Obama’s can’t-do style

For a president with a daunting domestic agenda and limited experience in foreign policy, Barack Obama has taken on an unusually active world role. He has made important policy overtures to America’s adversaries, delivered major addresses in Cairo, Prague, Moscow and at the United Nations, and set a White House record with visits to more than 20 countries in his first year in office. And with his December speech on Afghanistan, he now owns that war.

Yet it will be at least a year before we know whether the Afghan surge is bringing the hoped-for results. Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba have failed to accept Obama’s outstretched hand. Russia has been grudging in its support for more effective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, as has China, which also shows no sign of allowing its undervalued currency to rise against the dollar.

Among allies, Europeans have shown only very limited willingness to provide more troops for Afghanistan and have been mostly unwilling to accept Guantanamo inmates, and South Korea and Colombia are irked about trade policy.

Meanwhile, Obama’s assertive Middle East initiative has left the Israeli-Palestinian peace process worse off than before, has failed to gain support from Arab states and has lost the support of the Israeli public.


Early assessments have focused on specific policy details and missteps not unusual for a new president, but an underlying explanation may have to do with President Obama’s unique operational style.

First, there is Obama’s remarkable solipsism, i.e., his penchant for projecting himself as the personification of U.S. policy. Personal attraction can be a useful political and diplomatic tool, and polls in Europe and to a lesser extent in Asia and the Mideast confirm that foreigners strongly prefer him to his predecessor. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the president’s own persona is quickly wearing thin.

Obama’s pitch to the Olympic Committee in Copenhagen showcased his Chicago roots but fell flat. In his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he declared, “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world,” but achieved little substantive result. And in a video to Germany on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ignored the roles played by Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Vaclav Havel and others, he managed to observe that “few would have foreseen . . . that [Germany’s] American ally would be led by a man of African descent,” while leaving his audience miffed at his failure to appear in person. The impression is emerging of overreliance on his own powers of explanation, reassurance and rhetoric.

Second, Obama overestimates the extent to which America’s adversaries determine their policies in reaction to U.S. rhetoric and policy rather than as expressions of their own values, history and interests. Emphasis on interdependence, good intentions and the belief that “the interests of nations and peoples are shared” does not go very far in explaining the motivations of Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad or Hugo Chavez. The message conveyed is that if only he could assure adversaries or allies that he -- and thus America -- means well, threats or problems could be mitigated or overcome altogether.

In a quest to bridge differences, the president sometimes slips into mirror-imaging by downplaying the distinction between allies and adversaries, and in seeking to equate very different kinds of responsibility. For example, his Cairo speech suggested Western sources for the region’s problems and downplayed local causes such as authoritarianism, corruption and internal obstacles to social and economic progress. Anxiously anticipating how others will react may also explain Obama’s curious downplaying of human rights, as in his muted response to massive protests by the Iranian people over the rigged outcome of the June presidential election, and in his recent China visit.

Third, there remains the president’s inexperience, coupled with a proclivity for Olympian detachment. Obama came to office with a very limited legislative background and without having run any large public or private organization. The result has been missteps that to foreign leaders suggests uncertainty and indecision. Some have been minor flaps, as in presenting a minimal gift of DVDs of American films to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, bowing to the Japanese emperor and occasional factual misstatements in speeches.

But other lapses have been more telling. These have included embarrassing leaks concerning Afghanistan policy, as the president weighed troop requests and carried out a protracted reassessment about what he had described in August as a necessary war. And allied leaders have begun more openly to voice their doubts. For example, Polish and Czech leaders expressed dismay at the reversal of the decision to deploy an anti-missile system on their soil. And after the U.N. speech, French President Nicolas Sarkozy acidly remarked that “President Obama dreams of a world without weapons . . . but right in front of us, two countries are doing the exact opposite. . . . What good has proposals for dialogue brought the international community? More uranium enrichment and declarations by the leaders of Iran to wipe a U.N. member state off the map.”

And, most recently, there was the president’s delayed public response to the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane. His remarks, delivered three days after the event, drew criticism -- both for the delay and for using the word “allegedly” in reference to the attacker’s attempt to ignite an explosive device, and led him to follow up a day later with a more forceful statement.


To be sure, presidents typically face a steep learning curve during their first year. And given Obama’s political skills, his handling of foreign policy could become more adept. Yet the impact of his operational style on policy remains considerable and arguably not well suited to managing two wars and an intransigent Iran, let alone a major foreign policy crisis of the kind that is almost certain to arise at some point during his term.

Robert J. Lieber is a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. His most recent book is “The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century.”