Obama's retreat from the global stage

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 8, 2010

Is a wounded Barack Obama withdrawing from the world?

Europeans could be excused for speculating as much. The White House announced last week that the president would not attend a U.S.-European Union summit planned for Madrid in May, forcing its cancellation. The spurned host, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, also failed to get a meeting with either Obama or Vice President Biden during a two-day visit to Washington.

Zapatero claimed he had "no problem" with the rebuff. But that was not the reaction back home. "Obama Turns His Back on Europe," said Spain's El Pais. "Obama's No-Show Disappoints Europe" said Germany's Der Spiegel.

Israelis and Palestinians also have reason to wonder. Obama's 70-minute State of the Union made no mention of Israel or a Middle East peace process. Shortly before the speech, Obama told an interviewer he had overestimated his administration's ability to renew negotiations between recalcitrant Israelis and Palestinians.

Then there are the leaders of Iraq. Two of them -- Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Sunni minority -- have visited Washington in the past two weeks. Both told me they were deeply worried about whether the Obama administration would remain committed to a stable and democratic Iraq. That's partly because Obama's public rhetoric has centered on U.S. troop withdrawals, rather than any vision for the future of the country. "I understand you are totally focused now on withdrawing the troops by 2011," said Hashimi. "But what will come after that?"

So are all these people right to be upset? Is Obama reacting to political trouble at home by turning his back on foreign affairs?

The White House could fairly argue that he is not. Though he skimped on foreign policy in the State of the Union and has been visibly focused on domestic affairs since Scott Brown's election to the Senate, Obama's diplomacy still looks reasonably vigorous. His envoys are busy trying to round up votes for a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing stiff sanctions on Iran. Obama has a visit to Australia and Indonesia scheduled for next month, and a summit meeting on disarmament is being prepared for Washington in April. A new strategic arms treaty with Russia is nearing completion.

In the Middle East, envoy George Mitchell labors on to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other, despite the president's stated discouragement. As for Iraq, Biden was there just two weeks ago, when -- for the second time in the past three months -- he worked to avert a crisis that could wreck the upcoming elections.

Still, it's not wrong to detect a presidential step back. Partly it is sensible -- as he did domestically, Obama piled too much on his foreign policy agenda his first year. The prospects are not good for an early Israeli-Palestinian peace, so the president is right to let an envoy manage it. Obama visited Europe six times in 2009, often for meetings that produced few results. His advisers are rightly trying to use his travel time more wisely this year.

Yet there's also a disquieting aspect to Obama's retreat. It's not just Zapatero who has trouble gaining traction in this White House: Unlike most of his predecessors, Obama has not forged close ties with any European leader. Britain's Brown, France's Sarkozy and Germany's Merkel have each, in turn, felt snubbed by him. Relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are tense at best. George W. Bush used to hold regular videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Obama has spoken to them on only a handful of occasions.

Obama's personal popularity in many parts of the world remains strong. Zapatero told The Post's editorial board that "in Spain, [Obama's] election was experienced as if it was an election in our own country." But in his first year the new president did not make the same connection with the leaders of America's principal allies. Now he is sending the message that he is cutting back his time for them. Maybe, as Zapatero diplomatically put it, this will be "no problem." But I doubt that's what the Spaniard was really thinking.

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