Obama Finds Foreign Affairs Do Not Bend to His Whims

Michael Barone

7/16/2013 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone
Foreign policy is hard. That's a lesson Barack Obama has been learning throughout his presidency. The world is not responding as he expected.

It looks simpler from the outside. Promise to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, proclaim yourself the tribune of hope and change, receive the adulation of giant crowds in Europe and accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

Obama entered office, as many presidents have, with the assumption that his predecessor's policies were wrongheaded and could readily be reversed.

Because he didn't look like other presidents, in his phrase, he believed he could change the attitudes unfriendly leaders had towards America and have special appeal to Muslims.

This has proved to be naive. Many, if not most Americans, including those who didn't vote for Obama, believe that the election of a black president was a step forward in American history.

But it doesn't have that resonance in much of the rest of the world. Obama went to Cairo in early June 2009 to deliver a speech proclaiming a "new beginning" of the relationship between America and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Later that month he showed icy indifference to the Green Movement protestors in Iran, presumably hoping that he could still change the attitude of the mullah regime toward America by his willingness to engage in direct negotiations. His expectations were in vain. The mullahs showed they were interested not in talking but in getting nuclear weapons.

And polls show that attitudes in many Arab and Muslim countries are now more negative to America than they were when George W. Bush was president.

Obama's multiple responses to the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermath have been part of the problem.

Tunisia, the first, presented few problems. In Libya he was content to, as one aide put it, "lead from behind."

This has resulted in the chaos and disorder that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi. Obama retired to the White House family quarters while the attack was going on and jetted off the next day to a campaign event in Las Vegas.

Egypt is the largest Arab nation by far and one critical to U.S. interests. Under Hosni Mubarak, it remained at peace -- though it was a cold peace -- with Israel. It controls traffic and therefore the flow of oil through the Suez Canal.

When protests broke out against Mubarak in January 2011, Obama originally said Mubarak's time had not passed, then a month later said he must leave. When he did, Obama urged Egyptian military leaders, with whom the U.S. military has close ties, to push toward elections.

Those resulted in a narrow victory in June 2012 for the one organized political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. President Mohammed Morsi then put in a new constitution and put the military on a short leash.

When vast numbers started protesting against Morsi last month, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson supported him. But Obama acquiesced in his ouster and called for elections soon.

The result is that Obama, as Kori Schake wrote in foreignpolicy.com, "has achieved the hat trick of alienating all the factions in Egypt."

He has probably done so in Syria as well. There, he predicted that Bashir Assad would be quickly ousted, and when he wasn't, said he must go. But he denied the Syrian rebels military aid until last month.

Unfortunately, the rebels seem weaker and more dominated by jihadists than they were two years ago.

Now it must be said that it is hard to anticipate how these protests and rebellions would turn out. Most outside observers probably expected Assad to be ousted quickly, as other leaders believed.

But it can also be said that Obama entered office with misperceptions that proved damaging. His assumption that he would be hailed in Cairo in 2009 as he had been in Berlin in 2008 was always unrealistic.

As is his apparent assumption that everything will be fine if the United States just withdrew, as our military did in Iraq when Obama failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement in Iraq.

Things have not turned out fine there, or in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. And Iran gets closer to having nuclear weapons every day.

Military intervention can be costly. But so can withdrawing and leading, hesitantly, from behind.