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Photoplay Diplomacy

The foreign policy of a narcissist.

By 7.6.12

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They say a photo is worth a thousand words. Perhaps presidents Obama and Putin never heard of that expression. It is rare to the point of being unknown when the last time was that two world leaders showed such obvious mutual dislike of each other. Even the post-White House meeting facial expressions of Netanyahu and Obama did not reach that level. It's hard to imagine a discussion over why Russia should allow heavy sanctions to be placed on the Assad regime in Syria or similar Russian cooperation over Iranian nuclear weapon development becoming so vitriolic as to create the intensity of distaste and disregard that showed in the faces of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin after their meeting at the G-20 in Mexico.

Even more odd is why none of the media outlets tried to explore what was behind the childish display of pique. Aren't clever major country potentates supposed to be able to hide their personal feelings and mask their political animosities? Where was that usually well-placed bit of information explaining Obama's ultimate rectitude that so often leaks its way out of the White House? What happened also to the typically indiscreet, but clearly purposeful, tidbit of disclosure that makes covering the Kremlin such a challenge and mystery at the same time?

Instead the only thing left is to wonder if the two men just really don't like each other; that they in fact can't even stand being seated next to each other. To allow a personal reaction to dominate intergovernmental relations is not merely inexcusable, it is irresponsibly dangerous. Of course, equally inexplicable is the American president's obsequious bowing to the Saudi King Abdullah.

Vladimir Putin is not unsophisticated and certainly not inexperienced. He is a very calculating intelligence professional and since the 1990s an equally calculating politician. The problem that President Obama has with his counterpart is that Putin just does not respect him. From Putin's standpoint Obama is quite deficient in his knowledge and experience in world politics and thus inept as a prospective partner in evolving issues such as Iran and Syria.

Apparently this lack of understanding by President Obama has arisen before in the private conversations between the U.S. and Russian leaders. Putin was treated to the Obama pedantry much the same way the American president has insultingly lectured other world figures as he did P.M. Netanyahu of Israel. The New York Times reported Pres. Obama's remark about a "Polish death camp…" so infuriated Poland's P.M. Donald Tusk that he referred to Obama as guilty of "ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions." President Obama's behavior on numerous occasions gives a lie to his vaunted intellectual competence in the field of diplomacy. Apparently Putin -- hardly known as a mild-mannered person -- chose to react at their meeting in Los Cabos.

The practical, though tangential impact of this highly personalized conflict between the American and Russian presidents is to deny foreign policy accolades to Hillary Clinton in her role as chief foreign affairs negotiator. Secretary Clinton has been dealing constructively with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. A mutual respect is reportedly to have developed between these two in spite of -- or perhaps because of - Clinton's comparative lack of a professional foreign affairs background quite exploitable by the vastly more experienced Lavrov.

It would appear that President Obama lost sight of the fact that the United States is desirous of Russia's cooperation rather than the other way around. It has been apparent for some time that Moscow intends to keep its foot in the doorway of Middle Eastern politics and stalwartly supporting Iran and Syria is how it intends to accomplish this. Putin already has shown he doesn't alter positions on anything unless his interests are enhanced. This fact should have been understood by Barack Obama. If he was as clever and expert in all aspects of negotiation as he obviously thinks he is, the meeting in Mexico with Putin would have gone quite differently. Obama's autocratic instincts are as deep as Putin's, even if his rhetoric pretends differently.

Unlike Obama, Putin is a graduate of the Cold War and the days of Russian ascendancy. A renowned historian of that period, Charles Gati, wrote revealingly regarding Russian foreign policy that it was " a mixture of assertiveness and accommodation." That accommodation comes, however, only when the alternative is feared. It was true during the days of the Soviet Union and it remains true today. The current Russian president has made quite clear his desire to return his country to the preeminence it once held when it was recognized as one of the world's two superpowers. Putin will never deal with Obama on an equal basis and certainly has no intention of granting him acceptance personally.

What President Obama does not appear to grasp is that his Russian adversary -- and Putin is that -- intends to treat him as strictly a "short timer" no matter the November election results. If President Obama is to get anywhere with Russia, it will have to be with the assistance of "Dimi" Medvedev with whom he is far more congenial. This, too, is part of the Russian ploy. Putin recognizes that the U.S. is the greatest military power in the world, but he also knows Obama will never use that power to get what he wants in the Middle East -- or anywhere else. Putin is a well-practiced tough guy who is careful in his assessment of his opponent. Russia's #2 is deemed adequate to deal with America's #1, as long as it remains Obama.

The world in which Barack Obama lives is dominated by himself; everything else is simply a backdrop. Putin has been well briefed on this by his intelligence profilers. It hasn't taken extraordinary talent to analyze the American president's narcissism, but the Russians surely know how to exploit it. Too bad that Barack Obama is incapable of doing the same thing the other way around.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.