WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has gone abroad and gored an ox _ the deeply held belief that the United States does not make mistakes in dealings with either friends or foes.
And in the process, he's taking a huge gamble both at home and abroad, for a payoff that could be a long time coming, if ever.
By way of explanation, senior adviser David Axelrod describes the president's tactics this way:
"You plant, you cultivate, you harvest. Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable."
While historic analogies are never perfect, Obama's stark efforts to change the U.S. image abroad are reminiscent of the stunning realignments sought by former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. During his short _ by Soviet standards _ tenure, he scrambled incessantly to shed the ideological entanglements that were leading the communist empire toward ruin.
But Obama is outpacing even Gorbachev. After just three months in power, the new American leader has, among many other things:
_ Admitted to Europeans that America deserves at least part of the blame for the world's financial crisis because it did not regulate high-flying and greedy Wall Street gamblers.
_ Told the Russians he wants to reset relations that fell to Cold War-style levels under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
_ Asked NATO for more help in the fight in Afghanistan, and, not getting much, did not castigate alliance partners.
_ Lifted some restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel to their communist homeland and eased rules on sending wages back to families there.
_ Shook hands with, more than once, and accepted a book from Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-American leader of oil-rich Venezuela.
_ Said America's appetite for illegal drugs and its lax control of the flow of guns and cash to Mexico were partly to blame for the drug-lord-inspired violence that is rattling the southern U.S. neighbor.
_ Said 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" _ neglecting to mention U.S. health care, education and humanitarian relief efforts in Latin America.
At a news conference ending the three-day Summit of the Americas on Sunday, Obama was asked to explain what a reporter called this emerging "Obama Doctrine."
He said that first, he remains intent on telling the world that the United States is a powerful and wealthy nation that realizes it is just one country among many. Obama said he believes that other countries have "good ideas" and interests that cannot be ignored.
Second, while the United States best represents itself by living up to its universal values and ideas, Obama said it must also respect the variety of cultures and perspectives that guide both American foes and friends.
"I firmly believe that if we're willing to break free from the arguments and ideologies of an earlier era and continue to act, as we have at this summit, with a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual respect and mutual interest, then each of our nations can come out of this challenging period stronger and more prosperous, and we can advance opportunity, equality, and security across the Americas," the president said.
Critics, especially those deeply attached to the foreign policy course of the past 50-plus years, see a president whose lofty ideals expose the country to a dangerous probing of U.S. weakness, of an unseemly readiness to admit past mistakes, of a willingness to talk with unpleasant opponents.
"I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez," said Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican. "This is a person along the lines with Fidel Castro and the types of dictatorship that he has down there in Venezuela and the anti-Americanism that he has been spreading around the world is not somebody the president of the United States should be seen as having, you know, kind of friendly relations with."
At his news conference Obama said he didn't think he did much damage to U.S. security or interests by shaking the hand of Chavez, whose country has a defense budget about one-six hundredth the size of the United States, and depends upon it's oil reserves for solvency.
But beyond specific attacks on his new foreign policy are the deeper philosophical challenges emerging from the still powerful, if diminished, conservative political structure in the United States. Such opponents can play havoc with Obama's attempts to change domestic policy and will work to weaken his 60-plus percent approval among Americans.
Obama brushes that aside:
"One of the benefits of my campaign and how I've been trying to operate as president is I don't worry about the politics _ I try to figure out what's right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I'm right."
So thought Gorbachev. But being right is not always politically healthy.
Steven R. Hurst reports from the White House for the AP and has covered foreign affairs for 30 years.