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Obama Puts His Own Mark on Foreign Policy Issues

by Peter Baker, The New York Times, April 13, 2010

If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns...

Trying to navigate one of the more emotionally fraught foreign policy challenges, Mr. Obama issued a statement from his weekend getaway here commemorating the victims of the killings but tried to avoid alienating Turkey, a NATO ally, which adamantly rejects the genocide label.

“On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began,” Mr. Obama said in the statement, which largely echoed the same language he used on this date a year ago. “In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.”

WASHINGTON — When he took office last year, President Obama told his foreign policy advisers that he had two baskets of issues to deal with. The first would be the legacy issues left from his predecessor, like Iraq, Afghanistan and America’s image in the world. The second would be his own agenda for the future.

President Obama surrounded by world leaders on Tuesday, before a group photo at the nuclear security talks in Washington.

After 15 months addressing the vexing matters he inherited, Mr. Obama is now aggressively advancing his own vision of foreign policy and defining himself more clearly on the world stage. The 47-nation conference on nuclear security he wrapped up on Tuesday represented a chance to assert proactive leadership rather than simply showing that he is not George W. Bush.

“Now he’s beginning to get back to the agenda that he came to office to do,” said Nancy E. Soderberg, a former diplomat and now president of The Connect U.S. Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes international engagement. “His legacy in domestic policy is likely to be health care. But his legacy in foreign policy is likely to be this nonproliferation agenda.”

The nuclear summit meeting came after weeks of a more assertive approach to international affairs, as Mr. Obama seeks to demonstrate strength in the face of assumptions overseas that he may be weak.

He refused to give in to Russian demands for limits on missile defense and came away with an arms control treaty that, while modest, sets the stage for better relations. He got into high-profile scraps with the leaders of Israel and Afghanistan. And now he faces a critical test of whether he can forge a coalition to impose new sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Obama in recent days has backed down in his clash with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. But during his news conference closing the nuclear meeting on Tuesday, he seemed to signal a renewed determination to reinsert himself into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

By describing the long-running conflict as a threat to American security, he effectively adopted the argument of Gen. David H. Petraeus, his Middle East commander, who recently warned that the region’s troubles created a dangerous environment for American troops stationed in nearby Iraq and elsewhere in the area. “It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower,” he said. “And when conflicts break out, one way or another, we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

For most new presidents, foreign policy is a learning experience, and it can take months, if not years, to feel comfortable in the role of world leader. Advisers said Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, had grown more confident in managing international relations over time.

But he has learned hard lessons along the way about the limits of his powers of persuasion.

He has acknowledged that he underestimated, for instance, just how hard it would be to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, and his engagement with Iran yielded no more cooperation than Mr. Bush’s approach.

If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.

“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”

Indeed, on the sidelines of the meeting, Mr. Obama met with leaders with poor human rights records, like President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a former Communist boss who has kept a firm grip on his former Soviet republic for two decades.

Mr. Nazarbayev, whose country has considerable oil and uranium resources, plastered Washington with newspaper and bus stop ads touting it as a responsible partner. Mr. Obama reached agreement with Mr. Nazarbayev to fly supplies to Afghanistan over Kazakhstan, with no real public criticism of the country.

During their private meeting, he told Mr. Nazarbayev “that we, too, are working to improve our democracy,” a White House official later told reporters, a comment interpreted as soft-pedaling concerns over repressive Kazakh rule. Aides later said that oversimplified the private conversation, and that in fact Mr. Obama spent considerable time talking with Mr. Nazarbayev about democracy and human rights behind closed doors.

Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an advocacy group that ranks Kazakhstan as “Not Free,” said she believed Mr. Obama was committed to promoting democracy, citing a recent meeting with democracy advocates. “The rhetoric is going the right way,” she said. “But it’s not really translated, as far as I can see, into coherent policy in some of the toughest places around the world.”

Other foreign policy specialists said that it simply reflected a more pragmatic view of the world. Expectations that other countries would bow to Mr. Obama’s wishes because he is more popular than his predecessor were always misplaced, they said, and they sometimes resist him, but not because they are testing him.

“All these other countries, they have their own interests,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They don’t get out of bed in the morning thinking, ‘Gosh, how can I make America’s life better?’ ”

With health care behind him, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to focus on translating his vision for foreign policy into reality. “It’s both strengthened and liberated him so he could deal with other things with wind in his sails,” said Richard N. Haass, a former top official in George W. Bush’s State Department who now leads the Council on Foreign Relations.

The treaty with Russia, the nuclear meeting and other initiatives, he added, are the beginning of progress for Mr. Obama. “These are not transformational developments,” he said, “but in foreign policy it’s important to keep the ball moving down the field in the right direction, and that’s what’s happening.”

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Obama Marks Genocide Without Saying the Word

by Peter Baker, April 24, 2010

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — President Obama, who as a candidate vowed to use the term genocide to describe the Ottoman mass slaughter of Armenians nearly a century ago, once again declined to do so on Saturday as he marked the anniversary of the start of the killings.

In Yerevan, Armenians on Saturday solemnly observed the 95th anniversary of the genocide that began in 1915 under the Ottoman Turk government. About 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

Trying to navigate one of the more emotionally fraught foreign policy challenges, Mr. Obama issued a statement from his weekend getaway here commemorating the victims of the killings but tried to avoid alienating Turkey, a NATO ally, which adamantly rejects the genocide label.

“On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began,” Mr. Obama said in the statement, which largely echoed the same language he used on this date a year ago. “In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.”

When he was running for president and seeking votes from some of the 1.5 million Armenian-Americans, Mr. Obama had no qualms about using the term genocide and criticized the Bush administration for recalling an ambassador who dared to say the word. As a senator, he supported legislation calling the killings genocide, and in a statement on Jan. 19, 2008, he said that “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.”

Two years later, as president, he used none of that sort of language, though as he did a year ago, he hinted to Armenians that he still felt the same way. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed,” he said. “It is in all of our interest to see the achievement a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”

His statement came as the issue has grown as a source of tension between the United States and Turkey, and as a reconciliation effort between Turkey and Armenia that Mr. Obama has championed has seemingly stalled.

In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted narrowly to condemn the killings as an act of genocide, defying a last-minute plea from the Obama administration to forgo a vote because it would threaten the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts. Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest.

Armenia announced Thursday that it would suspend ratification of peace accords with Turkey, apparently because it was angered that Turkey was making new demands. Armenia insisted that it was not altogether abandoning the peace process, but analysts indicated that the Armenian government believed Turkey was trying to pressure it to reach a separate peace treaty with another neighbor, Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

Although the president’s statement did not use the term “genocide” on Saturday, it was strong enough to provoke a sharp statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which called the language a reflection of a one-sided political perception. “Third countries neither have a right nor authority to judge the history of Turkish-Armenian relations with political motives,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Armenian National Committee of America, an advocacy group based in Washington, condemned the “euphemisms and evasive terminology” in Mr. Obama’s statement and called it “yet another disgraceful capitulation to Turkey’s threats.”

“Today we join with Armenians in the United States and around the world in voicing our sharp disappointment with the president’s failure to properly condemn and commemorate the Armenian genocide,” said Ken Hachikian, the committee’s chairman. He added that Mr. Obama’s failure to follow through on his campaign pledge was “allowing Turkey to tighten its gag rule on American genocide policy.”

Clifford J. Levy contributed reporting from Moscow, and Sebnem Arsu from Izmir, Turkey.