The health care win has given the President his mojo back at home, but things overseas are still looking grim. We are neglecting or quarreling with our friends and reaching out to our enemies — but neither policy is yielding much in the way of results.
The latest case is Canada; on a visit to Ottawa to discuss Arctic policy with Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly criticized the Canadians for failing to invite all eight members of the Arctic Council to the consultation. Iceland, Finland and Sweden were miffed at being excluded. This was all very well and no doubt deserved; the next day, however, the Canadian Foreign Minister rejected Secretary Clinton’s pleas and announced that Canada will be ending its Afghan mission next year.
I don’t blame any American diplomat for seizing the opportunity to criticize Canada for its lack of sensitivity and inclusiveness; they do it to us all the time and I don’t see why the Canadians should have all the fun. Let’s criticize them for riding roughshod over the rights of small countries and native peoples now and then just to let them know how pointless and infuriating that kind of self-righteous and empty posturing can be. Even so, lecturing one day and begging in vain on the morrow isn’t the most dignified diplomatic posture an American secretary of state can assume. And the pattern of poor relations with close allies is disturbing. Currently embroiled in a quarrel with Israel over Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem, the administration recently angered the EU by refusing to attend a summit in Madrid, embarrassed Britain by seeming to side with Argentina over negotiations over the Falklands Islands, canceled an invitation to Afghanistan’s President Karzai, and cheesed off Brazil when President Obama made his last minute, ill-fated dash to Copenhagen to snatch the 2016 Olympics from Rio. And where the administration hasn’t figured out a way to insult an old ally, Congress steps in — this time by passing another version of the Armenian genocide resolution through a key House committee.
None of this has worked particularly well. The EU powers are not exactly leaping to Washington’s support on Afghanistan. A British parliamentary committee has just pronounced the US-UK special relationship over. Brazil’s President Lula da Silva publicly rejected Secretary Clinton’s public request for support for a sanctions resolution at the UN. Turkey is flirting with Iran and hanging out with Russia. For now, at least, the Israelis are resisting Washington’s pressure for a freeze on new construction in Jerusalem.
The policy of slapping friends seems not to be working very well; the policy of kissing up to the bad guys has been even less of a success. North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran have blown off the administration’s efforts to put bilateral relationships on a friendlier basis. Not only is President Obama back to Bush’s old policy of trying to get the UN to adopt tougher sanctions on Iran, he’s denouncing human rights crackdowns in Cuba. The biggest success to date, getting a new missile treaty with Russia, is at lot less impressive than it looks. Russia needs to reduce the costs of its nuclear arsenal and wants the prestige that comes from arms talks with the US just like the Soviet Union used to have. I support the treaty and hope it gets ratified, but on the whole it’s more a favor from us to Russia than the other way round.
In many cases, the administration has good reasons for specific choices that it makes. Russia, for example, is never going to be our best friend, but there is no point in not trying to put relations on a more businesslike basis. Britain’s stand on the Falkland Islands, that there is ‘nothing to negotiate’ where sovereignty is concerned, is a tricky one to support. It always looks bad to be against talks. Given global skepticism about US intentions after the poorly handled war in Iraq, it made sense for the Obama administration to bend over backwards to show it was willing to reach a new relationship with Iran. Pressing Karzai to clean up the abysmal corruption that wastes American money and undermines the strength of his government is certainly the right thing to do. And by twice announcing controversial housing decisions in Jerusalem during critical talks with the United States, the Israeli government was showing enough arrogance or incompetence that the White House had to do something.
But while many of steps the administration is taking make sense on their own terms, when you look at them all together the picture isn’t pretty. Beating up on your friends and kissing up to your enemies looks terrible, especially when neither your friends nor your enemies show any respect. Slamming Honduras and pampering Russia might have both been good decisions on their own; but when you do them both you end up looking like a hypocrite who moralistically and didactically lectures the weak while fawning on the strong. Nobody respects that kind of behavior, and nobody admires people who practice it. It tastes weak, like blood in the water — and the sharks out there are paying attention.
The emerging perception of weakness is one reason the administration has had to fight Israel so hard over the Jerusalem issue. As Laura Rozen reports in a must read article at Politico.com, administration sources say that the quarrel with Netanyahu is “bigger than Jerusalem” because “it’s about the credibility of the administration.” It’s precisely because so many people have kicked so much sand in the administration’s face that it had to raise the stakes so high on this one.
Forcing Netanyahu to back down in Jerusalem may help the administration fight the perception of weakness abroad, but it is unlikely to help President Obama much at home. And he may not get the win he seeks. Canada and Brazil have blown the administration off with no ill effects, and even the preternaturally accommodating Japanese are still defying the administration over the unpopular American military base on Okinawa. If Netanyahu sticks to his guns on an issue where he has strong domestic support, he might still force Washington to compromise.
Beating up on our few remaining friends isn’t going to fix things. What the President really needs is a victory over an adversary. He needs to get North Korea, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Venezuela or even Cuba to take a step back — or he needs to charm one of them into behaving more nicely. Capturing bin Laden or otherwise achieving something decisive in Afghanistan would also be a plus. Failing that, foreign policy will be a continuing weak spot for the administration, and sooner or later that will mean trouble.
Interestingly, the President’s approach overseas mirrors his strategy at home over health care. On health care, he was criticized for fighting with his base on issues like single payer, the public option and abortion while bowing and scraping to contemptuous Republicans who gave him nothing in return. In the end he got his bill.
He seems to be hoping the same pattern will work overseas. By fighting with the base (Israel) and trying to engage with an unyielding enemy (Iran) can he assemble a coalition that could bring peace in the Middle East and unite Arabs behind his leadership as he moves aggressively against the Iranian nuclear program?
It’s a strategy, and I wish him every success, but unfortunately the Middle East is even tougher than Washington, DC. A lot more can go wrong, and the President of the United States doesn’t have nearly as much control over events. It’s a lot easier to win over a few skittish congressional votes than it is to get Syria to support Middle East peace — or to get Iran to give up its drive for nukes.
Part of the problem may be that the administration’s dislike of Bush administration policies may extend to countries that cooperated with the last administration. That’s a mistake. Many of the countries who supported the United States in Iraq (especially the ones in Central and Eastern Europe) didn’t do it because they loved war, loved neoconservatism or loved Bush. They did it because they believe that good relations with a strong United States are the foundation of their own security. These countries are potentially President Obama’s good friends as well. Many of them don’t care who the president is or what he wants; they will work with Washington and give it what help they can no matter whether we have a Blue State or Red State leader. It’s more important than one might think to treat these countries with consideration and to bring them along when our policy changes. Countries around the world should know that if you stand by the United States we will stand by you, and our new president won’t blame you for working with our last one.
I’m glad to see that President Obama has patched up his quarrel with French President Sarkozy; this was an ally we unintentionally offended and I’m glad we got it right. I hope that after the British election (probably next month), the White House will reach out to the winner. Great Britain remains this country’s most longstanding great power ally; its interests align closely with ours on many important international issues and we only make ourselves look small when we deprive ourselves of the value of its counsel or fail to treat it with the honor and respect it is due. The President’s visit to Indonesia and Australia, canceled at the height of health care fight, needs to happen without fail next time, and the President needs to make a special effort to make the visit work for his hosts. Poland, the Baltic republics, and other Central and East European countries could use some more love — and remember, the United States would like to see more EU countries support Turkey’s desire to join the EU, and those countries all vote. Perhaps even more consequentially, India is a country whose vital interests match up very well with ours in what are likely to be the two most important foreign policy arenas of the twenty-first century: Asia and the Middle East. As we work with Pakistan, we need to make sure that India doesn’t feel neglected.
The administration’s desire to reach out to more countries and expand the network of America’s close partners and associates is a sound one, but neglecting old friends is a bad way to make new ones. Demonstrating that the United States remembers those who stand by it and scrupulously discharges its debts of gratitude and honor will make our friendship more attractive to potential new allies. If we want Syria, for example, to think seriously about working with us rather than against us, we want it to see that we honor our commitments.
Paradoxically, if we want to make friends with our enemies, the best place to start might be with our friends.