By JAMES P. RUBIN
Beneath the attacks on President Barack Obama's performance at recent meetings abroad lie two fundamental questions about American foreign policy. The first is the extent to which Washington should make changing despised leaders of other countries a primary goal. The second is how to use the power of the presidency.
APWhat the chorus of Mr. Obama's critics is ignoring is that the 2008 election was, in part, a referendum on President Bush's policy of regime change and his approach to diplomacy.
Candidate Barack Obama could not have been clearer. He was going to talk to foreign leaders directly whether the United States agreed with their policies or not. And the purpose of this new diplomacy, Mr. Obama emphasized, was not to change regimes around the world but to advance American interests. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, took the opposite view. He wouldn't be seen in the company of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. And as far as Iran was concerned, Mr. McCain would demand that Tehran capitulate on a series of issues as the price for a meeting with the president.
Despite the results of November's election, Mr. Obama's critics are judging him on the basis of the old Bush calculus. Whether it is Venezuela or Cuba, they assess Mr. Obama's actions based on whether or not they immediately contribute to the downfall of a regime. If not, then they go off in high dudgeon.
Worse yet, Mr. Obama's critics are using the same logic that contributed to early failures in Iraq. They say the president's politeness to Hugo Chávez, for example, should be judged by the standards of the Cold War. They point to the fact that dissidents in Eastern Europe were heartened when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." But that truth doesn't always translate to other parts of the world. If Iraq has taught us anything, it is that not all countries respond the same way when a dictator falls. Unfortunately, many heirs to the Reagan tradition haven't learned that policy by analogy is a risky business.
Whether the challenge is Afghanistan, Pakistan or nuclear proliferation, the new administration seems determined not to be distracted by the advocates of regime change or the likes of Hugo Chávez. Instead, the Obama administration has used recent summits in London, Prague and Trinidad as a way to restore respect for the U.S. abroad, and to build the base of support that is necessary to achieve larger goals.
Mr. Obama not only has a different view than Mr. Bush about the ends of U.S. foreign policy, but he has also promised to use different means than his predecessor. Mr. Bush believed that he could extract concessions from recalcitrant governments as the price of admission for dialogue with the U.S. When it came to preventing North Korea from building nuclear weapons, or Iran from developing nuclear technology, the Bush policy failed. Denying direct access to U.S. officials did not compel the governments in Pyongyang or Tehran to reverse course.
Soon enough Mr. Obama's critics will be howling that he is meeting with the leaders of problematic countries with no dramatic concessions to show for it. But again, they will be missing the point. As he made clear during the campaign, the president believes direct diplomacy is a tool in America's arsenal. It is not a prize to be won.
Mr. Obama's new diplomacy is well-suited to an era of democratic government and instant communication. By refusing to snub Hugo Chávez, Mr. Obama makes it harder for dictators and anti-American activists to demonize the U.S. Of course, national security is not a popularity contest. But since governments around the world are increasingly democratic, they must respond to the attitudes of their people. A popular America has more leverage at the negotiating table on issues from trade to terrorism. While Republican operatives may dismiss the significance of having a president the world admires, the fact is that Mr. Obama's popularity brings tangible benefits we have lost over the last eight years.
If the president's critics continue to judge him by Bush-era standards of diplomacy and regime change, they are going to have a lot to shout about over the next four years. But the majority of Americans who supported Barack Obama will withhold judgment and give the administration the opportunity to implement its initiatives on climate change, nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan and Iran. They may even give the new policies time to work.
Mr. Rubin, an adjunct professor at Columbia's School of International Affairs, was an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.