Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:
The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”
Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.
“You can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish” with such an impersonal style, the diplomat said.
There are, to be sure, dangers of overly personalizing foreign policy. Even George W. Bush must cringe as he recalls the moment when he claimed to have looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and get “a sense of his soul.” But there is no doubt that the kind of relationship-building that Bush undertook–as did his predecessors–can pay off in a crisis. That’s something that Obama is still learning, just as he is learning how to respond to the desire for democracy in the Middle East. The Times article also relates that Obama has privately admitted the truth of Mitt Romney’s critique of his mishandling of the Green Revolution in Iran:
Mr. Obama followed a low-key script, criticizing violence but saying he did not want to be seen as meddling in Iranian domestic politics.
Months later, administration officials said, Mr. Obama expressed regret about his muted stance on Iran. “There was a feeling of ‘we ain’t gonna be behind the curve on this again,’ ” one senior administration official said. He, like almost two dozen administration officials and Arab and American diplomats interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One can only speculate about what other lessons Obama has learned from his first term. He’s certainly had enough setbacks and miscalculations to learn from.