To gauge President Obama's lack of direct involvement on the international stage, you only have to look at the popularity polls in Europe, where his approval numbers still soar at around 75 percent. In Europe, leaders often become better liked as their visibility, leadership and influence decrease. Politicians' popularity can really skyrocket when they leave office. The most popular political figure in France today, for instance, is former President Jacques Chirac. Despite his current and ongoing corruption trial, from which his participation has been excused due to reasons of demonstrable senility, he has never been so popular.
Obama, in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, has shown little hands-on international leadership on contentious world issues. Yet, even in America, he doesn't seem to be suffering much from it. His approval rate on the Libyan war sits at 42 percent, according to a recent Bloomberg poll -- a figure not much lower than his overall approval rate of 45 percent.
A look at the White House website's policy section reveals that the only "foreign policy" issues apparently worth publicly addressing are tsunamis, earthquakes and official visits to Asia and Cairo. Seems like a pretty sparse agenda given all the events going on in the world at the moment with a direct impact on America's economy and security.
The evidence is pretty clear: Obama is outsourcing, with little or no top-down leadership or strategy. He has outsourced European affairs to Britain's David Cameron. He has outsourced monitoring of the Arab Spring to both Cameron and France's Nicolas Sarkozy. He's outsourcing intelligence and military operations to well-paying private global-security firms to which Special Forces members and top performers have been flocking. Contentious statements have been outsourced to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who was the only one to speak up and ask for the return of the Lockerbie Bomber around the time of my column titled "Go Get the Lockerbie Bomber From Libya." It was like Obama just sat there on the couch yelling at his mom to get the phone. He could have said something himself, or at the very least made an effort to stand somewhere nearby while Clinton said it.
There are some advantages to this approach, particularly in the event that you don't know what you're doing. In these cases, it's probably best to download the task onto someone trustworthy who does. In a sense, Obama's hands-off -- or at the very least arm's-length -- strategy with these international matters could feasibly be construed as implicit acknowledgement of personal ineptitude. Perhaps he should even be given credit for lucidity.
The ideal president would possess in-depth cultural, geopolitical and geo-economic knowledge and experience. He or she would be someone who could identify a problem or flashpoint on the other side of the world -- preferably even before it became a major issue. He'd understand exactly how it might play out given different scenarios, and how in each case America would be impacted. Such an approach could only feasibly be adopted by a statesman -- a polymath or Renaissance man -- but how many of those exist nowadays in public life? We're light-years away from the era of Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle.
Obama, by contrast, is a community organizer. When a community activist attempts to substitute his own mind-set for that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for example, in an attempt to ascertain how the Russian sphere of influence might shift in light of emerging economic realities that include a rapprochement of bilateral trade between ideologically complicit Russia and China ... it can only end in unmitigated disaster. The danger lies in what former CIA Directorate of Operations Dick Heuer, an expert on the psychology of intelligence analysis, called a cognitive trap, or mirror-imaging. He warned against projecting models on foreign entities that might be unfeasible and unrealistic given their cultural values, realities and mind-set. A popular revolt in the Arab world isn't, for example, the Civil Rights Movement in America
As long as popularity polls support this kind of outsourcing of international leadership, there will be little impetus for change. And as long as voters are content with setting the bar so low in their selection of presidential contenders -- requiring only that they possess the requisite views on social and ideological issues rather than an ability to operate on the level of a true statesman -- perhaps it really is best for everyone that they don't even try to take matters into their own hands.