In his journey to the White House, Barack Obama made much hay railing against his predecessor’s supposedly go-it-alone mindset and penchant for foreign policy unilateralism. With memories still fresh of the spectacular rupture between Washington and its traditional European allies over the Iraq war, Obama’s claim to be the “anti-Bush” garnered him a euphoric welcome in Berlin in July 2008. Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in the “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.” A year later, this sort of rhetoric earned him the Nobel peace prize for single-handedly creating “a new climate in international politics” and restoring multilateral diplomacy to “a central position.”
Five years on, it’s an understatement that things have not worked out as advertised, as a series of developments over the past few weeks starkly illustrate. Each of these episodes concerns a different region of the world but they offer some common lessons: 1.) The Obama administration is not very good at consulting with and listening to U.S. allies; and 2.) The president’s determination to pursue a less assertive and more cautious foreign policy is increasing seen by allies as outright fecklessness.
To start with, consider the tattered condition of U.S. relations with its putative wartime partner in Kabul, which only three weeks ago appeared to be at the point of rupture when both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the White House were putting out word (here and here) that they wouldn’t mind parting ways.
It’s true that the erratic and insecure Karzai, who is in regular search of foreign scapegoats for his own governance failures, makes for a really lousy ally. But as I argue in a new essay on The National Interest’s blog site, the Obama team also deserves a good deal of the blame for the rocky partnership, especially for its failure to put much effort into cultivating strong bonds with Karzai as well as sending decidedly mixed signals about what it hoped to accomplish in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, a widely-respected journalist with good sources in Kabul, observes that the problems ironically started with the same foreign tour that brought candidate Obama to a rapturous Europe in mid-2008. Paying a visit beforehand to Afghanistan, Obama made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Karzai’s political rivals. The episode was a serious gaffe, needlessly antagonizing the ever-suspicious Afghan leader and setting the tone for the administration’s strained ties with him.
Mr. Obama compounded the damage two years later, when he paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan intending to mend fences with Karzai. Yet, having landed at Bagram air base just north of Kabul, he chose to return quickly to Washington rather than wait out a dust storm that had grounded the helicopter that was to take him to the presidential palace. As the New York Times reported at the time, the two wartime partners never laid “eyes on each other, even though they were just 35 miles apart.” Karzai viewed the incident as another in a growing number of the administration’s deliberate snubs.
Next consider the breach in U.S.-Saudi relations that has been brewing for a while but is now in dramatic view. Frustrated by Washington’s failure to consult with and take seriously the views of its allies in the Middle East, Riyadh last week pointedly declined an opportunity to join the UN Security Council for a two-year term. The Saudis had spent years lobbying for the spot but then stunned UN observers by walking away. The official reason for the unprecedented step has to do with the Council’s ineffectualness on the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. But as the kingdom’s powerful intelligence chief, who earlier served a long stint as the Saudi ambassador in Washington, reportedly confided, “This is a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”
The Saudis have also decided to downgrade traditionally close intelligence cooperation with Washington and end its long, very lucrative preference for U.S. defense companies in future arms deals.
At play are sharp disagreements between Washington and Riyadh over how to deal with Egypt’s political upheaval, Iran’s nuclear weapons program and Syria’s civil war. But underlying factors are also at work, including Saudi doubts about the credibility of U.S. security guarantees. According to the Wall Street Journal, in early April King Abdullah “sent a strongly-worded message” to Mr. Obama warning that U.S. policy is creating a security vacuum in the Middle East. In particular, the monarch emphasized that “America’s credibility was on the line” if it continued allowing the Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran to prevail in Syria.
This anxiety helps explain Riyadh’s extraordinary diplomatic gambit vis-à-vis Moscow. In late July, the Saudi intelligence chief traveled to Russia reportedly to propose a grand bargain: In exchange for the Kremlin dropping its support of the Assad government, the Saudis would coordinate global oil prices with Moscow – in effect, bringing Russia into OPEC as an informal member – as well as funnel billions of petrodollars to Russian arms manufacturers. Much is still unknown about the offer, which failed to gain traction with Vladimir Putin. But if media accounts are even half-way accurate, it amounts to a remarkable rebuke of U.S. policy.
More recently, the Journal reports that the Saudis were shocked when American officials told them, in the run-up to the expected U.S. cruise missile strike on Syria, that the U.S. lacked the military resources to protect Saudi oil facilities from a feared Iranian counter-attack. And David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s foreign affairs columnist, writes that “a knowledgeable Arab official” tells him that King Abdullah told other Arab monarchs during a lunch last week in Riyadh that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.
Ignatius adds that concerns about U.S. steadfastness in the Middle East are shared by the four other long-time U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. And, it should be noted, others outside of the region share the same fear. The United Kingdom is re-engaging in Persian Gulf security affairs following a four-decade absence, in part due to concerns about American retrenchment. China, which is overtaking the U.S. as a buyer of Middle East oil, is likewise worried that the U.S. commitment to Gulf security is waning.
Important, too, the Saudis feel that Washington is an uncommunicative and unresponsive ally. Ignatius points out that the relationship has taken a further hit because of Riyadh’s view that “they were being ignored – and even, in their minds, double crossed. In the traditional Gulf societies, any such sense of betrayal can do lasting damage, yet the administration let the problems fester.”
Finally, turn to Europe, where France and Germany joined together a decade ago to oppose the Bush administration’s Iraq war plans. Now they are united in fuming at President Obama’s global surveillance policies and his handling of the recent Syria crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is outraged at reports that the National Security Agency monitored her personal mobile phone communications, at least in the past and perhaps as recently as this summer. The normally measured German leader calls the action, which the Obama administration does not deny, a “serious breach of trust” and warns that “things have to change and they have to change radically.” And amid a widespread uproar over reports that a number of other European officials were also targeted, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have embarked on a joint initiative to alter the terms of their intelligence services’ interaction with the U.S.
But the sudden crisis of confidence in trans-Atlantic relations is about more than just anger over U.S. eavesdropping. Roger Cohen at the New York Times observes that:
Even before this furor, Germany was incensed by what it has perceived as a dismissive U.S. attitude. A senior official close to Merkel recently took me through the ‘very painful’ saga of the Obama administration’s response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. It began with Susan Rice, the national security adviser, telling the Chancellery on Aug. 24 that the United States had the intelligence proving President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that it would have to intervene and that it would be a matter of days. German pleas to wait for a United Nations report and to remember Iraq fell on deaf ears. Six days later, on Friday Aug. 30, Germany heard from France that the military strike on Syria was on and would happen that weekend — only for Obama to change tack the next day and say he would go to Congress.
Things got worse at the G-20 St. Petersburg summit meeting the next week. Again, Germany found the United States curtly dismissive. It wanted Germany’s signature at once on the joint statement on Syria; Germany wanted to wait a day until a joint European Union statement was ready and so declined. ‘The sense from Rice was that we are not interested in your view and not interested in the E.U. view,’ the official said. ‘We left Petersburg very offended. This is not what you want your best partner to look like.’
Cohen adds that the Germans were also troubled by the power dynamics on display at the G-20 summit, where Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, “appeared much more powerful than Obama. His strengthened international standing after America’s Syrian back-and-forth worries a Germany focused on bringing [against Russian opposition] East European nations like Ukraine and Moldova into association accords with the E.U.”
Berlin and Paris lined up on opposite sides during the Syria crisis, but Mr. Hollande has reasons of his own to be sore with the Obama administration. The French leader went out on a limb by publicly advocating for military strikes against the Assad regime, only to have it sawed off by Washington’s abrupt embrace of Moscow’s disarmament plan. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. then proceeded to cut out France as it negotiated the specifics with Russia. As The Guardian commented, Hollande “aligned himself with the American superpower – never a vote-winning move for a Gallic leader – only to be jilted at the last moment.”
It’s been a bad few weeks for an administration that talks up how it has restored America’s luster in the world. Not only has a real chasm opened between its rhetoric and foreign policy actions, but its credibility is increasingly in doubt. This is assuredly not the place where the team touting “smart power” wanted to end up.
UPDATE (OCTOBER 30): Speaking of global power perceptions, Forbes is just out with this year’s edition of The Most Powerful People in the World list. In place of President Obama, it gives Vladimir Putin the top spot and comments:
Putin has solidified his control over Russia while Obama’s lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president — latest example: the government shutdown mess. Anyone watching this year’s chess match over Syria and NSA leaks has a clear idea of the shifting individual power dynamics.