I once met an American lawyer-cum-philosopher in Jakarta, whose message literally changed my life. The transformation in me was so radical that when I returned home to the UK my mother was worried that I had undergone a personality change, although she later conceded it was a change for the better. He told me to meet hostility or even threats with a smile. This probably sounds strange but nine times out of ten it works. Firstly because you remove power from your protagonist who invariably anticipates a like reaction and is totally confused or disarmed when his expectations aren't met, and, secondly, you maintain your own equilibrium at the same time.
And as anyone who is lucky enough to be in a successful marriage understands, the use of bullying and aggression to get one's own way is a road to the divorce court. The best relationships are built on mutual respect, openness and a willingness to listen.
It appears that President Obama understands these gems of truth only too well and practices them in both his political and personal life.
The American president's political style is a complete and refreshing departure from that of his predecessor's "it's my way or the highway', which often created enemies where there were none. In less than 100 days in office, he has wooed suspicious Europeans, mended bridges with Russia, proffered an olive branch to America's arch enemy Iran, made positive moves toward Syria, reached out to the "moderate Taleban", flirted with Cuba and extended an enthusiastic handshake to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who once likened George W. Bush to the devil.
By all accounts, President Chavez has already been won over. Most observers expected the two leaders to stay out of each other's way at the recent Summit of the Americas, so when Obama made a beeline for his Venezuelan counterpart armed with a smile and a friendly "Como estás?" to say that onlookers were surprised is an understatement. In return, he received the gift of a book, personal compliments and the probability that a Venezuelan ambassador will finally return to Washington.
Initiating this contact was sheer brilliance on Obama's part, as is his new approach to Cuba, which is still lukewarm. If he eventually normalizes US relations with Havana, lurking Moscow, which has recently agreed to boost Cuban military defenses, will be out in the cold. If you think about it, Washington isn't served by prolonging enmity against it in its own hemisphere or anywhere else for that matter.
Obama has proved his determination to turn foes into friends and revitalize cooled relations. This is a winning strategy that even managed to warm the hearts of the Turks who were in the throes of deciding upon the direction of their policy vis-à-vis the US following the unpopular occupation of Iraq, Washington's "Armenian genocide characterization", and Israel's Gaza onslaught.
Similarly, the Obama administration's attempts to engage Syria are beneficial from a US standpoint. As the New Yorker's investigate journalist Seymour Hersh recently put it, "There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is a low-hanging fruit for someone to harvest."
In the same article, Hersh quotes former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as saying, "Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected". The aim here, of course, is to prize Syria away from its ally Iran, which will never happen as a result of censure or threats.
Rather than eat up the world, Obama wants the world eating out of his hands and he's already gone a long way to achieving that goal. But there are some who are bent on misinterpreting his revolutionary approach of smearing a cast iron fist with lashings of goodwill. They wrongly perceive this as a display of weakness, a cowardly avoidance of confrontation or a shameful readiness to appease.
Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, for instance, constantly rolls out grim-faced Republican senators and right-wing commentators who invariably say Obama's behavior doesn't fit his status as leader of a superpower. They would prefer an antagonistic, stomping America with its red, white and blue nose in the air as it looks down at the rest of us.
A fine example of this entrenched arrogance appears in an article by an Iranian-American called Amil Imani writing in The Global Politician. "Mr. President, many Americans are still in shock by our action at the G-20 summit," he writes. "Your appearance looked submissive, insulting to millions of Americans and treacherous at worst. Your naiveté is really making it difficult for Americans to like you..."
He goes on to say, "only a person who was not born in the United States would commit such a fatuous act. Only a person who considers himself a citizen of the world would willfully attempt to demolish the greatest republic and democracy in the world, America, as fast as he can." It seems to escape Imani that while Obama was born in the US, by his own admission in the blurb at the end of his column, he wasn't.
Poor deluded, intellectually-challenged Imani and others of like mind would do well to reflect on these words spoken by the French Bishop François de Sales: "Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength". Bush's misguided policies thrust the US and the rest of the planet into a horrible mess. I don't mind predicting that the sophisticated, subtle and many-layered policies of the new man in the White House are just what the doctor ordered. Let's see!