APTOPIX G20 Summit Iran
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama, center, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy leave the stage after making a joint statement on Iran's nuclear facility on Friday.
updated 9/25/2009 5:18:55 PM ET 2009-09-25T21:18:55

The image of President Barack Obama standing alongside the leaders of France and Britain to denounce Iran left no doubt that he confronts dilemmas in a far more collaborative, multinational way than did his predecessor, George W. Bush.

But his more inclusive style cannot keep crises from popping up without notice, and it is not clear it will help him resolve problems such as Afghanistan's insurgency, Iran's nuclear ambitions or the troubled health care system back home.

As Obama wheels from one challenge to another, he strikes a less lonely, go-it-alone pose than some before him.

Bill Clinton presented lawmakers with a take-it-or-leave-it health care proposal. (They left it.) Obama let Congress write the details of his overhaul plan, and now lawmakers are nearing a showdown on whether any of the competing versions can become law.

Above all, Obama has rejected Bush's unilateral approach to international matters, which infuriated many European allies and shrouded the Iraq war in questions about its legitimacy.

This week alone, Obama engaged in a series of multinational activities that Bush might have disdained. He became the first U.S. president to chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. He met privately, again, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who later showed more willingness to press Iran to drop any pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Then, on Friday in Pittsburgh, Obama told the world of Iran's secret nuclear fuel plant , evidence of which had helped sway Medvedev two days earlier in New York. Rather than stand alone, however, he joined British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose criticisms of Iran seemed more strident than Obama's.

Multilateral tone
Obama's tone was distinctly multilateral. "It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations," he said.

Disclosure of the Iranian facility heightens the importance of an Oct. 1 meeting of officials from Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

"Through this dialogue," Obama said, "we are committed to demonstrating that international law is not an empty promise, that obligations must be kept and that treaties will be enforced."

For some of Obama's critics, of course, merely sitting down with Iranian officials is too much.

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Until Tehran discloses more about its nuclear programs, "the United States should not participate in direct negotiations with Iran, negotiations that will further legitimize this brutal regime," said U.S. House Republican leader John Boehner.

But Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund, likened Obama to a skillful chess player, "moving his pieces on the board, extending his hand, opening up to engagement, winning allies over to the U.S. position."

Tough talk, even when it comes from several world leaders instead of one, doesn't guarantee that Iran will allow international inspectors inside the facility. If it refuses, then the United States and its allies, including Israel, will have to decide how far to go in retaliating.

No guarantee of success
Obama's collaborative approach doesn't guarantee success, but it might create greater diplomatic leverage, said Matt Bennett, who tracks foreign affairs for the Democratic-leaning group Third Way.

Obama's philosophy is "together if possible, alone if we must," Bennett said. "Bush took the opposite approach, and while his contempt for multilateralism certainly wasn't the sole source of our problems for those eight years, it was a major contributing factor."

Working with other nations is no cure-all, Bennett said, "but it will make efforts to pressure Iran much more potent, it will help relieve a bit of the pressure on the U.S. in Afghanistan," and it will help keep North Korea in check.

A collaborative approach to governing has limits on the domestic front, too. Obama left it to Democratic lawmakers, who control the House and Senate, to draft competing versions of a health care overhaul, assuming he could help them solve their differences this fall.

That still might happen. But the struggle has been harder and uglier than many had expected, and Republicans have used the protracted process to fire up their political base and build significant opposition.

Obama took a break from his focus on health care this week to address the United Nations on Wednesday. He said other nations cannot "stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone."

The looming showdown with Iran may help determine whether a more inclusive and collaborative approach works a lot better.

Charles Babington covers the White House for the Associated Press.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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