The Monitor's View

The Obama doctrine: Charm enemies, arm-twist friends

For a friendly foreign leader, a visit to the White House can be a visit to the woodshed.

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Leaders of three pivotal and US-friendly nations – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel – were summoned for visits to the Obama White House this week, with marching orders made clear.

And this comes soon after the new president made warm overtures to Iran, Syria, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.

See a pattern yet?

It could be this: The Obama doctrine in foreign policy is to squeeze friends into changing their ways and to disarm American adversaries with charm.

It is a long way from the Bush theme of squeezing enemies and largely ignoring friends. But then, President Bush basically wanted one certain result – no follow-up attack on the US by Al Qaeda. Over seven years, he was successful, although at a cost in lives, civil liberties, and America's reputation.

The first inkling of an Obama doctrine was his April trip to Europe. In public, he wowed the masses. Quietly, he demanded of European leaders that they do more in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In a trip to China, his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, didn't even focus on human rights. In a summit with Latin American leaders, Mr. Obama shook hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez while telling friendly nations that it's time to stop blaming the US for their woes and to work more together.

When Jordan's monarch, King Abdullah, visited Washington last month, he was sent back to the Middle East to modify the Arab blueprint for peace with Israel. And in his visit this week, Israeli President Simon Peres took home the message that Israel must make progress with the Palestinians if the US is to persuade Iran to drop its potential as a nuclear threat. Israel must also keep alive the hope of a two-state solution.

In Obama's meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the US expectations are clear: Each country must deal better with the Taliban threat.

In Pakistan, the military should turn its attention away from India toward its domestic jihadists, whose forces are now within an hour's drive of the capital. In Afghanistan, the Karzai government must tackle corruption better and improve justice if it – along with US aid and forces – is to defeat the Taliban.

And on it goes as Obama demands more of friends and allies while keeping such leaders as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad guessing as to how much Obama really represents a friendlier US.

As Obama writes this book – call it "How to Influence Friends and Win Over Enemies" – he must remember that such methods are merely tactical. It's unclear whether they will bring results.

How long, for instance, will he wait for Mr. Karzai to curb graft, Mr. Zardari to push back the Taliban, or Israel's new government to compromise with Palestinians before he tries another way?

As a professed pragmatist, one more eager to fix America's problems first without the distractions of foreign problems, Obama at some point may need to confront adversaries more and friends less.

But for now, with his image as the opposite of Bush, the president may find a few successes.

And that will reinforce this fresh approach.

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