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Obama-Clinton: Significant Change in Foreign Policy

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The positive media and bipartisan praise of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's leadership at the State Department -- she is called a "superstar" by the top Republican on the House panel that oversees State and has an approval rating of 80 percent -- misses an important point: This is not about Mrs. Clinton alone. This is about powerful synergy between President Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

Together, with complementary views and approaches to foreign policy, they have already created a serious change in American foreign policy as compared with the Bush administration. And they almost certainly constitute the most powerful and effective POTUS - Secretary of State combination since Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward.

With some danger of oversimplification, it is possible to divide American history before the Obama administration into two distinctive approaches to the outside world: the first in the late 18th and 19th century, the second in most of the 20th century up to George Bush, although the seeds of the third Obama-Clinton approach began in the 1990s under President Clinton.

For the first 112 years, from George Washington in 1788 to William McKinley in 1900, American foreign policy was essentially non-interventionist and even isolationist.

Then, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, came a new moralistic, interventionist attitude preaching the superiority of American democracy and values and then virtually a straight line (except for the Clinton years) through World Wars I and II, the United Nations, the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, all the way through the "war of choice" in Iraq.

And now a "third way" is presented by the Obama-Clinton combination in the post-Bush era.

Of course, there are still important continuities, too: a commitment to a strong military; protection of U.S. security from the threats of terrorism; military intervention where necessary, such as in Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban; and a clear American commitment to democratic values and human rights.

But the Obama-Clinton approach is fundamentally different from that of the Bush years and most prior administrations in at least two ways.

First, both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Clinton truly believe in discussion and engagement with foreign government leaders, greater reliance on what the Secretary has described as "smart power," less reliance on military force, but more reliance on diplomacy, international economic development (not just "foreign aid"), and, most importantly, listening more than preaching.

Ironically, this new approach of engagement has at times managed to alienate the left or the right and often both. Examples include:

  • Secretary Clinton's quiet modulation during her first foreign trip to China in raising the issue of human rights and democracy issues, at least in a nonpublic, non confrontational fashion
  • The policy of engagement and reconciliation pursued by Mr. Obama's personal envoy to Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration, that has been criticized by some humanitarian groups and a few officials within the Obama administration who apparently prefer a policy of confrontation. However, Mr. Obama and Gen. Gration's approach already has shown signs of progress on the ground in reducing the human suffering in Darfur. Gen. Gration will host a conference in Washington on Tuesday to facilitate implementation of the North-South 2005 peace agreement in Sudan that ended 50 years of bloody civil war.

Most recently, Mr. Obama has pragmatically chosen to show restraint in speaking out too strongly regarding the street protests in Iran regarding the elections.

On Iran it is not correct to say that he has remained completely silent. Just this past Saturday, the president spoke up forcefully against the repression of the rights of expression and the government-sponsored violence against the protesters. But he still has been careful, despite congressional pressures from both sides of the aisle to be more forceful, while still not appearing to "take ownership" of this grassroots movement. The last thing the opposition presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and his supporters would want is being accused of being "tools of American imperialism."

However, there is growing consensus on the critical issue of deterring Iranian development of a nuclear weapon. The administration needs to exert more leadership to persuade a worldwide coalition to sanction Iran by preventing it from importing refined petroleum products, on which the Islamic Republic depends.

The second fundamental change from the Bush years is more about style than substance, but in foreign policy, style and perception can have serious substantive results, as they do here. And that is the most important commonality between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton: They are great and charismatic politicians -- the political equivalent of rock stars.

They have used these political capabilities to win over people on the streets of Europe, Asia and the Middle East -- the same people who just six or nine months ago hated the United States and saw the U.S. government as the arrogant "ugly American" stereotype that has caused us such harm over the last half-century, from Vietnam to Iraq.

The clearest manifestation of this new approach has been Secretary Clinton's first five months of travels to 25 countries and 86,000 miles. Her style is strikingly reminiscent of her early "listening tour" in Republican upstate New York that was critical to winning over even her greatest critics and led to her election to the U.S. Senate. New Yorkers saw the humility and warmth and sense of humor long familiar to those of us who have known her over the years.

And now average people from around the world have seen the same qualities in both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama: more listening than preaching.

In other words, this "team of rivals" has exceeded most people's expectations in the first five months and set a fundamentally new course in U.S. foreign policy. And if the pair hold their ground and keep their new "third way" vision of dialogue, engagement and appeals over the heads of leaders to the average person around the world, I believe they will make good history maybe great history for better American relations with foreign nations and for the cause of world peace in the years ahead.

Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."

This piece appeared in Mr. Davis' weekly column, "Purple Nation," in the Washington Times today, Monday, June 22, 2009.