President Obama's Schmoozing Problem Goes Global

| Thu Oct. 24, 2013 2:16 PM EDT

On the international stage, it's just an endless series of bad news for President Obama these days. It seems as if everyone is mad at him. Here's Roger Cohen on Germany:

A senior official close to Merkel recently took me through the “very painful” saga of the Obama administration’s response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. It began with Susan Rice, the national security adviser, telling the Chancellery on Aug. 24 that the United States had the intelligence proving President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that it would have to intervene and that it would be a matter of days. German pleas to wait for a United Nations report and to remember Iraq fell on deaf ears. Six days later, on Friday Aug. 30, Germany heard from France that the military strike on Syria was on and would happen that weekend — only for Obama to change tack the next day and say he would go to Congress.

Things got worse at the G-20 St. Petersburg summit meeting the next week. Again, Germany found the United States curtly dismissive....Germany found the atmosphere at the summit terrible. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, insisted the Syrian opposition was behind the use of chemical weapons....Putin, to the Germans, appeared much more powerful than Obama. His strengthened international standing after America’s Syrian back-and-forth worries a Germany focused on bringing East European nations like Ukraine and Moldova into association accords with the E.U.

The French are upset too, and of course the Brazilians as well. Ditto for Saudi Arabia, which wants us to be tougher on both Syria and Iran. Andrew Sullivan reports similar complaints from Britain: "For all Obama’s re-positioning of the US as a partner, not a hegemon, in practice, the disdain for allies’ particular interests can seem as dismissive as Rumsfeld or Cheney. I’m not sure how to fix this substantively, unless the Congress reins in the NSA. But a little more respect for our European allies would surely help."

I'm unsure what to think about all this. On the NSA spying front, it's a little hard to take foreign complaints at face value since we know perfectly well that other countries do pretty much the same thing. We do more of it, because we're bigger and richer than most countries, but that's a matter of scale, not morals.

On Syria, there's no question that Obama handled things clumsily. And yet, Germany eventually got the response it wanted. Is a little bit of confusion along the way really all that unusual? As for Putin, Germany's concern over his improved stature strikes me as overblown, though obviously they're much more sensitive to this than we are. Ditto for Saudi Arabia and its concerns over Iran.

So what to think? Some of this seems like posturing. Some seems like a legitimate difference in perspective. And some simply seems like a difference of opinion that can't really be talked away. We want to negotiate with Syria and Iran, while Saudi Arabia wants us to flatten them. I don't really blame Obama for pursuing the former course even though the Saudis don't like it.

Beyond that, it seems like much of this is an example of what Bill Clinton says he eventually learned about foreign policy: that it's basically the same as domestic policy. Everyone has their own interests, and you just need to keep plugging away at it. Unfortunately, this is, by common consensus, Obama's worst trait. He doesn't schmooze much with domestic leaders and he doesn't schmooze much with foreign leaders either. This is why all these stories about our foreign policy travails spend at least as much time talking about feelings as they do about actual policies. Foreign allies feel dismissed; they feel unconsulted; they feel like no one in the White House really understands their needs. In the end, it's not clear to me how much that matters, since foreign powers mostly do what's in their own interest regardless of how warm their personal relationships are. George Bush may have had a friendly relationship with King Abdullah, but in the end they got along mostly because their interests coincided.

Still, those relationships matter at the margins. Obama is almost certainly suffering more from the latest round of disclosures than he would if he were a bit friendlier and chattier with his peers across the world. Unfortunately, that's not his style.