It must be jarring to those who assured us that the world would embrace America as soon as President George W. Bush returned to Texas. But President Barack Obama and his followers are learning that international frustration and even disdain come with the territory for U.S. presidents. Don’t take my word for it.
Pakistanis are burning Obama in effigy—and those are the anti-Taliban Pakistanis. Pakistan was humiliated by the U.S. strike on Osama bin Laden—deservedly so, given its duplicity and double-dealing—but it wasn’t supposed to be this way in the Age of Obama. After all, Obama lambasted his predecessor for alienating allies, acting unilaterally and launching military operations without UN permission. Yet as the Pakistanis know, the bin Laden raid failed to meet any of those standards Obama applied to Bush.
While on the subject of anti-Obama protests, when the bombs started falling on Libya, Sri Lankans took to the streets to stomp on photos of our president.
Obama’s mishandling of the Libya crisis has been spun by his supporters as “leading from behind.” But as the war enters its 15th week—a war against an isolated, hated, weak despot—leading from behind looks more like abdication.
Citing remarks by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, The Washington Post reports that the French leader recently “lashed out…at the U.S. commitment to the NATO effort in Libya.”
“I’m not of the opinion that the bulk of the work in Libya is being done by our American friends,” Sarkozy said angrily.
As The Financial Times explains, “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.” Sarkozy may not want to say it openly, but he and other NATO leaders recognize this limitation. When asked about Washington’s refusal to join France in deploying attack helicopters in Libya, French foreign minister Alain Juppe’s response was loaded with disappointment. “We regret that…We would be more efficient if they joined us.” Likewise, when British foreign secretary William Hague asked NATO members for support, he was aiming his message at Washington: “The United Kingdom in the last weeks supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets,” he said. “It would be welcome if other countries did the same.”
The Washington Post is far less polite, bluntly concluding that Washington is “eschewing its indispensable role of leadership.”
In Egypt, Saudis are angry that Obama did too much to push their ally Hosni Mubarak out of power, while Egyptians are angry that he didn’t do enough. As the Obama administration hemmed and hawed over Mubarak, Mohamed ElBaradei wrote a scathing open letter to the man who promised to make the world love America again. “The American government said that it was ‘dismayed.’ Well, frankly, I was dismayed that all it could say is that it was dismayed…People were absolutely disappointed in the way you reacted to Egypt’s last election. You reaffirmed their belief that you are applying a double standard for your friends, and siding with an authoritarian regime just because you think it represents your interests… This isn’t even good realpolitik.”
Realpolitik is always a perfect segue to China. Bending over backwards for China in his first year has delivered no dividends for Obama. The PRC has lashed out at Japan, embargoed commodities high-tech industries depend on, blocked the UN from blaming North Korea for sinking a South Korean ship, continued its threatening behavior around Taiwan and sped ahead with its massive military buildup.
Indeed, it’s odd that the same president who figuratively bows to China’s rulers and Russia’s strongmen—and literally bows to thuggish autocrats—finds it so easy to be aloof and undiplomatic when it comes to the Dalai Lama, the Czech Republic, Poland, Israel and others who share America’s belief in freedom.
Early on, Fouad Ajami detected an “ambivalence…about freedom” in Obama’s foreign policy and described the president as “cavalier about other lands.”
A Japanese lawmaker, for instance, told Foreign Policy magazine that the Obama administration displays a “very stubborn attitude of no compromise.”
Sadly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin never saw that side of Obama during negotiations over the new nuclear treaty. But the Israelis have. They get diplomatically sideswiped with public diktats, rather than private consultations.
If only the president would apply his cold, calculating, detached realpolitik to the likes of China, Russia, Iran and Syria. Instead, most of the good guys get Henry Kissinger and most the bad guys get Jimmy Carter.
Yet Obama is different than Carter in his approach to military force, which is to say he is not allergic to it. In fact, Obama has launched military strikes against Pakistan, Yemen and Libya—these aren’t Bush’s wars—and authored a bloody, albeit brief, escalation in Afghanistan Moreover, the U.S. will export $46.1 billion in weaponry by the end of this year, a figure which doubles 2010 arms-export levels. During the Bush years, the U.S. exported about $30 billion in arms annually. Whether these wars and arms deals are necessary is a subject for another essay. The point here is that the Nobel Peace Prize may have been—ahem—premature. And the peace-at-any-cost lobby knows it. The Nobel nomination came two weeks into Obama’s presidency; the official, if perfunctory, announcement of his winning came eight months into the Age of Obama.
Obama and his backers openly criticized Bush’s hard-line approach to the world’s rogues—and tacitly blamed that approach for the behavior of Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Of course, after testing rockets and detonating a nuke during the Bush administration, Kim did the same during the Obama administration—and even upped the ante by sinking a South Korean ship and bombing a South Korean island.
As for Iran, Obama’s soft-ball approach hasn’t changed Iranian behavior one bit. When evidence of a secret nuclear-fuel manufacturing plant came to light in September 2009, it was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who took the lead. Dismissing Obama’s “dream of a world without nuclear weapons,” Sarkozy reminded the young president that “we live in a real world, not a virtual world.” He then detailed the growing dangers in the real world: “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges…There comes a time when facts are stubborn and decisions must be made.”
Worried about Iran’s nukes and missiles, Europe eagerly agreed to a NATO-wide missile defense system during the Bush years. But Obama wanted to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship, so he scrapped Bush’s plans for a permanent defense against missile threats—plans that had been endorsed by NATO and host governments in Poland and the Czech Republic.
That may have pleased the Russians, but it angered the Poles and Czechs. A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic for Poland”—and understandably so. After all, Poland and the Czech Republic exposed themselves to Russian ire by agreeing to allow permanent U.S. missile defense bases on their soil.
It’s no coincidence or surprise that the Czech Republic recently announced that it was withdrawing from Obama’s scaled-down missile defense program. One Czech official angrily rejected Obama’s new plans as “a consolation prize.”
“Europe is not a priority for this administration because the Atlantic system is not a priority for this administration,” former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar observed recently.
The supporting evidence can be found in the NATO-sans-America operation in Libya and the shoddy treatment of longtime allies like Britain. Recall that the Obama administration offloaded a handful of Gitmo detainees onto the British protectorate of Bermuda—without consulting Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.
None of the world’s frustration comes as a surprise to those of us who were dubious of Obama’s ability to slow the rise of the seas and restore America to some mythical international standing. Presidents are mortal, and being president of the United States means making decisions that make lots of people angry. It’s just that Obama seems to make so many of the wrong people angry.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.