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100 Days Of Diplomacy: A False Yardstick

Background and analysis by CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.

How many political prognosticators are out there having predicted a swine flu pandemic as the dominant topic on President Barack Obama's 100th day in office? Exactly.

What journalists need at this point in the Obama administration is a reality check - on ourselves. So the president and his team have reached the 100-day mark. Who cares? Apparently the media does because we seem incapable of resisting artificial and often self-imposed yardsticks for measuring one thing or another.

What can really be said about the foreign policy of Mr. Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, after so short a period of time? Here's what: They've both made trips abroad and met with foreign leaders and generally gotten quite favorable reviews for bringing a more open and inclusive attitude than existed during the Bush administration. That was not a very high bar to top.

The President has been to Europe, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean while his top diplomat has visited several European and Asian capitals plus stops in the Mideast. Anyone looking for big policy changes could at best point only to first steps.

It is clear that Mr. Obama has a different style towards foreign policy than his predecessor and he has acted in ways he said he would when he was a candidate. No one should really have been surprised when he shook the hand of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez at a conference in Trinidad. Still he took some political flak for the move from Republicans back home. His first meeting with Russia's Dmitri Medvedev went well but was not followed by any Bush-like pronouncement (after meeting with Vladimir Putin for the first time) that "he had looked the man in the eye…and was able to get a sense of his soul." No surprise there either.

Small overtures have been made toward Iran and Cuba although neither has responded quite as warmly as Washington would have liked, at least not yet. Relations with Russia have been famously - or infamously - "reset." U.S. diplomats now will be an active part of nuclear negotiations with Tehran's envoys and Cuban-Americans have had Bush era restrictions on travel and remittances eased. Arms talks have already begun with the Russians but all of these moves fall into the preliminary category.

To date, only the North Koreans, by conducting a missile test in defiance of the international community, have taken an overt step to spoil the Obama administration's coming out party. However, one need not worry; others will come along to do the same. No one in Washington has any illusions that the early favorable reviews will come in for some serious policy disagreements.

You want change? Here's some change: the Obama administration believes in high-level, high-powered envoys to do the nitty-gritty work of diplomacy. Very early on appointments were made to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan ("AfPak" in the new diplomatic lingo), the Mideast peace process, Iran and North Korea. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (AfPak), Sen. George Mitchell (Mideast peace process), Ambassador Dennis Ross (Iran) and Ambassador Stephen Bosworth (North Korea) have each hit the road for consultations with foreign leaders; some have already made multiple trips.

Another strong focus of the administration is a front-and-center role for climate change and that is a significant change from the Bush years. To emphasize its role, Clinton added another special envoy, Todd Stern, to those already named for geographic or geopolitical issues.

While having these envoys manage day-to-day events on the hottest topics frees up Secretary Clinton to travel and meet with her fellow foreign ministers, it also allows her to hold town hall meetings with students or civic and women's leaders when she is abroad, something which suits her politically oriented style. Critics of the special envoy school of diplomacy say it leaves the secretary of state too far removed from the give and take which leads to results; defenders argue it allows her more time to oversee policy without getting bogged down in day-to-day detailed negotiations.

Perhaps in another 100 days, after a parade of foreign leaders has passed through the Oval Office, we will begin to see how the special envoys are doing. For those who forecast that Hillary Clinton would have trouble playing second fiddle to her former political foe, senior officials who have watched the two say she knows who the boss is and has had no problem accommodating herself to her new role.

Two things are clear at this early stage. While we do not yet know exactly how or when Clinton will put her personal stamp on foreign policy, it is already apparent Mr. Obama and his White House team at the National Security Council are heavily invested in the policy deliberations and, after all, it is, ultimately, Mr. Obama's foreign policy we are talking about.

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