Absence of key U.S. allies at summit amplifies doubts about Obama’s foreign policy

Jon Ward Contributor
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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.

Top administration officials such as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke have clashed with Karzai in disputes that have been leaked to the press.*

During Obama’s trip to Kabul just two weeks ago, he did not praise Karzai and his top officials made clear he was there to put pressure on the Afghan president to do a better job of governance and rooting out corruption.

Karzai responded by denouncing Western interference in last summer’s elections and by talking of joining the Taliban himself.

As for Netanyahu, the Obama administration took umbrage at the Israeli government’s announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem the day Vice President Joe Biden arrived there for a visit last month. Clinton upbraided Netanyahu in a phone call and a Clinton spokesperson publicly called Israel’s actions a “deeply negative signal.”

Abrams said that by comparison, the leaders of countries that are hostile to the U.S. or are wary competitors have received nothing but polite diplomacy.

“Surely we should be treating [Karzai and Netanyahu] better than we treat enemies like [Syrian President] Bashar al-Asad or [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, or the Russian and Chinese leaders, who if not enemies are certainly not friends,” Abrams said.

Netanyahu announced last week he would not attend the U.S. summit on nuclear proliferation, reportedly because he suspected Egypt and Turkey to be planning a public protest of Israel’s nuclear program. The implication is that the Israeli leader does not believe Obama supports Israel’s program as unabashedly as past presidents have.

“He clearly made the call that he didn’t want another lecture by Hillary and speeches by the Arabs hammering Israel for not joining the [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty],” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Middle East peace talks to six secretaries of state from 1988 to 2003.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is not attending the summit to campaign ahead of May 6 elections, though there has been speculation that Brown chose not to attend simply to spite Obama.

Even major European leaders got meetings with Obama this week only at the last minute. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s one-on-one meeting with Obama was scheduled for Tuesday late on Sunday, only after meetings with the leaders of India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Jordan, Malaysia, Ukraine, Armenia and Turkey.

Biden was scheduled to meet Monday with leaders from New Zealand, United Arab Emirates and South Korea.

Some analysts said the shift of the Obama White House focus from West to East is natural given the changing balance of global power.

“There are growing pains in a transatlantic relationship that is adjusting to a new world,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow for Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kupchan said “the Obama administration has mishandled specific policy turns” such as informing Eastern European leaders hours before they announced a change to their plans for a missile defense system in the region, and allowing European Union leaders to learn from press reports that Obama would not attend the U.S.-E.U. summit.

He said he does not think the current White House is “dumping its European allies.”

Simon Serfaty, a Europe analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying that he finds complaints from Europe over Obama’s behavior “wrong and even tiresome.”

“No president has gone to Europe as often as this president did over the first 15 months of his administration, and none has discussed as many issues as substantively with the European allies as this president either,” Serfaty said.

He added that Obama’s “decision not go to Madrid for the U.S.-E.U. Summit reflected more on the institutional confusion of the E.U. — now endowed with two presidents in addition to the president of the Commission — than with an alleged U.S. snub.”

*This story originally referred to Biden’s confrontation with Karzai, but that occurred when he was a senator.

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