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Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem all that patient with Kerry’s diplomacy there, which they consider a vanity project. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon caused quite a stir by dismissing Kerry as a blundering obsessive with a messiah complex. While certainly impolitic, over time it appeared to be not so much a gaffe as a calculated, if indecorous, risk. Last month I quoted Shmuel Rosner’s explanation, which has plenty of logic: Yaalon “was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.”

It was, then, almost something of an intervention. This is the single most recognizable aspect of Kerry-as-diplomat: a man who will talk to everyone but listen to no one. The insult from Yaalon stung because it was true. It certainly didn’t help matters much when Susan Rice tweeted out her defense of Kerry that pleaded with others to stop making fun of Kerry and let him eat lunch at their table.

The episode was reminiscent of when Obama, anticipating criticism of letting Vice President Joe Biden handle important tasks, playfully warned “Nobody messes with Joe!” It was laughable, Rob Long commented at the time, “Because everybody messes with Joe.” He summed up the general attitude toward Biden’s oversight authority: “Biden couldn’t oversee a ham sandwich.”

Obama-era diplomacy ostensibly designed to increase respect for America abroad is having precisely the opposite effect. In fairness, however, there is much overlap between the world-on-fire conflicts and the administration’s negotiations. Syria is the prime example: a desire for a negotiated solution caused the administration to preempt its own military action in order to talk about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad regime is, unsurprisingly, ignoring its responsibilities under the deal and letting the deadlines evaporate. While this is a case of America trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it’s clear that the Obama administration’s interlocutors think the president is a bit of a joke. A procession of empty threats will usually have that effect.

And the violence in Ukraine ended–or at least was greatly reduced–by a negotiating process that excluded the United States. The message is clear: productive diplomacy is conducted without the Obama administration. So it’s important to note that the impression of Obama as weak or not worth respecting abroad is not–as perhaps members of the administration might like to believe–a result of a lack of the use of force. It’s not solely about projecting strength; it’s also about projecting competence and trustworthiness. That the Obama White House doesn’t project any of the three helps explain his poll numbers abroad.


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