For Obama, high hopes and a global honeymoon

WASHINGTON Mon Jan 19, 2009 12:56pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama enters the White House on Tuesday with enough foreign goodwill to buy at least a brief global honeymoon as he wades into the crush of international crises awaiting his attention.

But high expectations around the world could lead to disappointment if he and a foreign policy team led by incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make little headway on long-standing problems from the Middle East to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and elsewhere.

"Expectations are too high around the world for the Obama administration and its foreign policy," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Just because you change administrations doesn't mean all these problems get any easier," he said. "You can't expect miracle solutions when administrations have been grappling with these problems for a long time."

Reconciling expectations abroad -- where his election as the first black U.S. president sparked a bout of Obama-mania -- with the constraints of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global economic crisis could be one of the new president's toughest tests.

The first signs of Obama's difficult balancing act have surfaced in recent weeks as his silence on the Israeli offensive in Gaza has led to some rare criticism in foreign media.

"There is ample opportunity for disappointment here if expectations are too high or more importantly if you expect results too quick," said Daniel Serwer, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

'A BIT OF LEEWAY'

"But it also creates an enormous opportunity," he said.

To the world, Obama offers a huge if obvious asset -- he's not George W. Bush, whose launch of the Iraq war and penchant for unilateralism made him deeply unpopular.

Fueling the high hopes is his selection of Clinton, a well-known global brand, as secretary of state and their emphasis on diplomacy and re-engagement with the world.

"These things all come together to not only raise expectations but also give the new administration a bit of leeway. It will buy Obama quite a bit of time and space to work with others," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

A senior European diplomat said he did not expect fast dramatic shifts when the new administration takes over.

"It's not as though Obama coming in will be a black-and-white change. To some degree it's a continuation of a trend we have seen before," the diplomat said, noting the Bush administration had been more multilateral in recent years.

Given the crush of pending foreign policy problems, from Gaza to Tehran to Islamabad to Pyongyang, Serwer suggested Obama take an early crack at "low-hanging fruit" to build momentum.

He noted Obama's support for lifting travel restrictions on families wishing to visit relatives in Cuba, a policy Clinton endorsed at her Senate confirmation hearing, as the sort of easy winner that could give a sense of progress.

"If you can win a few early ones, it makes the rest easier. There aren't going to be many easy triumphs," Serwer said. "The really tough problems are going to be around for a long time to come. Diplomacy works, but it is not quick."

'NIGHTMARISHLY COMPLICATED'

He said the range of international problems created an environment that was "nightmarishly complicated and difficult. They are going to have to pick some priorities and put some real resources behind those priorities."

Public pressure for results on the foreign policy front is less acute at home, where it falls well behind the economic crisis and other domestic issues on the list of priorities. A Fox News poll last week found that more than two-thirds of Americans say Obama's top priority should be the economy.

The war in Iraq, once a top concern, has tumbled to fourth place with only 3 percent listing it as the top priority. The Middle East barely registered in the poll, and other foreign issues made no impression.

While Europe is enamored of Obama, it is still wary of muscular U.S. leadership on global affairs. A 2008 poll found only 36 percent of Europeans viewed U.S. leadership in world affairs as desirable and 59 percent saw it as undesirable.

The German magazine Der Spiegel said Obama would demand more forceful leadership from European governments as well.

"It is said that Obama is a man who knows how to listen. But that is only an advantage when the others have something to say," it said.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Xavier Briand)

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