The Obama Watch

America in Retreat

The price of alleged popularity.

By 7.12.10

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It is well known that George W. Bush left office with low approval ratings and with sighs of relief from many foreign leaders. In contrast, Barack Obama rode a wave of popularity into the White House and the chancelleries of much of the world. But now, eighteen months into the Obama presidency, have Obama's self-consciously multilateralist policies engendered popularity abroad?

By and large, no.

America's enemies gloat at their gains, but like America no more. America's friends languish in diffident anxiety, though they like America no less. Put simply, Obama's policy pleases America's foes and unsettles America's friends.

This counter-intuitive result is owed to two related errors: Obama's belief that engagement rather than pressure induces foes and rivals to come around to our way of thinking; and the related belief that friends and allies who already share our way of thinking can be usefully pressured for the purpose of engaging our foes.

Iran affords the paradigmatic example. Upon assuming office, Obama could have chosen to impose stronger U.S. sanctions and ask the European Union to do likewise. Instead, he engaged the regime while freezing the passage of tough U.S. sanctions through Congress. This meant only that he carried carrots but no sticks to the negotiating table. Predictably, Obama was rebuffed by a regime that finds him uniquely unthreatening.

Hostage to his pre-emptive commitment to finding a deal with Tehran, Obama stayed silent last year as Tehran crushed a popular groundswell of resentment at a rigged presidential election. He also devoted enormous time and effort laboring for a limp UN sanctions bill, while providing vital opt-outs for rivals like Russia and China. This has ensured that Iran's energy and defense contracts -- Iran's greatest points of vulnerability -- remain intact under the sanctions approved in June by the UN Security Council.

 Meanwhile, Obama's quest for Arab support in his efforts to stop Tehran has led him in only one direction: applying pressure on Israel to make concessions to a Palestinian regime unwilling and unable to make peace on the basis of the resilient but empty idea that Middle Eastern stability and amity depends on Arab-Israeli peace.

Senior officials from the president down have intimated a linkage between the extent of their support for Israel on one hand and the extent of Israel's continuing concessions to the Palestinians and the efforts the U.S. will exert to stop Iran on the other. They have also warned Israel not to take matters into its own hands as Iran proceeds unhindered on its nuclear path.

Thus, despite Israel freezing housing for Jews in the West Bank, new pretexts like an announcement for urban construction projects in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem are blown into major crises with Israel. Conversely, the Palestinian Authority's honoring terrorists are rewarded by increases rather than cuts in American aid. The latest increase -- $400 million announced by Obama this month -- is at least partly destined for Gaza and thus its Hamas overlords. This undoes Obama's pre-election promise to work for the regime's isolation and the targeting of its resources.

Israelis chafe in wonderment at this benighted and hostile policy, their initial liking of Obama transformed in short order to record unpopularity (4% approval) and now active dislike, one shared by 71% of Israelis (47% registering a strong dislike), according to a poll last month.

Occasional appearances might deceive. Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have sounded agreeably cordial at their press conference last week -- itself an innovation, compared to the fraught and restricted meetings that previously were Netanyahu's lot when visiting the Obama White House -- but the calendar gives the clue to this cloying fraternization: publicly reinforcing what Israeli ambassador Michael Oren was describing only a week earlier as a "tectonic shift" in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is the last thing Obama needs ahead of November's Congressional elections. And Netanyahu does not want to go down as the Israeli prime minister who fell out with not one but two American presidents (the first being Bill Clinton).

But all this amounts to little: Palestinian non-acceptance off Israel remains unchanged. Only days ago, Mahmoud Abbas reiterated what he told Arab counterparts in March, speaking of a general Arab war with Israel as something for which "we are in favor," were it only possible.

 Syria affords a similar example of reaching out to enemies at the expense of friends while achieving nothing of use. It may be hard to recall that, only four short years ago, Syria was internationally isolated over its role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and forced to withdraw it occupation troops from Lebanon.

Here too, abandoning rather than accentuating established points of leverage, Obama has sought engagement in the hope of wresting Syria from the Iranian camp to nil effect. Syria's answer to Obama's modest call for Arab gestures towards Israel has been to supply the Iranian-proxy Shia terror group Hezbollah with more and better weapons, including long-range missiles, flouting UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in the process. This is unlikely to induce a long-term Hizballah preference for caution vis-à-vis Israel.

Encouraged by Obama to discover his limits by testing them, Syria's Bashar Assad humiliated Obama in March by cementing closer ties with Iran the day after a U.S. delegation that had been urging him to distance himself from Tehran and Hezbollah departed Damascus. At a public ceremony at the signing of new Iranian-Syrian agreement, with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in attendance, Assad publicly mocked the Administration's efforts at splitting the Syrian-Iranian axis with the words, "I find it strange how they talk about Middle East stability and at the same time talk about dividing [our] two countries."

Obama's response? Undetectable, but for a dose of denial: queried on the Iranian-Syrian summit, the State Department's Philip Crowley spoke as though Syria shares Washington's concerns rather than Tehran's delight in Iran's drive to nuclear weapons, volunteering the hope "that Syria's communicating to Iran its concerns about its role in the region and the direction, the nature of its nuclear ambitions."

Disdaining the carrots and seeing no sticks, Assad now opposes an Arab League call for resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, a high priority for Obama. Yet, even the existing, meager level of formal U.S. disapproval -- withholding an ambassador to Damascus -- is something Obama has sought to reverse and would have done so by now if not for the bipartisan skepticism of Congress.

The scene is similar wherever one looks: Russia is wooed with last year's cancellation of missile defense installations not even aimed at Russia in neighboring American allies, Poland and the Czech Republic. Yet this abandonment, welcomed by those pleased to call themselves "realists," elicits undetectable dividends from Moscow, which is still further indulged. Reset buttons are pressed by Hilary Clinton, but Russia thinks nothing of judicially kidnapping an American businessmen and sequestering his Russia-based companies.

To take two further examples of this policy, Obama has been voluble praising Brazil's Lula de Silva and Turkey's Tacip Recep Erdogan, ideologically anti-American leaders of erstwhile allies whom Obama has chosen to pretend are the friends their predecessors were. But such unseemly sycophancy has availed Obama only the slap in the face of both men siding with Iran and opposing Obama's UN sanctions bill.

Such pretenses of continuing friendship have not even contained the brewing tensions that could have been foreseen: Obama's pandering to Erdogan's vanity by seeking his mediation with Iran yielded neither Iranian compliance nor Turkish support. But it has now produced American-Turkish tensions while Tehran chuckles with schadenfreude.

Meanwhile, one of America's best allies in Latin America, Colombia, has still not secured a long-heralded free trade agreement with Washington. Impoverished Honduras deposes and exiles a lawless president, Manuel Zelaya, seeking constitutionally proscribed prolongation of tenure, only to be hit with American-led condemnation, suspension of aid and a demand (eventually dropped when proven ineffective in the face of Honduran pluck) to reinstate Zelaya. The only cheers this American-led beat-up of a small, harmless democracy produced were in Raul Castro's Havana and Hugo Chavez' Caracas. And Obama's efforts to lift U.S. sanctions on Cuba have proceeded without regard to the remorseless continuation of Cuban domestic repression, attested to by various human rights groups.

The preeminent 19th century Austrian statesman, Metternich, once said, "diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments." If that is true, one could say that Obama has dispensed with an ensemble of allies while pursuing an a-cappella foreign policy predicated on the instrumentality of his own voice. But after 18 months, America's friends find it unmelodious and its enemies unimpressive. A vacuum of stability and security beckons with baleful consequences sure to emerge on his watch.

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.