Noting Obama’s decision to skip the U.S.–European Union Summit and spurn its host, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Jackson Diehl sees a pattern by Obama of withdrawal from and growing indifference to international affairs. He writes:
It’s not just Zapatero who has trouble gaining traction in this White House: Unlike most of his predecessors, Obama has not forged close ties with any European leader. Britain’s Brown, France’s Sarkozy and Germany’s Merkel have each, in turn, felt snubbed by him. Relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are tense at best. George W. Bush used to hold regular videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Obama has spoken to them on only a handful of occasions.
Diehl raises a number of issues here. First, Obama was never that game on international commitments. He told us again and again — although Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton tried to hush him up on this — that he wasn’t going to make an open-ended commitment of American troops in Afghanistan. He repeated in his West Point speech and in interviews that his concern was rebuilding at home (i.e., his ultra-liberal domestic agenda). Beyond Afghanistan, much of his foreign policy arguably can be seen as conflict avoidance — don’t ruffle the Russians, don’t draw a line with Iran, don’t get the Chinese upset about human rights — precisely so he can focus resources and attention on his beloved health-care, cap-and-trade, and other domestic proposals.
Second, to the degree he was inward-focused from the get-go, Obama certainly has become more so as his domestic agenda and poll numbers have cratered. He begrudgingly dragged himself to the microphone to address the Christmas Day bomber (though he was uninformed, and misinformed the public that we were dealing with an “isolated extremist”). He zipped by national-security matters in his State of the Union speech. Maybe once he got that Nobel Peace Prize, he just lost interest.
And finally, could it be (Diehl is certainly providing some evidence) that Obama is less effective as an international diplomat that the Cowboy from Crawford? You mean Obama hasn’t bonded with any foreign leader, as George W. Bush did with Tony Blair, for example? (Well, returning the Winston Churchill bust and the cheesy gifts to the Brits probably didn’t help Obama with that ally.) He’s not keeping up with key leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan the way Bush did, we are told. And then there is the Israel debacle. I don’t suppose Obama would win any popularity contests in Honduras, Poland, or the Czech Republic either.
So to sum up, the president who campaigned to restore our standing in the world and practice “smart” diplomacy isn’t much interested in the world, expends little time and no effort in bolstering democracy and human rights, and doesn’t have effective relationships with key allies — at least not as effective as were Bush’s. Well, he did run as “not Bush,” and now he’s living up to that particular campaign promise. Too bad: the result is the most error-strewn, irresolute, and ham-handed foreign-policy apparatus since the Carter administration. Maybe living in Indonesia as a child wasn’t sufficient foreign-policy preparation after all.