Walter Russell Mead assesses the statesmanship of Barack Obama versus that of Benjamin Netanyahu in the American Interest post “The real Middle East.” The subhead provides this précis: “Precisely because he has a colder view of international affairs than Obama, Netanyahu’s leadership has made Israel stronger than ever.” In the heart of this post he writes:
There is perhaps only one thing harder for the American mind to process than the fact that President Obama has been a terrible foreign policy president, and that is that Bibi Netanyahu is an extraordinarily successful Israeli Prime Minister. In Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Israel’s diplomacy is moving from strength to strength. Virtually every Arab and Middle Eastern leader thinks that Bibi is smarter and stronger than President Obama, and as American prestige across the Middle East has waned under Obama, Israel’s prestige — even among people who hate it — has grown. Bibi’s reset with Russia, unlike Obama’s, actually worked. His pivot to Asia has been more successful than Obama’s. He has had far more success building bridges to Sunni Muslims than President Obama, and both Russia and Iran take Bibi and his red lines much more seriously than they take Obama’s expostulations and pious hopes.
The reason that Bibi has been more successful than Obama is that Bibi understands how the world works better than Obama does. Bibi believes that in the harsh world of international politics, power wisely used matters more than good intentions eloquently phrased. Obama sought to build bridges to Sunni Muslims by making eloquent speeches in Cairo and Istanbul while ignoring the power political realities that Sunni states cared most about — like the rise of Iran and the Sunni cause in Syria. Bibi read the Sunnis more clearly than Obama did; the value of Israeli power to a Sunni world worried about Iran has led to something close to a revolution in Israel’s regional position. Again, Obama thought that reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood (including its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas) would help American diplomacy and Middle Eastern democracy. Bibi understood that Sunni states like Egypt and its Saudi allies wanted Hamas crushed. Thus, as Obama tried to end the Gaza war on terms acceptable to Hamas and its allies, Bibi enjoyed the backing of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a successful effort to block Obama’s efforts. Israel’s neighbors may not like Bibi, but they believe they can count on him. They may think Obama has some beautiful ideas that he cares deeply about, but they think he’s erratic, unreliable, and doesn’t understand either them or their concerns.
Obama is an aspiring realist who wanted to work with undemocratic leaders on practical agreements. But Obama, despite the immense power of the country he leads, has been unable to gain the necessary respect from leaders like Putin and Xi that would permit the pragmatic relationships he wanted to build. Bibi is a practicing realist who has succeeded where Obama failed. Bibi has a practical relationship with Putin; they work together where their interests permit and where their interests clash, Putin respects Bibi’s red lines.
Obama’s pivot to Asia brought the US closer to India and Japan, but has opened a deep and dangerous divide with China. Under Bibi’s leadership, Israel has stronger, deeper relationships with India, China and Japan than at any time in the past, and Asia may well replace Europe as Israel’s primary trade and investment partners as these relationships develop.