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Tom Eblen: Lexington author critiques Obama's foreign policy

American foreign policy during the past four months has looked much different than it did during the previous eight years.

Many people have contrasted the approaches of President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. They also have compared Obama with other American presidents since World War II.

George Herring of Lexington is taking a longer view — a much longer view.

Herring, a retired University of Kentucky professor, is a leading authority on the history of American foreign policy. He also is author of the much-praised book From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, the seventh volume in the Oxford History of the United States.

Since its publication last fall, Herring's book has been praised by reviewers for its comprehensive coverage, its analysis of major themes and its readability.

Herring said writing the book brought home how foreign relations have always been central to American history and success.

"There's this myth of isolationist America," he said. "But we are a nation that has behaved, from the very beginning, like a traditional great power. That means being aggressively, relentlessly expansionist. Vigorously defending our interests and putting those interests above ideals when those things clashed."

So far, Herring thinks Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been savvy and sophisticated about foreign affairs. But, he warned, Obama's foreign policy "team of rivals" has yet to be tested.

Herring's comments were echoed recently by Foreign Policy magazine, which asked experts to grade Obama's performance so far. The results: 11 As, 16 Bs, 7 Cs — and a D from former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams.

"I think the direction he's moving is the right direction," Herring said. "It accurately reflects where we stand in the world today. On style points, he has been spectacular. He has done some remarkable things."

Chief among them, in Herring's view, has been tempering the notion that America always knows best and can unilaterally dictate policies to other countries and determine outcomes.

Herring said such "American exceptionalism" has tripped up presidents for generations.

"People don't like to be lectured," he said. "They don't like to hear other people talk about how great they are and how right they are. The other thing may be that it blinds you to the limits of your power."

Herring said race, and sometimes racism, has played a major role in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The fact that Obama is a black man from a multicultural family gives him special credibility and standing with many foreign nations and leaders.

Herring sees Obama's willingness to engage the leaders of other nations — even bitter enemies — as a positive sign, based on historical experience. Fresh approaches to dealing with Russia and Iran, for example, could be in our long-term interest.

Herring noted that Obama has been seeking the middle ground on many issues. His administration also has followed some paths that the Bush administration had started down during its final two years in office, such as its relations with Europe and Israel and strategies for dealing with Iraq's insurgency.

"The breaks or changes between administrations are never quite as sharp as the new administration would like you to believe," Herring said. "Changing policy is often like turning around a huge aircraft carrier in stormy seas. So many positions are fixed, it's hard to change in terms of domestic politics."

The economic rise of China and India — and perhaps Russia and even Brazil — will continue to make global politics more complicated. Although America is the leading world power, it is hardly the only one.

From the perspective of domestic politics, many of Obama's approaches to foreign policy could be risky. If things don't go well, he could be accused of being weak.

"There are no quick solutions to these problems. It's going to require a patience on the part of Americans that is not part of our national character," Herring said.

"When you get down to cases, the chances of a good outcome on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of these things, is very much up in the air. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, or perhaps any solutions at all."