After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.
The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:
Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.
“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.
If Obama can’t get his way on economic issues with China, or on Syria or Iran with Europe, it’s not exactly a surprise. The list of foreign leaders who apparently can’t stand the former apostle of hope and change is getting longer every day.
Obama came into office determined to pick fights with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and succeeded in creating a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that he has spent the last two years seeking to fix. He has always had problems with Germany’s Angela Merkel but now is also in trouble with France’s Francois Hollande, in spite of the fact that he looked to the new French president as an ally against the German chancellor.
But the real key to America’s foreign policy woes in the age of Obama is not so much the enemies that Obama has made as it is his choice of friends.
As the Times rightly recalls, a big part of the deep chill with Putin—with whom the supposedly confrontational cowboy Bush managed to maintain cordial relations and open communications despite deep differences on the issues—is the way Obama went out of his way to cultivate Dmitry Medvedev, the functionary that Putin put into the Russian presidency while he was term-limited out of the office. Even foreign policy novices knew that Medvedev was a cipher but, as the Times notes, Obama decided he was the man America needed to cultivate:
Mr. Obama spent nearly four years befriending Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Mr. Putin. That never happened, and Mr. Obama now finds himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less likely than ever to find common ground with the United States on issues like Syria.
Even a foreign policy neophyte would have known that no good would come of such a foolish initiative but Obama, who even told Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to help Russia after being reelected, now finds himself with a Russian rival that is not only opposed to his policies but bearing a personal grudge.
Similarly, Obama bragged openly that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was his best foreign buddy and thought his close relationship with the Islamist would bear fruit in Middle East peace as well as help on Syria and Iran. But not only has Erdoğan made peace between Israelis and Palestinians even less likely and undermined sanctions against Iran, his repression of peaceful demonstrators protesting the drift to authoritarianism in Turkey gives the lie to Obama’s pose as a friend of freedom. His embrace of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, whose push for total power for his Muslim Brotherhood government was eased by Obama’s support, is just as much of an embarrassment.
After less than five years in office, it’s not just that European idealists are disillusioned with Obama because he has chosen to continue and even expand Bush’s counter-terrorism policies while still trying to pretend to be different. What we witnessed at the G-8 and virtually every other foreign encounter of this president is a man who is in completely over his head. Far from fixing the country’s problems abroad, he has worsened them with arrogant dismissals of friends, weakness that has encouraged enemies and friendships with leaders that no American president should embrace. Abroad, this isn’t just a case of second term blues; Barack Obama’s incompetence is a problem that keeps getting worse.