The Detroit News | 7.14.09
By Alan W. Dowd
North Korea is goading America by detonating nukes. Iran is testing missiles, enriching uranium and denouncing Washington for meddling. Russia is tying up NATO supply lines.
It all must be jarring to those who assured us that the world would embrace America as soon as George W. Bush returned to Texas. But Barack Obama is learning that international disagreement, frustration and even disdain come with the territory for all U.S. presidents.
Don’t just take my word for it.
Pakistanis are burning Obama in effigy—and those are the anti-Taliban Pakistanis. Their president, Asif Ali Zardari, bristles that the Obama administration’s “aid package is not even one-tenth of what you give AIG.”
Afghan president Hamid Karzai doesn’t agree with his Pakistani counterpart on much, but
Karzai surely laments the growing distance between him and Washington. As one news agency observes, the Obama administration has given Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic leader “a cold shoulder.” Another describes Obama’s “arm’s length relationship with Karzai.”
British leader Gordon Brown knows the feeling. Obama met with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, before meeting with Brown. Worse, Obama cut short a meeting with Brown to visit with the Boy Scouts. British media described Brown as humiliated by the snub. Even worse, the Obama administration offloaded a handful of GITMO detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda—without consulting Britain.
Obama also snubbed German leader Angela Merkel, by declining her invitation to visit the chancellery and opting instead for what Foreign Policymagazine called “a couple days of tourism.”
But it’s not just Obama’s indelicate diplomacy that frustrates foreign leaders. French President Nicolas Sarkozy characterized Obama’s foreign-policy vision as “unoriginal, unsubstantial and overrated,” according to The Times of London. Sarkozy’s staff dismissed Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world as mere “rhetoric.”
When Obama moves beyond rhetoric, the consequences can be damaging to America’s friends. A “Buy American” clause in the recent stimulus package prohibits U.S. cities and states from using the funds to purchase foreign goods and services, triggering protectionist sentiment in Canada and elsewhere.
While allies are getting the cold shoulder and trade barriers, the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia received a formal bow from Obama. One recalls how the Left lambasted Bush—and rightly so—for holding the Saudi king's hand and steadying him as the two walked. It was a bruising visual metaphor. A similar thing happened with Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev, when the former president literally kept the aging Soviet leader from falling during a summit.
In Obama’s case, the bow was bad but the juxtaposition between the bow, the frosty treatment of allies and the diplomatic niceties for non-allies is worse.
Recall that Obama has been adamant about pushing the “reset button” with Russia, “a new beginning” with Iran and “direct talks” with North Korea. “When we take that approach,” according to Obama, “we have a better chance at better outcomes.”
In response to Obama’s promise to reset the U.S.-Russia relationship, Moscow pulled its strings in Central Asia and enticed Kyrgyzstan to boot the United States from a strategically vital airbase.
Also on Obama’s watch, Iran has tested missiles capable of hitting Europe and continued its drive to go nuclear, in open defiance of the United Nations. In fact, nuclear inspectors recently revealed that Tehran underreported the amount of uranium it has enriched. Moreover, as the “twitter revolution” unfolds, Obama has been alternately criticized for interfering too much and saying too little.
Meanwhile, the change in tone and style represented by Obama has not changed anything in North Korea. Kim Jong-il tested rockets and detonated a nuke during the Bush administration. He did the same in the first five months of the Obama administration. Now Kim is threatening to lob a missile toward Hawaii.
To be fair, previous administrations had their share of problems with North Korea, Iran, Russia and other international outliers and scofflaws. That speaks to the broader point: The hard-line Bush administration didn’t make the world’s rogues more defiant, just as the “grip and grin” Obama administration cannot make them more compliant.