The Obama administration promised us a new day in foreign affairs. The president’s vision, savvy, and status as a “citizen of the world” were going to produce bold new initiatives to take us beyond the false choices, and resulting quagmires, of the past. Friend and foe alike would see the U.S. in a new light and, riding our newfound popularity, we would reshape the world along more just and peaceful lines.
There were skeptics, of course. The world cannot so easily be remade, they warned. Old modes of thinking die hard. Longstanding feuds persists.
Less than a year into his presidency, though, it looks like Obama was right. Changes that were virtually unthinkable in January have already occurred.
Consider Israel, a country at the center of Obama’s hopes for a new day in foreign policy. U.S. relations with Israel have had their minor bumps, but Israeli trust of America and respect for the American president have been constant. This was true whether the president was Nixon or Carter, Clinton or George W. Bush.
As a result, Israeli prime ministers — even crusty old war horses like Yitzak Shamir and Ariel Sharon — have struggled mightily to remain on good terms with the U.S. president. It can be argued that when a brash young Benyamin Netanyahu got on President Clinton’s bad side, the price was his office.
But in nine months all of this has changed. A recent survey sponsored by the Jerusalem Post showed that only 4 percent of Israelis believe that President Obama’s policies are more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian. Considering that the margin of error in the poll was 4.5 percent, one might wonder whether any Israeli, or at least any Israeli Jew, believes Obama is on the side of America’s long-time ally.
Meanwhile 51 percent of those polled believe that Obama’s policies are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel. When more than half of the Israeli population believes that the American president tilts towards their sworn enemies, it’s fair to say that Obama has produced a sea-change in this small but important corner of the world.
But this is only the beginning of “change you can scarcely believe” in Israel. For decades Israelis have been bitterly divided, often more or less down the middle, over politics. And throughout much of this period, Benyamin Netanyahu has been among the most divisive Israeli politicians.
When Netanyahu formed a largely “right-wing” coalition government earlier this year, his regime was considered fragile even by Israeli standards. But then the Obama administration insisted that Israel halt all new construction in West Bank settlements, including construction of new homes within large settlements to accommodate natural population. Then it protested plans to build a new apartments in East Jerusalem.
When Netanyahu rejected these demands, his popularity soared. Obama had transformed the least lovable of all Israeli politicians into a leader around whom a strong majority of Israelis could rally.
In foreign affairs, many actions set in motion an equal and opposite reaction. Obama probably hoped that any Israeli reaction against his policies would coincide with an equally strong reaction in his favor in the Arab world.
But while Israelis judged Obama by his words, the Arabs judged him by his results. Thus, when the Netanyahu government refused to halt construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Arab world was not amused.
Now, the administration is trying desperately to cobble together a compromise on settlement construction. But no face-saving compromise will obscure the fact that Obama has squandered America’s credibility on both sides of the Middle East divide to a degree that shocks those of us who doubted Obama’s power to produce change.
In the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern and Central Europe, the U.S. has long been viewed with the same high regard as in Israel. And for similar reasons: we provide moral and material support that helps these countries survive and prosper as independent entities in a dangerous neighborhood.
These nations, in turn, have gone out on the limb for the United States. Poland and the Czech Republic in particular have been stalwart partners in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Initially, Obama talked as if he respected our special relationship with these allies. In April, speaking in Prague, Obama pledged to go forward with a missile defense shield program in Eastern Europe upon which, according to CNN, Poland and the Czech Republic have “based much of their future security policy.”
“So let me be clear,” Obama intoned, “the Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against [Iranian missiles]; as long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile-defense system that is cost-effective and proven.”
Even so, the Eastern Europeans must have sensed that they were destined for a difficult time in Obama’s remade world. Polls showed diminished faith in the U.S. and its new president.
The uneasiness was justified. This week, in the face of pressure from Russia, the Obama administration announced that it would not proceed with the missile shield program in Eastern Europe after all. It thus betrayed a pair of key allies whose leaders, as Obama himself had recognized in April, took political risks to support the program.
A spokeswoman for the Polish Ministry of Defense put it bluntly: “This is catastrophic for Poland,” she declared.
And not just for Poland. As the editors of National Review remarked, America’s lack of resolve in the face of Russian saber-rattling has sent a chilling message throughout the region, notably to Georgia and Ukraine.
Obama undoubtedly hopes that this latest “finger in the eye” of an ally will help him obtain cooperation from Russia, particularly when it comes to dealing with Iran. But handing a strategic victory to Russia’s leaders at no cost is likely only to embolden the Kremlin and to force its neighbors to bend in Russia’s direction.
Obama, then, has “reset” U.S. relations with Russia. But, as with Israel, he has done so by squandering U.S. influence and credibility, and by alienating close friends.
It turns out that the U.S. can alienate its allies with stunning swiftness. Whether enemies can be won over as a result is another matter.
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