As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Obama's Public Diplomacy

I sense a harshness to my own rhetoric against President Obama the past couple weeks. I've been focused on the financial crisis, the refusal to acknowledge the Constitutional abuses of the prior Administration and the Af-Pak policies, all of which I fear have the potential to destroy a promising Presidency; but I have been remiss in pointing out that, in general, this was an excellent European trip that yielded tangible results, particularly in the area of public diplomacy. For instance I thought his town hall in Istanbul, and indeed the entire notion of holding town hall meetings in foreign countries, to be first-rate. The past two days have done more to restore American relations with the Islamic world than eight years of George Bush. Obama operated with humility and respect. And he challenged the younger generation to rise above the pettiness and the old arguments and forge the world they'd like to see. I found this part in particular to be crucial.

Finally, I want to say how much I'm counting on young people to help shape a more peaceful and prosperous future. Already, this generation, your generation, has come of age in a world that's been marked by change that's both dramatic and difficult. While you are empowered through unprecedented access to information and invention, you're also confronted with big challenges -- a global economy in transition, climate change, extremism, old conflicts but new weapons. These are all issues that you have to deal with as young people both in Turkey and around the world.

In America, I'm proud to see a new spirit of activism and responsibility take root. I've seen it in the young Americans who are choosing to teach in our schools or volunteer abroad. I saw it in my own presidential campaign where young people provided the energy and the idealism that made effort possible. And I've seen it wherever I travel abroad and speak to groups like this. Everywhere I go I find young people who are passionate, engaged, and deeply informed about the world around them.

So as President, I'd like to find new ways to connect young Americans to young people all around the world, by supporting opportunities to learn new languages, and serve and study, welcoming students from other countries to our shores. That's always been a critical part of how America engages the world. That's how my father, who was from Kenya, from Africa, came to the United States and eventually met my mother. It's how Robert College was founded so long ago here in Istanbul.

Simple exchanges can break down walls between us, for when people come together and speak to one another and share a common experience, then their common humanity is revealed. We are reminded that we're joined together by our pursuit of a life that's productive and purposeful, and when that happens mistrust begins to fade and our smaller differences no longer overshadow the things that we share. And that's where progress begins.

Most satisfying was his final answer to a student's question, where he urged the assembled and the world to reject the worst stereotypes that hold back progress, which is a notion that comes out of the civil rights movement as much as anywhere else, but which fits the context Obama provides of the Middle East peace process pretty well:

But it will depend on young people like you being open to new ideas and new possibilities. And it will require young people like you never to stereotype or assume the worst about other people.

In the Muslim world, this notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance -- because there's two sides to every question. That doesn't mean that sometimes one side has done something wrong and should not be condemned. But it does mean there's always two sides to an issue.

I say the same thing to my Jewish friends, which is you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians. Learning to stand in somebody else's shoes to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins. And it's up to you to make that happen.

The Jerusalem Post certainly took notice of that last part. It's a very fresh, optimistic view of the world untainted by the sins of excessive demonization or the easy taint of believing the worst of your enemy. I wish more people could live up to it.

I'm not going to like everything this President does, but I have to applaud his trip to Turkey.

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