Our MIA president
Does President Obama even do foreign relations anymore? To all appearances, he checked out of the global leadership scene months ago. It’s almost as though, after making the call to off Osama bin Laden, he pumped his fist and said, “That’s it. I’m done.”
Once upon a time, pundits used to speculate that a president beset with serious domestic problems would be tempted to “wag the dog” — to drum up a foreign crisis to boost his prospects of re-election. But there’s no chatter about Mr. Obama springing an October surprise. Perhaps it’s because he seems intent on doing everything possible to put the world on hold until after the election.
Certainly, that’s what he’s telling foreign leaders. Recall that embarrassing open mic moment in South Korea, when he assured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he could be more “flexible” on missile defense — after the election.
A Palestinian Authority official said he got the same message: Washington would push hard for Palestinian statehood, but not until after the election.
Nowadays, when Mr. Obama steps onto the world stage, he seems determined to make the least of it. Exhibit A: British Prime Minister David Cameron flies to the states for a three-day presidential visit. The most memorable accomplishment comes on day two, when the pair fly to Dayton, Ohio, for an NCAA tournament game and halftime interview.
Exhibit B: Mr. Obama invites Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for an April powwow at the White House. Meeting with the leader of an important and powerful South American nation is a great idea, but it should have a purpose. This meeting didn’t.
Indeed, the meeting was so fruitless, Mr. Obama dispensed with the usual joint press conference afterwards. One got the impression he’d much rather have stayed at the White House Easter Egg Roll, where he had frolicked before being dragged inside for Ms. Rousseff.
Mr. Obama followed up the Rousseff flop with a monumentally disappointing appearance at the Summit of the Americas. Lacking any meaningful agenda, Mr. Obama allowed the others to set one for him. Hence, the U.S. spent most of the summit on the defensive, arguing over Cuba policy and the war on drugs rather than promoting proposals to advance prosperity and democracy throughout the region.
It appeared that the president couldn’t be bothered even to do his foreign affairs homework. In prepared remarks announcing that the U.S. would not take sides in the Falklands dispute between Argentina and the U.K., he referred to the contested isles, known in Spanish as the Malvinas, as the Maldives — an Indian Ocean nation. The blunder displayed both disconnectedness from the Americas and disdain for an ally (the U.K.) whose troops are fighting alongside our own in Afghanistan.
Detachment and disregard are not what others want from the leader of the free world. Small wonder, then, that Mr. Obama’s overseas approval ratings are slipping. The annual Gallup/Meridian International Center survey released last week found that the president’s approval rating in the Americas plunged six percentage points last year, to 40%. Double-digit drops were recorded in Panama and Colombia, nations that had to wait three years for approval of free trade agreements with Washington.
The Summit of the Americas showed that when the U.S. president fails to command the stage, others are happy to upstage him. Which is why we should lower hopes for the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
Think of it as Cartagena II. The White House appears to have no agenda for the meeting, other than to lead the alliance in declaring an “end” to the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban don’t seem to have gotten the memo.
One understands why “No Drama” Obama wants to make the world go away. The election-year line from the White House is: The president got bin Laden, so the world’s a quieter and safer place.
Unfortunately, it just ain’t so. Indeed, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted this week, “We’re within an inch of war almost every day.”
And war inches nearer when the leader of the free world opts not to lead. Even if a preoccupied U.S. electorate doesn’t notice, the rest of the world does. They notice when Syrian protesters rise against their terrorist-supporting dictator … and the U.S. does nothing. When Iran thumbs its nose at U.N. sanctions, accelerates its nuclear program and threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz … and the U.S. does nothing. When North Korea reneges on its food-for-peace deal and launches a long-range missile … and the U.S. does nothing.
America’s adversaries seem to be running wild. And rolling eggs, watching basketball and hitting the links won’t make it go away. Nature abhors a vacuum. And when American leadership is MIA, far uglier and more sinister forces are only too eager to fill the void.
James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.