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A President as Aloof Abroad as at Home

May 08, 2013

In the debate over what the United States should do about the increasingly violent civil war in Syria, one thing seemed clear: If the Assad regime used chemical weapons, it would cross a "red line," as President Barack Obama put it in August. Such a move, Mr. Obama added, would cause him to "change my calculus" about whether or not the U.S. should intervene. But it turns out the president never meant to say that. Sunday's New York Times reported that Mr. Obama surprised his foreign-policy advisers with these off-the-cuff remarks, which came immediately after meetings during which Obama administration officials grappled over Syria policy.

Every president complicates matters with spontaneous comments. But Mr. Obama's "red line" remarks point to a broader foreign policy problem this president has.

In his first term, the president seemed to assume speeches sufficed as policies. While speeches help explain policy, they are rarely enough by themselves. Take his June 2009 Cairo speech, which promised a "new beginning" for the U.S. relationship toward the Middle East. But what new policy followed?

Mr. Obama and his team have also often not approached the world strategically. They tend to view in isolation arenas that are connected.

Consider Iran. Mr. Obama is rightly concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions, and he has offered tough talk: In a 2012 speech to the United Nations General Assembly he promised that "the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

But if he thought about Iran strategically, he would have backed Iran's Green Revolution after the stolen 2009 parliamentary elections. He would also not have sabotaged chances for a U.S. military presence in Iraq by insisting on parliamentary approval of a status-of-forces agreement. A U.S. presence in Iraq would have reduced Iranian influence in Baghdad and diminished the likelihood of sectarian conflict in Iraq.

Thinking strategically about Iran also might have led Mr. Obama to act earlier for regime change in Syria. After two years of fighting, the war is spilling into Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. A million Syrian refugees are flooding into Jordan. Iran, which has the most to lose from Assad's fall, now has thousands of Hezbollah troops fighting to save the dictator. And perhaps most important, the fact that the White House has done nothing since the Assad regime crossed the "red line" by using sarin gas has made a mockery of Mr. Obama's warnings to Iran not to build a nuclear weapon.

The president also needs stronger personal relationships with world leaders. Ronald Reagan had British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. George H.W. Bush was close to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Bill Clinton had very good relations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. George W. Bush was close to Mr. Blair, too, as well as to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Ministers José María Aznar of Spain and Junichiro Koizumi of Japan.

What significant foreign leaders is Mr. Obama close to? He has the same aloof relationship with most foreign leaders that he has with congressional leaders of both political parties at home.

Does this matter? As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said, "It's simple" to get allies "to do something easy but considerably more difficult to get them to do something hard." To do that, she added, personal relationships "really matter."

Mr. Obama has violated some cardinal rules in relationships with foreign leaders. He's surprised allies with unilateral actions, as when he canceled missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. He's dithered when friends have supported American interests abroad, as Great Britain and France did in Libya and are now doing in Syria. He snubbed the Israeli prime minister during White House visits and badly undercut the new Libyan president, Mohammed Magarief, by wrongly challenging his account of the terrorist attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi.

Mr. Obama may have learned some lessons. Earlier this year, he visited Israel to try repairing his abysmal relationship with Israelis and their leaders. Next week, he's hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdo?an, a difficult personality with the potential to play a critical regional role if he's sold on a plan that advances Turkish interests. Mr. Obama's new Secretary of State, John Kerry, is set to announce $100 million in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, which might hint at new policy for the conflict.

But these changes are coming late. The world—especially the Middle East—is more chaotic and dangerous than it was four years ago. This isn't the "new beginning" Mr. Obama promised.

A version of this article appeared May 9, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A President as Aloof Abroad as at Home and online at WSJ.com.

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