It's too soon to offer an assessment on Obama

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Instead of looking for what the Obama administration accomplished in the first 100 days or what it might achieve in the next 100, we should focus on the longer term. The 1,000-day mark interests me far more than the sprouts of the administration's early seeds.

That said, after spending a week immersed in high-level briefings, discussions and meetings with public and private specialists covering a broad spectrum of foreign-affairs ideas and philosophies, I sense a sincere readiness by most to move in a different direction. The course will not be entirely new - and, in truth, some continuity is welcome in a period of change - but it will be undeniably different.

An especially helpful, long-term approach would be the routine, enthusiastic embracing of bipartisanship - not only in foreign affairs but across the board. In tackling the recession, the top priority, and other problems, the Obama administration should make every reasonable effort to reach across the political aisle. Along those lines, I was impressed with President Barack Obama's selection of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman - a Republican, a political ally of Arizona Sen. John McCain and a rumored future presidential contender - to serve as U.S. ambassador to China.

Another constructive approach would be to maintain a clear-eyed view on terrorism. No matter how you define it, the issue is there and will require consistent, creative, comprehensive attention - from erecting proper defenses to addressing the roots of terrorism - for the duration of the current wave, which will last at least another few decades. I was encouraged to hear a consensus from both public and private figures that al-Qaeda remains a major threat and must be countered accordingly. That is particularly the case in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which leads to the next necessary effort.

I was in town for a recent parade of officials from Kabul and Islamabad, including their presidents. Leaving aside the pomp and circumstance of those visits, the truly appealing part was to hear Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, describe how officials in key areas from the two countries would be teamed up with their U.S. counterparts to encourage stronger communication, cooperation and coordination. That sounds like diplomatic head-banging to me, which I heartily welcome. It makes no sense for those parties not to be fully and collectively engaged. Also, Holbrooke told me unequivocally that Pakistan is not a failed state, nor will it become one. We shall see. I am cautiously optimistic, though, in light of Islamabad's aggressive, albeit slow-in-coming, military campaign against the Pakistani Taliban.

Another essential approach is to move quickly on trying to slow the effects of the climate-change phenomenon. That applies most urgently to the environmental impact, which we all witness, but we cannot afford to ignore other likely ramifications during the long term, especially the national-security aspects. To the extent that we deal with those issues proactively, we lessen the effect they will have on future generations.

Finally, I had multiple conversations - and frequently heard approving echoes - on the need to educate Americans to handle the difficulties mentioned above, along with others. Gone are the days when we could say, "Those are foreign problems; at home, we should concentrate on domestic issues." Virtually everything that happens in today's world ignores such arbitrary boundaries. Whether the issue is recession, terrorism or climate change, it affects us where we live. Our educational systems and news media have a special responsibility to step up to the challenge. We need to hear and understand more, not less, about matters that are as local as they are global. We simply cannot afford to be surprised by the developments of a complex, rapidly changing and frequently disruptive world.

Although I will not avoid making interim evaluations, my measure of the Obama administration's effectiveness will stem substantially from its record on those issues after 1,000 days in office.

• John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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