In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd writes that the firing of White House Counsel Greg Craig, a political death caused by "a thousand leaks," "sent a chill through some Obama supporters" who saw this as the most disgraceful moment in his young presidency. Recalling Obama’s decision not to help Caroline Kennedy in her quest to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate after all she did to support his candidacy, Dowd notes that "many donors and passionate supporters are let down by Obama’s detachment, puzzled at his failure to make them feel invested when he’s certain to come back to tap their well soon enough."
This assessment holds true, too, in the foreign policy realm.
Secretary Clinton's trip to the Middle East uncovered the bankruptcy of America’s strategy while also exposing its unwillingness to challenge Jerusalem's violation of its roadmap obligations. The US's equivocal response sent a message – to rising powers, that there is as of yet no real price to challenging the US; to smaller powers, that America will defer to a so-called bigger power, even when the big power's aggressions force others to bear the costs.
In Europe, where Obamania is at its most fervent, many sense that the president dispatches others to drum up increased support (money/troops for Afghanistan, etc.) but treats the continent's leaders with contempt, disdain, or indifference. There are a growing number of signals that Obama dismisses Europe but for when it is expedient not to. Obama’s dealings with President Sarkozy are tense, despite the French president’s concerted effort to move closer to the US including through French reintegration into NATO's Central Command. Otherwise, Obama refused five times (before accepting) to meet PM Brown at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, sent Secretary Clinton to the Berlin Wall commemorations in November, and recently charged Vice President Biden with a European delegation dinner held at the White House even though Obama was in town.
Beyond Europe, similar resentments are emerging. In Eastern and Central Europe, in Asia, smaller nations in the shadows of rising or resurgent powers have aligned with America and depend on the security and economic guarantee the alliance offers. These countries worry that US rapprochement with big powers comes without any counter-demands, that its willingness to dialogue with anyone reveals few strongly-developed bedrock stances, and that its failure (or impotence) to assert itself against North Korean, Iranian, or even Israeli aggression does not bode well for future dust-ups. They perceive an exceedingly conciliatory America and fear an impending dilemma – choosing between Washington and Beijing, or Moscow, etc. – a decision that has less to do with choice, and more about the lack of it.
Obama may be the most popular guy in school, but he cannot stay that way without the support of his peers. American allies want Obama to succeed without being cast aside in a flurry of gestures designed to placate former adversaries or to avoid sparking any new tensions. Among the dangers of Obama's approach is the threat of a new American arrogance. Instead of taking its basis in the Bush-era belief in the superiority of America's values, it risks to be the result of a leader's inflated sense of personal importance and entitlement to unwavering ally support. Should Obama believe too deeply in his cult of personality and travel the world asking always for more without giving the necessary reassurances, he risks disappointing America's most steadfast partners once again - this time, the culprit will not be a president seen to have little regard for global opinion as was the case with Bush. Rather, Obama would undermine true solidarity by breaking with the very premise of his election - a return to respectful dialogue and cooperation not only with adversaries, but with all.