Saying No to Obama

The U.S. president is popular, but world leaders are finding it easy to defy his wishes.

Barack Obama 

Saying no to President George W. Bush was easy. It was second nature to foreigners—and also to many Americans. For most world leaders, saying no to Bush was the obvious course of action. “If we are to make the world politically more secure and economically more stable and prosperous,”wrote Joseph Stieglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, “Europe and the rest of the world will have to do their part. … [T]his entails `Just Saying No’ to President Bush.”

And with the exception of the first year after 9/11—the era of good will toward America—it was indeed rather common for international players to follow Stieglitz’s advice. “France and Germany dug in for another diplomatic battle when they rejected American proposals for a new UN resolution on Iraq”; “Saudi Arabia rebuffed President Bush’s request to immediately pump more oil to lower record prices”; “NATO rebuffs Bush on troop restrictions in Afghanistan”; “Russia rebuffs U.S. call to rethink $1bln Venezuela arms deal”; “the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community—increasingly, it is simply being ignored.” The list could go on and on.

Enter the Obama administration and the much-anticipated Obama effect on global public opinion. Even before the 2008 election, “the world” preferred Obama over McCain by more than a 3-to-1 margin, according to Gallup. Obama, concluded a June 2009 study conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, “has the confidence of many publics around the world—inspiring far more confidence than any other world political leader.” In 16 countries, approval of U.S. leadership has increased compared with last year (Gallup, again).

Obama had the advantage of stepping into the teeny-tiny shoes of his very unpopular predecessor. “Bush’s popularity in the United States has sunk to the level of Richard Nixon’s just before he resigned from office. The president’s standing abroad is still worse,” observed a report by the Pew Research Center. One blog post summarized the situation simplistically but succinctly: “Arab opinion: Bush bad, Obama good.” So the stage was set for Obama to make his pitch and win over allies and foes. But as everybody knows by now, things didn’t work out that way. World leaders accustomed to saying no monitored the new administration for a while and then resumed their old habits.

Russia kept placing obstacles on the road to tougher sanctions against Iran; Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze all settlement activities as the administration demanded; the North Koreans said no to repeated attempts at talks; at the Copenhagen climate-change summit, the “agreement the United States reached with Brazil, China, India and South Africa lacked commitments to achieve its stated goals”; the Iranians didn’t show any sign of appreciation for Obama’s attempt to have more civilized conversation aimed at curbing their nuclear ambitions; the Cubans, with whom Obama had also vowed to have more constructive dialogue, now call the president “imperial and arrogant.” Not even Mahmoud Abbas, the very weak Palestinian president, was convinced to resume talks with Israel. This list is gets longer every day.

Of course, every no merits its own explanation. In some cases (Saudi Arabia, Israel), it was lack of preparation on Obama’s side. In others (Iran), the naiveté or wishful thinking of an inexperienced president. With certain regimes (Cuba, North Korea), it was simply business as usual. And still other countries (Russia, Palestine) might still let Obama have some kind of progress to show for his diplomatic efforts.

The president has made many mistakes. Some were seemingly harmless—like his failed last-minute attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago. And some were far more worrisome, such as Obama’s disastrous meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, in which the king “launched a tirade” about refusing to “show reciprocal gestures to Israel,” as Obama had requested.

Still, these mistakes don’t explain the shift back to the all too familiar Bush-years pattern of saying no to the American president. It isn’t just that that no one has cut Obama any slack. World leaders seem to be taking pleasure in rebuffing him, disappointing him, even, in some cases, mocking him. French President Nicolas Sarkozy famously called Obama an “inexperienced, ill-prepared” leader.

Praising and admiring Obama are still common, but raising doubts about him, even scoffing at him, is now becoming fashionable. Although he is still popular among Europeans and more popular with Muslims than his despised predecessor, Obama is being tagged with the unflattering label John Quincy Adams earned before he lost the 1828 election: “Adams can write, Jackson can fight.”

Obama can write—and he can speak—but if he can’t fight, he’ll find it hard to achieve his goals. If he can’t fight, he isn’t scary. And evidently, being popular didn’t help him much. In fact, you might even say that being popular made it more difficult for Obama to succeed. He was too popular for his own good, annoyingly popular, distractingly popular. When a TV interviewer asked Sarkozy whether there was “competition for leadership” between him and Obama, the Frenchman responded, “there’s no competition,” but he was demonstrably annoyed.

Obama’s popularity with the people of the world is something local leaders feel an instinctive urge to resist. No one is pleased when a foreign politician is more loved and respected than he is. And in many cases, opposition is the trouble. For Netanyahu and Abbas, resisting Obama was politically beneficial. Their “people” appreciated the leaders’ newly discovered chutzpah. Unhinged by Obama’s conciliatory tone, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez suggested that the president is the devil without worrying much about possible consequences. Iranians have more confidence in Obama than they had in Bush—only more reason for supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to point out that he can’t tell the difference.

In fact, no world leader has paid a price for disappointing Obama. With Obama so nice and so conciliatory, risking retaliation by the White House doesn’t seem all that dangerous. If resisting Bush’s policies was a political necessity, encouraged and driven by the anger of the masses (ask Britain’s Tony Blair about that), resisting Obama has become trendy, almost cool, because it gives world leaders the chance to stand taller, to be an equal member of the club of the clashing rock stars. Imagine the most popular boy in class asking a girl out. Imagine that after much consideration the girl says no. Not even you are good enough for me.

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