered relationships throughout the Middle East.
The devil is always in the details and nowhere more than in the Middle East. But Clinton's appointment of high-profile envoys throughout the region, her suggestion that Iran be invited to an international meeting on Afghanistan, her intent to better relations with Syria, all speak of an administration willing to listen to the rest of the world and to understand the interests of others.
The point was made even sharper when Obama, during a recent interview on Air Force One, granted that he would consider speaking with moderate elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan if they are willing to work with the United States in restoring peace there. The one lesson apparently learned in Iraq was that militarism has severe limits. If there is hope for some form of stability there, it is because American troops have been successful in persuading ordinary Iraqis, in non-military ways, to rebuild their towns and to return to everyday pursuits.
For most of his term, President Bush approached the world as if it would easily yield to his dualisms: good and evil, friend and foe, terrorist and non-terrorist. Of course, the world rarely conforms to such clear categories. In reality it is impossible to navigate far down the paths of diplomacy and persuasion when lines are so rigidly drawn. And it is impossible to be consistent. So we witnessed the concocting of a war against Iraq on the nonexistent threat of weapons of mass destruction while we were rendered impotent before countries such as China and North Korea that actually possessed or were developing weapons of mass destruction and that were guilty of horrible human-rights abuses but against whom military action would have been clearly insane.
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We know that much of the world has been awaiting the change in tone and outlook. Clinton's first ventures into the Middle East and first attempts at righting the troubled relationship with Russia are hopeful signs that despite the massive economic problems at home, Obama intends to reestablish America's role in the world as one of thoughtful leadership and earned moral authority.
Printed in the March 20 issue of NCR.