Opinion

How fares Obama's multi-tasking?

A charm offensive alone won't settle a troubled world.

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During the presidential election campaign, one of Barack Obama's interrogators asked him how, with his lack of international expertise, he could handle foreign problems as well as domestic challenges. The then-senator replied, a little tartly, that the presidency required being a "multi-tasker," able to handle several crises at a time.

Just 16 days into his presidency, Mr. Obama has proved to be an able multi-tasker, juggling domestic and foreign issues simultaneously.

At home, he is handling one of the most critical economic challenges the United States has faced in decades.

Abroad he has set a new pace and tone in international diplomacy with a series of dramatic moves:

1. He ordered the Guantánamo facility holding suspected terrorists and sympathizers closed within a year.

2. He ordered that, except under extraordinary circumstances, interrogation of suspected terrorists henceforth be carried out in accordance with the US Army field manual. Both these decisions were widely hailed as making positive improvements in the image of the US government.

3. He appointed a heavyweight envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, famed for his conciliatory work in Northern Ireland, to work for settlement of the years-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

4. He sent tough diplomat Richard Holbrooke, known for his peacemaking work in the Balkans, to tackle the war in Afghanistan, and the problem of Al Qaeda and Taliban redoubts in Pakistan.

5. In a remarkable gesture to the world of Islam, he chose to give his first White House media interview to the Saudi-funded Arab TV network Al Arabiya. In so doing, he sidelined both Al Jazeera, often criticized for anti-Americanism, and the US government-owned Al Hurra network.

Reaching a Middle East audience of some 23 million, he spoke of having Muslim relatives and having lived in a Muslim country. He called for a new partnership with the Muslim world "based on mutual respect and mutual interest."

All this is being interpreted abroad as a distinct change in at least the tone of US diplomacy. Even Iran said it "welcomed" the president's words.

President Obama also got a lift from provincial elections in Iraq, which were relatively free of violence, proof of burgeoning democracy, Middle East style. This makes easier the planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, a centerpiece of the Obama election campaign.

More than a change in tone will be necessary if some of the most intractable problems confronting the new president are to be resolved. What are the strategies? How will they differ from Bush's approach? What is the cost, in dollars and muscle?

We are, for instance, on the brink of elections in Israel that may very well install Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party, in the prime minister's office. Mr. Netanyahu is a tough politician with little inclination for peace talks with the divided Palestinians. Senator Mitchell may soon be reflecting nostalgically on the green meadows of Ireland as he seeks concord between Hamas and Netanyahu over the sun-scorched, battle-seared Palestinian territories.

Then there is Iran. Will President Obama's proffer of "respect" be enough to dissuade Iran from pursuing what it says it is not doing – namely manufacturing a nuclear bomb?

What of North Korea, that on-and-off again negotiator over its nuclear program with the US and others?

The war in Afghanistan is not going well. In Pakistan, refurbished Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are taunting a shaky government in Islamabad with apparent impunity.

Nor can America ignore the challenge of helping countries that are not of strategic interest. Zimbabwe and the Sudan are affronts to the civilized world. The African continent is beset by the ravages of AIDS. To the people of poor nations, Mr. Obama promised succor: "...[W]e pledge to work alongside you, to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds."

But economic growth goes hand in hand with enlightened government. The news in this regard is not good. Freedom House, the organization dedicated to tracking the course of democracy in some 200 countries and territories, recently reported that freedom retreated in much of the world in 2008, the third year of global decline. Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union saw the most reversals.

The world is no less troubled with Obama in the White House than it was with Bush there. A charm offensive will not alone make the difference.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration. He is currently a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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