Obama Trip Abroad Faces Rising Expectations

President, Starting In Russia, Wants To Be Seen As Tough

July 06, 2009|By Christi Parsons | Christi Parsons,Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- On his four previous foreign trips, President Barack Obama has been greeted by cheering crowds and smiling world leaders, a carefully crafted global introduction that emphasized listening, collaboration and cooperation.

But expectations are rising for the president and, as he prepared to go abroad again on Sunday, the White House is resetting its goals. Now the idea is to cast Obama not just as a likable, inspirational figure but also as a tough-minded world leader.

His first stop Monday will be a sure test. Obama is scheduled to sit down with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who ostensibly is No. 2 in the Kremlin but is widely believed to be the true power behind President Dmitry Medvedev.

Obama also will meet Medvedev, the protege Putin picked to succeed him as president, with nuclear disarmament at the top of the agenda.

He then will give what's billed as a major speech at the New Economic School, illustrating his view of U.S.-Russia relations to a broader audience in person and by way of television.

The president also plans meetings with Russian political and business leaders, which White House officials say is designed to diversify Washington's relationship with Moscow beyond the traditional political power structure.

"The idea here is that this is not 1974," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs. "This is not just where we do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and with the Russian people."

While Russia is no longer a Cold War superpower, administration officials are acutely aware of the peril of appearing weak. President George W. Bush famously said he looked into Putin's eyes and saw a man he could work with - and then presided over a period of worsening U.S.-Russian relations. And the U.S. still wants Moscow's help on a broad range of issues, most notably the Iranian nuclear program and the war in Afghanistan.

"Mr. Putin believes that, for now, Russia has the upper hand vis-a-vis the United States, and that Washington needs to make all of the fundamental concessions," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington. Putin has "a chip on his shoulder - about the size of the Rock of Gibraltar - about the humiliations that Russia has supposed had inflicted upon it by the West."

An array of voices is urging Obama to be tough with Russian leaders. A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter last week urging him to express "deep concern" about Iran's nuclear program and to "make it known that Russia should not expect progress on issues of concern to Moscow if it does not take a tougher stance on Iran."

The White House has responded with skepticism about Russia's desire for cooperation and by saying that a clear-eyed view of "mutual interest" will guide U.S. policy.

"They're not prepared to make a lot of concessions merely to reach an agreement" on arms reductions, said Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Americans are going to say to the Russians, 'We're prepared to walk away.' We'll see who blinks first."

Obama, meantime, has been sending his own explicit message.

"I think it's important that, even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understand that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated," the president said last week in an interview with the Associated Press. "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business, and one foot in the new."

An aide to Putin fired back, saying that "after visiting Moscow, President Obama will know the realities better."

After Moscow, Obama heads to Italy and a summit of the Group of Eight nations. He has convened a side meeting of major greenhouse gas emitters to discuss energy and climate, and will also meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

And on his first presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa, Obama is pointedly skipping his ancestral home of Kenya and visiting Ghana - among the continent's strongest democracies - to underscore his support of civil society and the rule of law.

Ghana has had five successive elections widely considered free and fair. The most recent election came down to a runoff won by the opposition party, and still resulted in a peaceful transition of power.

With the power he has to shape world perceptions, the first African-American president is notably turning away from stories of chaos on the African continent.

Far too often, says one key Obama adviser, "discussions of Africa are focused on crisis." "Ghana is not in crisis," said Michelle Gavin, the president's senior director for African affairs, "and it's an example for the region and more broadly."

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