Editor's Choice Archive 1

Obama and Clinton -- Sweeping up the Mess

By Patricia Keegan

When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were vying for the Presidency, we heard both say whomever won the office would face the daunting task of sweeping up a “mess.” Only George Bush could have known how immense is the mess.

Unfortunately, the sweepers who get a close look at the intricacies of the mess are blamed as soon as they pick up the broom. They are admonished for not cleaning up the inherited mess fast enough, their approach is too far left, and we hear irresponsible comments from talk show host Rush Limbaugh and others that it would be better if Obama “failed.” These infantile, attention-provoking remarks are a disservice to our country. It is in each and everyone's interest, indeed in the world's interest, that President Barack Obama succeed.

When Barack Obama spoke many times about changes, some were predictable and some were not. Now we traverse completely new territory, with new international and domestic challenges arising each day.

On the international stage, Hillary Clinton has entered a “hot zone.” Never before has a US Secretary of State faced so many complex problems that require so much tact and clarity of strategy. With her broom she has to follow on the heels of “if you break it, you own it,” as Colin Powell stated early in the Bush administration when the breaking began. She is now navigating her way over egg shells. In view of the subversion of diplomacy by George Bush, the US faces a myriad of challenges – foremost, the revitalization of America's image in the world.

On her tour of Asia, her first overseas mission as new Secretary of State, it was not long before the world began to see a fresh, more direct approach in US diplomacy under the Obama administration. In China, Clinton was criticized for not putting human rights front and center. As a pragmatist, Hillary must weigh the major issues the world is facing and try to come up with solid solutions, requiring the cooperation of not only our allies, but those who consider themselves competitors. On March 10 a lead editorial in the Washington Post chided the Secretary of State for not making human rights a major issue of the Asian tour. “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the US diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy in her dismissal of raising human rights concerns.”

Her response was: “We pretty much know what they are going to say about such issues as a greater freedom for Tibet, we have to continue to press them. But our pressing them on these issues can't interfere with dialog on other crucial topics.”

On March 12 Clinton said the Obama administration regards the issue of human rights on the same level as economics and international security. “A mutual and collective commitment to human rights is [as] important to bettering our world as our efforts on security, global economics, energy, climate change and other pressing issues. We are going to look for ways to be effective where we can actually produce outcomes that will matter in the lives of people who are struggling for their rights to be full participants in their societies.”

Anyone who doubts the Obama administration's commitment to human rights hasn't been paying attention. There is a choice -- to keep lecturing on human rights without affect, as we have seen in the past, or to come up with more creative methods, as Clinton seemed to suggest.

The world is focused on pressing issues – the catastrophic meltdown in world economies, the slow destruction of the planet caused by global warming, nuclear proliferation, scarcity of water and food, and biological and nuclear terrorism. If you set out as Secretary of State on a mission to mend fences in an imperfect world, you must know in advance what your priorities are. If the US and allies fail to confront the issues of nuclear proliferation or any one of those volatile challenges -- there goes human rights on a global scale.

If a major part of the sweep-up is to somehow reestablish moral authority, squandered in the Bush administration, we must proceed not by the words we speak but by our overall policy of justice. During the late 90's, we were focused on a global economy that was ordained “to raise all boats” and improve living conditions around the world with little regard for its effect on climate change or human rights. Today the imminent danger to our planet is finally being addressed front and center. Our priorities of the past tended to be reactive rather than proactive.

What we are beginning to see from the Obama administration is the realization that amid today's complexities there is greater need to find common ground. In order to solve world problems we first must TALK. Finding common ground and talking is now the only answer. Throwing bombs at problems has to become obsolete. Talking requires leadership and focus, otherwise it's just babble. Leadership requires intelligent listening.

The first week of April saw a breakthrough in finding common ground. The days sizzled with TV and print images of a purposeful America on the move again. First there was the UN sponsored Afghanistan/Pakistan conference in the Hague which brought together more than 80 countries, including non-governmental organizations, in a joint effort to stabilize the Afghan government. When 80 countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Russia, come together to bring stability to a part of the world, something good has to happen. Leaders have a chance to express their opinions and listen to others. Iran was free to express their concerns regarding their neighbor and the spill-over of narcotics into their territory, as well as their fears that the presence of “foreign forces” has not improved the situation and an increase in numbers “will prove ineffective too.”

The Secretary of State praised a speech made by Mr. Akhondzadeh, Iran's deputy foreign minister, describing it as a “promising” sign of how Iran wanted to engage with the US and other states in ways to improve Afghanistan's future. Meanwhile, Mr. Holbrooke held a brief and cordial exchange with Mr. Akhondzadeh. At least this is communication -- a small step, but a start!

The G20 Summit in London brought Barak Obama onto the world stage. He had brought the seed of hope to Europe when, as nominee of the Democratic Party, he spoke in Berlin. Now that hope has blossomed into a full blown example of fine, thoughtful, intelligent leadership. While North Korea was readying its missile launch, Russian President Medevev was sitting down with Obama, smilingly pressing the “restart button” in US/Russian relations, with a US President who was calm, cool and direct. Throughout his European tour, he was clearing the brush and planting a new harvest, laying the foundation of a strikingly different tone in US/ European relations. He said he had come to listen, not to lecture. We knew he could listen as we watched him in press conferences and with students at a town meeting in Strasbourg where his intellectual honesty shone through. Along with his extensive knowledge on a diverse group of problems, he has convictions which he can rely on as he deals with each question. He endeavors to express his answer succinctly while transmitting sincerity, an important factor we have not seen in so long we have forgotten it was possible. He also smiles appropriately, eight years of inappropriate smirks were a little disconcerting.

Winding up his first overseas visit in Turkey, President Obama offered his hand in friendship to the Muslim world saying we are not at war with Islam and never will be. He said “The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy.” Overall one feels his sense of urgency that we have reached a point in history, where nuclear proliferation must be halted and where the rational world must begin to reassess prejudices that serve as barriers between cultures. He has asked his audiences at every stop to take fresh approach in looking at the world, not to become fixated on past history. As in the US, he wants the young to get involved, to see service to country as a noble endeavor. As long as the youth are paying attention, and regardless of what the skeptics say, there is still room for idealism in the world.

What transpired from this trip is a stimulation of new ways of thinking; as a country we were static for too long, now we are flowing again. The President's trip lays the foundation for more conferences like this G20 summit that asks world leaders to come up with solutions, not only in dealing with the nuances of the global economy, but in sharing expertise on other problems that beset our small planet. It takes strong leadership to address the challenges of a world that has become so intertwined that if one country is affected, the whole world feels the pain.

As part of his clean sweep Obama made an unannounced visit to troops in Iraq where he urged the government to take control of its country and stand on its own as a democracy.

In the first week of April, 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama have revitalized America's image in the world and have inspired by both their words and their example.