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The Obama Doctrine

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 04/20/2009

Can you lead without being a jerk? Can you advance your nation's interests without being a bully? Can you strengthen your hand by reaching out to your enemies? Can you claim success without a trophy? Can your actions speak louder than your words?

Asked to describe the "Obama Doctrine" at a news conference yesterday at the end of the summit of the hemisphere's leaders in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama responded with a fascinating disquisition, well worth close examination.

"[T]here are a couple of principles that I've tried to apply across the board," he said. "Number one, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, but we're only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.

"And so in all these meetings what I've said is, we have some very clear ideas in terms of where the international community should be moving; we have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security that we have to attend to; but we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them....

"Number two, I think that -- I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals -- the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we've got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.

"And so if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues."

Listening, Obama said, pays dividends -- but sometimes at a slower pace than the press corps finds acceptable.

"[A]s a consequence of listening, believing that there aren't junior partners and senior partners in the international stage, I don't think that we suddenly transform every foreign policy item that's on the agenda. I know that in each of these meetings the question has been, well, did you get something specific? What happened here? What happened there?

"Countries are going to have interests, and changes in foreign policy approaches by my administration aren't suddenly going to make all those interests that may diverge from ours disappear. What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we're pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they're cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem."

Asked what he'd learned from listening at this summit, Obama replied: "One thing that I thought was interesting -- and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms -- hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend. And it's a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence and have -- have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region.

"And I think that's why it's so important that in our interactions not just here in the hemisphere but around the world, that we recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very practical, concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary persons as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy."

And asked if his friendly interactions with incendiary leftist leader Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (who, among other things, gave Obama a book) might be perceived domestically as "being soft," Obama replied: "I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I'm a reader. And you're right, we had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense."

Via the U.S. News Political Bulletin: "ABC World News reported that the 'picture of the President smiling and chatting' with Chavez, 'who famously called President George W. Bush "the devil," created something of a backlash.'..

"On the CBS Evening News, Jeff Greenfield commented on criticism of the President's outreach to Chavez, saying, 'There is fallout from those people who already regard Obama as anything from a socialist to a fascist to a dangerously weak president. I'm talking about people on the right. If it doesn't spread beyond that, you're going to have the same situation where about 30% of the country really regards him negatively but the rest says "so far so good."'

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