President Obama is holding one of the biggest global summits ever on U.S. soil starting Monday, but for all the hoopla, the event will be missing America’s strongest allies.
As remarkable as it is, the fact that neither British Prime Minister Gordon Brown nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are attending President Obama’s nuclear security summit in Washington Monday and Tuesday is not altogether surprising.
Relations with both countries — Israel in particular — have grown strained under Obama. Combined with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent defiance of the administration, questions are growing about the president’s ability to maintain important relationships.
“It is a curious state of affairs when relations with our major democratic allies are all wobbly at once,” said Michael Green, a former foreign policy adviser to President George W. Bush, who also listed Japan and South Korea as traditional allies whose relationships with the U.S. have frayed under Obama.
“And one has to ask why righting these key alliances has not received more attention,” he said.
The president’s critics, many of them from the Bush administration, say the summit absences — heads of state from Australia and Saudia Arabia also are not attending — are the most glaring examples of a floundering foreign policy that treats rivals and enemies better than friends.
“He seems to want to engage rivals, even enemies, more than spend time with friends and allies,” said David Kramer, a top State Department official in the Bush administration.
“His lack of contact, relatively speaking, with close allies suggests an assumption that they’ll be with him in the end anyway. And yet he found time to go to Copenhagen to lobby for the Olympics.”
Kramer implied in a recent column for Foreign Policy magazine that the Obama White House has a backbone problem, showing toughness to allies in part only because it backs down when challenged by rivals such as Russia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday tried to downplay concerns about U.S. relations with key allies.
“We have a deep and, and very close relationship between the United States and Israel that goes back many years. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We have a special relationship with Great Britain; we have close relationships with France, our oldest ally. Doesn’t mean we agree on everything,” she said.
Clinton blamed “a 24/7 news cycle with, you know, things popping every minute” for the focus on U.S. relations with key allies.
“A lot is made of a little, instead of trying to step back and see the forest instead of the trees,” she said.
Elliot Abrams, another former top Bush administration foreign policy adviser, said the current White House was guilty of “diplomatic malpractice.”
“In his treatment of Karzai and Netanyahu, the president has shown an odd understanding of what it means to be a U.S. ally. Surely it should mean that inevitable disagreements are handled privately whenever possible. Surely it should mean avoiding steps that seek to weaken or humiliate a foreign leader,” Abrams said.
Though relations with Karzai grew strained at the end of the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s relationship with the Afghan president — the leader of the country that is currently home to the biggest concentration of U.S. military forces on the planet — has been a soap opera.