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Commentary: Obama's the ambivalent president

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SAN DIEGO -- Less than a year into the job, President Obama seems ambivalent about America's role as the world's one great superpower. Nor is he enamored of the majestic idea -- advanced by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others -- that the United States is the world's one "indispensable nation."

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At the same time, we know that Obama can get passionate about domestic issues that matter to him personally. We've heard him during the health care debate talk about how his own cancer-stricken mother hassled with insurance companies before she died. He also seems to have made education reform a top priority; he wrote in his memoir about how he'd seen the public schools up-close during his time as a community organizer in Chicago and how he came away frustrated.

But when it comes to foreign policy, Obama is uncomfortable with leading other nations, as U.S. presidents are expected to do. He thinks there is nothing special about America's role in the world. As he told the U.N. General Assembly, "no world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed." Solving the world's problems, Obama said, "cannot solely be America's endeavor."

At the moment, the world's problems include the very real possibility that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is proceeding full-speed ahead with a nuclear weapons program. He's also testing intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching Europe.

This is the reality that French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants Obama to understand. Sarkozy seems flabbergasted that Obama appears to be living in an alternate universe when it comes to foreign affairs. He notes that the U.S. president talks about how the nations of the world "must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the earth." Yet, Sarkozy suggests, that day seems to be getting farther and farther away.

"'President Obama dreams of a world without weapons ... but right in front of us two countries are doing the exact opposite," Sarkozy said, referring to Iran and North Korea.

You know the world is upside down when the French president sounds so much stronger than the American one.

Here's the confusing part. Obama knows how to fight. During last year's campaign, Obama would say: "We don't throw the first punch, but we'll throw the last." Indeed, when Obama slugged it out with political opponents, he would take a blow and hit back twice as hard.

That kind of machismo might come in handy when dealing with the likes of Ahmadinejad. Obama still believes U.N. sanctions will pressure this tyrant into abandoning Iran's nuclear weapons program. But, as Sarkozy points out, Iran has ignored five U.N. resolutions on that issue since 2005.

Instead, just like when he canceled missile defense systems for Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama seems to be doing everything he can to avoid conflict.

Can you imagine an American president being afraid to use a word like victory? Does that mean that he is prepared to tolerate defeat?

Well, not in some things. If you want to see Obama get passionate in pursuit of an international cause, you'll have to go to Copenhagen, where the president and first lady this week will lobby the International Olympic Committee to pick their home city of Chicago to host the 2016 Olympics. Michelle Obama has vowed to "take no prisoners" (against chief competitor, Rio de Janeiro). It will be the first time that an American president has personally lobbied the IOC this way.

President Obama is fully committed to Chicago's Olympic bid. And in Copenhagen, there's only one thing he will settle for. It's called victory.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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