Friedman Forgets Clinton’s Popularity Abroad

Tom Friedman’s Wednesday column says an advantage of Obama as president is that people in Kenya really like him.

Yes, Mr. Obama’s father was Kenyan, but nevertheless, that poster and those pictures got me thinking: when was the last time you saw a U.S. president or politician being held up as a role model abroad? It’s been awhile. And that got me thinking about Mr. Obama. It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: it is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.

To Friedman’s “when was the last time?” query, here is my answer.

Clinton Africa poster

I don’t know if he was held up as a “role model” exactly, but Bill Clinton was pretty popular overseas. Here’s an account of one of the stops during Clinton’s 1998 Africa trip:

President Clinton began a six-nation tour of Africa on Monday with a brief stop in Ghana, speaking to a wildly enthusiastic crowd on the benefits of democracy, trade and justice — and taking a side-swipe at military rule in Nigeria.

On his way to Independence Square, Clinton was cheered in the muggy streets of the capital by scores of school children wearing orange and brown school uniforms and waving American and Ghanaian flags. Ten of thousands of citizens crowded the route.

Accra was festooned with cheerful banners reading, “Akwaaba, Bill Clinton,” welcoming the president. Billboards showed painted photographs of Clinton and Rawlings shaking hands.

The foreign affection for Clinton persists in his post-presidency as well. In 2005 the Washington Post reported that Clinton dreams of being the UN Secretary-General some day, and Europeans sounded supportive of the idea.

In the United States, the debate over Bush’s approach to the world and Clinton’s — between force and persuasion — remains unsettled. But it seems apparent which approach is more winning abroad. While Bush has generated deep suspicion, especially in Western Europe, Clinton is highly popular, European commentators said.

Europeans who chafe at Bush respond to Clinton’s “inclusive, soft-toned way of communicating with the world, and especially with Europeans,” said Arnout Brouwers, a prominent Dutch editor who has studied American politics in Washington with the German Marshall Fund. “His personal history, his charms, even his personal failings, helped people identify with him as ‘one of us.’ ”

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a friend of Clinton’s, agreed. “The reason Bill Clinton is popular in Europe is very simple: He just is. He is a man of great charisma,” Kohl said in a brief interview after a meeting with Bush in Washington.

Asked about Clinton’s dream of heading the United Nations, Kohl said: “I do not know if Bill wishes to go to the United Nations. If he wants, I would support him.”

This is all to say that holding up Barack Obama — whom I generally like — as some sort of aberration in this regard seems wrong to me. Whether Hillary could get the benefit of the doubt from foreign leaders on account of residual good will from her husband’s presidency might be a more interesting question.

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