Remember when Democrats–like, um, Senator Barack Obama–were castigating President George W. Bush for his supposed unilateralism and alienation of allies? Obama promised to do better but in many respects he’s done worse.
I remember attending a breakfast in the past year with a former European leader who said that European heads of state had a much better relationship with Bush than with Obama–and not just Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy who were known for being close to Dubya. All the Europeans found it easier to get Bush on the phone than Obama and they also formed better bonds with the more affable Bush than the more aloof Obama. Indeed it’s hard to name a single foreign head of state with whom Obama is close in the way that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were close with Tony Blair or in the way that Ronald Reagan was close to Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney.
This isn’t because Obama is inherently unlikable; plenty of people have been seduced by his cerebral coolness in the past. It’s because he hasn’t worked at it. He has not cultivated foreign leaders any more than he has cultivated congressional leaders. In both cases he has built up no reservoirs of affection to cushion him when times get tough–as they are now for a United States that is at the nadir of its post-1970s influence.
The moment that may come to symbolize Obama’s aloofness occurred on Sunday when nearly four million French people–and numerous foreign heads of state–marched to make clear their opposition to terrorism and their support for freedom of speech. A partial list of foreign leaders who attended: “Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Switzerland’s President Simonetta Sommaruga.”
Guess who was missing–yup, Obama. Apparently he spent his Sunday watching football on TV rather than marching against terrorism. He didn’t even bother to send Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry. Attorney General Eric Holder was already in Paris for unrelated business but he didn’t bother to show up either.
The fact that America’s president was MIA was noted among our allies–and not favorably. As the Daily Mail wrote: “President Barack Obama and other top members of his administration have snubbed a historic rally in Paris today that brought together more than 40 world leaders from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and even Russia.”
Even the White House was forced to acknowledge this was a blunder but I suspect this apology (“It’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there”) is unlikely to undo the damage because it only reinforces an existing stereotype. With two years left in his presidency, he appears to have all but checked out, preferring to rule by executive order rather than by mobilizing support at home or abroad. Rather than cultivating America’s allies, he prefers to reach out to our enemies–notably Cuba and Iran. The Paris rally might become, as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Robert Danin suggested on Twitter, “Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment”–a moment which crystallizes a growing perception of presidential failure. That is an ironic end to a presidency which came into being in no small measure as a protest against “unilateralism.”