Commentary Magazine


Obama Is Flunking the Global Test

During a press conference in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, a Gulf News reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry what assurances he could give about sanctions on Iran, because “In spite of the American assurances, there are fears at the popular and government levels in the Gulf Cooperation Council concerning improved relations with Iran.” In the course of a 1,162-word response, Kerry assured the reporter that “President Obama is a man of his word”: 

“He is stating clearly: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of his foreign policy and he will not bluff. As he said to me point blank when I became Secretary of State, I asked him about it. He said, ‘I don’t bluff.’ This is our policy.”

Has there ever been a U.S. president who had to keep assuring the world (and even his own secretary of state) that he doesn’t bluff? Has there ever been a secretary of state like the one who resolved his concerns about Obama’s bluffing by asking Obama whether he is bluffing–and then told a press conference he had had the same concerns about bluffing that they have, but resolved his doubts by having the president repeat his words? Those who think the repetition of the president’s words reflect his commitment to them probably think they can keep their insurance if they like it.

The UAE reporter’s question expressed the heart of the problem facing Obama, because the question was essentially this: what assurances can you give, other than your assurances, because we don’t believe your assurances? Kerry’s long-winded response demonstrated the answer was not easy.

Lack of confidence in Obama is now obvious in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel; the governments of France, Britain, and Germany reportedly do not trust him and consider him a problem; the UAE and other relatively moderate Arab governments are clearly concerned. Even the palace media have acknowledged the problem. In his interview Sunday with Kerry on Meet the Press, David Gregory concisely summarized the concern Kerry has faced throughout the region:

“And let me sum it up this way. It amounts to this criticism that the President appears reluctant to exercise power on the world stage. It’s not just Israel. It’s Egypt. It’s Saudi Arabia. There’s a feeling that the U.S. has abandoned critical friends in that region, in part because you’re moving toward a deal with Iran which could provide them tremendous economic relief when, at the same time, critics would say their major client, Syria, has gotten a pass to murder their own people as long as they don’t use chemical weapons, so that all of this is amounting to this reluctance to really exercise U.S. power.”

Kerry’s answer to Gregory, while shorter than his response to the UAE reporter, was singularly unconvincing.

The real answer is that Obama is comfortable with one-off, targeted SEAL operations, accompanied by a memo from him memorializing the basis on which he approved the mission, but the geopolitical exercise of power is something he abhors. He believes, as he said in his 2009 Cairo address, that human history has seen nations “subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests,” but “such attitudes are self-defeating,” and “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” In his Cairo speech, he cited Thomas Jefferson’s words: “the less we use our power the greater it will be.” His presidency has been one long demonstration that, whatever the applicability of those words to a struggling young country, they are not comforting to the allies of a supposed superpower. 

It is hard to remember a time when an array of states as broad as Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with American leadership; and as Benjamin Netanyahu noted, the list of states that privately share those views is longer. Obama is failing what Kerry might call the global test. As Jonathan argues today, it is time for the Senate to step in.