I think everyone agrees that President Obama cuts quite a figure as he dashes around the world giving flowery speeches in which he apologizes for America while, in the interest of balance, he suggests that we’re not the only nation that has sinned. It’s more difficult to agree as to just what kind of figure Obama cuts.
There’s no doubt that Obama is admired by many ordinary foreigners, though perhaps not so many in Eastern Europe and certainly not many in Israel. But ordinary foreigners do not make the decisions that matter to Americans, unless we happen to be tourists. So the key question is how Obama is perceived by the foreigners who do make them.
These foreigners aren’t quick to provide a candid public assessment of the U.S. president. Nonetheless, there are reports that French President Sarkozy considers Obama to be a bit ridiculous. Now, I’m reasonably confident that Sarkozy is jealous of Obama’s mass popularity. But jealousy probably explains why Sarkozy has let his contempt show, not necessarily the existence of that contempt.
Italian Prime Minister Burlusconi is another European leader who seems underwhelmed by Obama. I suspect that Sarkozy and Burlusconi are the tip of the iceberg.
France and Italy are allies. How does the political class in countries adverse to the U.S. see Obama?
If my Russian sources are reliable, the answer is that Obama is viewed there mostly with amusement. Some of the amusement stems from his trip to Russia this summer. My sources were amused by the flotilla of Air Force jets that brought him and his entourage to Moscow. They were also taken with (but not necessarily impressed by) the fact that Obama and his crew took over the Ritz Carlton hotel, where rooms start at around $1,200 per night and the presidential suite goes for $13,000.
The Marriott had been good enough for Presidents Clinton and Bush. Rooms there — described as similar to Marriott rooms in the U.S. — can be had for around $350. I was also told (but have not been able to confirm) that Bush himself stayed at the Ambassador’s residence, rather than in a hotel as Obama did.
Russia has seen self-aggrandizing, luxury loving heads of state before. What really has turned Russian heads, according to my sources, is Obama’s eagerness to give things away. The Russians, you see, are hard-nosed. They drive hard bargains in their dealings with themselves and perhaps harder still with outsiders. They may even take what they can’t get through hard bargaining when you’re not looking.
Throughout the Cold War, except to some extent during the Carter years, the U.S. responded more or less in kind to Russian hard-bargaining. In the modern era, President Bush, prodded by Vice President Cheney, eventually did so as well.
It probably never occurred to the Russians that a U.S. president would come to power hoping to “reset” relations with Russia on some basis other than the hard bargain and the “trust but verify” mentality. Yet this is precisely what has fallen into the Kremlin’s lap. From what I’ve heard, the Russian elites can neither believe their good fortune nor hide their amusement.
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