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John Waelti: Refreshing change in foreign policy
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Only with the perspective of history will it be verified, but I have long believed that in Barack Obama we have a once-in-a-generational phenomenon. He has inherited a tanking economy and a foreign policy in shambles. We are fortunate to have the right man in the right place at a time when he is so desperately needed.

In three short months he has dealt with multiple intractable issues with aplomb and dignity at a measured, deliberate pace. Rarely do we see a politician with such intelligence, thoughtfulness and charisma combined with political savvy in the best sense of the word - pragmatic idealism at its best.

In his appointment of Cabinet members, he resembles Lincoln in ways other than simply being from Illinois. Just as Lincoln recognized talent in his political rivals and brought them onto his team, President Obama is doing the same. He was right to retain Mr. Gates as secretary of defense. Gates has the experience and the credibility necessary for dealing with a near impossible situation. His efforts to reform the Pentagon are visionary and should be applauded.

The appointment of former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood as secretary of transportation appears to be a good one. And appointment of his Democratic rival, Senator Clinton, as secretary of state is just what we needed - experience and an urgently needed change in direction of our foreign policy.

Not only is a change in foreign policy direction morally and ethically right, but also is in our own purely pragmatic, self-serving interests. Let's remind ourselves why.

The U.S. constitutes less than 4 percent of the world's population. You don't have to be an economist to appreciate doing things in the most effective, efficient way possible. The most effective, efficient way to enhance our own physical and economic security is to get as much of the other 96 percent of the world's population with us as we can.

We need to live up to our professed values and ideals - no more torture, no more multi-year detention of suspects without bringing formal charges, and no more brow beating other nations that are more hesitant to go to war than we are.

So what are some other changes that are so refreshing? The president was right to explicitly declare, "We are not at war against Islam." Secretary Clinton's visit to the world's largest Islamic nation, Indonesia, was well timed and by all indications well received. We need to isolate the radicals, rather than isolating ourselves and handing the radicals recruiting grounds on a silver platter, as we have done.

The president is repairing relations in our own hemisphere, from Canada, south to Mexico and beyond. His proposal to engage Cuba is in our own best interests. Our decades-old policy regarding Cuba has outlived any usefulness it might have had - it has served neither the Cuban people nor ourselves well. Change is long overdue. Engagement is a sign of wisdom and strength, not weakness. Both Cuba and Venezuela already appear to be more conciliatory, and that is in our own best interests.

Notwithstanding the nitpicking of major media pundits, the president's trip to Europe was a rousing success. The "dispute" over whether we need more stimulus or more regulation to address the world economic recession was blown out of proportion by media that thrive on controversy, real or manufactured. We need both stimulus and regulatory reform - it's just a matter of degree.

Contrary to charges by his harshest critics, the president was not apologizing to Europe. He was announcing, loud and clear, that the era of name-calling and Europe-bashing is over. And when we have a president that is more popular among Europeans than their own leaders, that can only be good for our own nation and our own interests.

The president's low-key but effective handling of the piracy issue is illustrative of "cool." The end result of the recent incident would have strained the credibility of a Hollywood scriptwriter and could easily have gone awry. But clearly, the president and the Navy passed the test with flying colors - an example par excellence of calculated, measured response.

And, of course, the Middle East - the perennial challenge. For starters, the president is right that we need to engage Iran diplomatically. Few people realize how much pro-American sentiment there is among the Iranian people, particularly among younger Iranians. We need to avoid bumbling, such as labeling the country among the "axis of evil." All that does is gin up anti-American fervor among those who otherwise would create pressure from within their own country for change.

Toughest of all is the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio. The world expects American participation, if not leadership, on this matter. American credibility is key to success in this endeavor.

Does a more engaging diplomatic foreign policy mean that all will be peaches and cream? Of course not. But there already are enough intractable issues in this increasingly crowded, complicated world. We don't need to make it any more difficult by picking fights and needlessly antagonizing other nations and peoples. We need all the tools of diplomacy at our disposal.

We are more likely to effect constructive change through engagment than confrontation. We can take solace in that this administration is moving us in the right direction - a most refreshing, long overdue change.

- Monroe resident John Waelti is former Professor of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota; and Professor Emeritus, New Mexico State University. He also served as Visting Professor, University of Nairobi, Kenya; and Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sultan Qaboos University, Sultanate of Oman. He can be reached at