One frequent criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency has been that in domestic as well as foreign policy, he fails to establish and maintain the personal relationships that are important to coalition building. Despite the positive spin being put on U.S.-European relations this week as the president visits several European allies, the last two years have been marked by frequent complaints of an aloof, distant president who rarely calls and who has developed few close friendships with his counterparts.
In the past, the White House has attempted to rebut this critique by noting the president’s close relationship with leaders such as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev, however, may not be on the other end of the phone much longer, given that Vladimir Putin appears to be plotting his return to the presidency next year. They also liked to tout his working relationship with Chinese president Hu Jintao, but that relationship also has fallen on hard times given the fact that China and the U.S. fundamentally disagree on most key issues.
Given this track record, it is thus not a surprise that controversy has erupted between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama over the last week after the president called on Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinians based on its 1967 borders. Prime Minister Netanyahu ended up spending much of his visit to Washington making clear that this is not in Israel’s interest, most recently in a masterful address to a joint session of Congress yesterday.
While those in the pro-Israel community are rightly concerned about the president’s decision to use the occasion of his Arab Spring speech to again go off topic and in effect pressure Israel to compromise, they need to remember that it was not the first time he has done so and realize that it will not be the last. Last year, the Obama administration decided to confront Israel over new construction in East Jerusalem just weeks prior to Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, resulting in a tense visit very similar to the one that just concluded. Just as Netanyahu made clear in his speeches this year that Israel could not return to the 1967 lines, last year he had to drive home the message that “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”
Obama’s habit of causing confrontation with Israel does not necessarily mean that he is not a supporter of Israel. His administration has done much — as he outlined on Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and as Prime Minister Netanyahu also confirmed — to strengthen the relationship. It does indicate, however, that he treats Israel as he does any other U.S. ally. When it is convenient, he stands by U.S. allies in the interest of working towards a common goal. However, if the ally is seen as a hindrance or to be standing in the way of the greater good — be it the “reset” with Russia or progress in the peace process — President Obama is quick to publicly condemn and confront or, perhaps worse, just ignore.
This Obama approach to alliances is amplified by his lack of personal chemistry with key foreign leaders. If there was at least a modicum of personal solidarity between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu or European leaders he might disagree with from time to time, many of these problems could be worked out behind the scenes. Instead, they all too frequently spill out into the public domain.
Much of this goes to the president’s personality — he reportedly prefers a small group of close personal friends and is not the backslapping, joshing sort. After the midterms, he appears to have made an effort to adapt his personal skills in an effort to engage Republicans on domestic policy, but that strategy does not appear to have made the leap to foreign leaders.
On the world stage, Barack Obama seems to enjoy deploying the rhetoric of alliances and consensus-building without the difficult work of actually doing it. Israel and other close U.S. allies by now have learned the lesson — it is not clear that they can trust the man in the White House.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.