Update -- President Obama has done it again, and again, the networks aren’t interested. On May 29, in a ceremony posthumously awarding the U.S. Medal of Freedom to World War II Polish underground officer Jan Karski, Obama referred to Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp.” Although located in occupied Poland, Auschwitz and other camps where millions of Jews and other Europeans were executed were run by the German Nazis. The Polish government was very dissatisfied with a White House statement offering its “regret” that the president “misspoke,” and demanded a fuller apology.
The incident is another example of Obama treating U.S. allies carelessly, and another example of the U.S. broadcast networks ignoring it. Neither ABC, CBS or NBC reported the controversy on their evening news programs. Nor did the morning shows the next day. (NBC did have time for this hard-hitting bit of news: There was a typo in the roll-out of a new Romney campaign phone app.)
- Not-So-Special Relationship -- From sending the Oval Office bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain in 2009, right up through the “underwear bomb” story leak that compromised a British intelligence operation in May 2012, Obama has shown little more than ambivalence about “the special relationship.” The U.S. broadcast networks and newspapers have mostly remained silent. Not so British papers like the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.
- Obama’s Russian Flexibility – Obama has undercut Poland and the Czech Republic by reneging on promised missile defense. His recent open-mic gaffe asking Russia for “space” until he has “more flexibility” may mean he’ll do it again. But while Poland’s largest newspaper wondered if “trading Poland,” liberal U.S. outlets like The New York Times turned it into a stick to beat Mitt Romney.
- Losing Israel – Just 24 percent of Israelis believe President Obama is pro-Israel, and that’s a dramatic improvement from his low point in 2009, when just 6 percent thought so. And his administration’s positions on issues ranging from settlement construction to the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel’s absence from the May 20, 2012 summit haven’t given them much reason to believe otherwise.
As of May 21, 2012, the big news from the NATO summit in Chicago is the announcement that an interim ballistic missile defense system is operational, protecting NATO member countries in Europe. The news is certain to anger Russia, which opposes the system, and ease the anxieties of Poland and the Czech Republic – at least on the surface.
The system is American and partly based on U.S. warships in the Mediterranean and thus ultimately under command of President Obama. He promised Russia he’d have “more flexibility” on this issue after the November elections, and he scrapped the first iteration of the system in 2009.
The Czechs and Poles would do well not to get too comfortable under the missile defense umbrella. And America’s other allies should be wary too. As Charles Moore wrote in the London Telegraph on May 18, “the president himself does not have much faith in his country’s traditional alliances.” Obama’s foreign policy, in Moore’s pointed words, “reflexively prefers those who don’t like America to those who do.”
Barack Obama’s administration began with the expectation from the left that he could atone for the Bush administration’s “unilateralism” and repair international relationships.
Obama’s foreign policy team was “very intent on re-establishing America's place in the world,” in the words of NPR’s Michele Norris. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” in April 2009, Norris explained that “they want to establish an, an – sort of an Obama view of the world, and that the world will take a different view of this administration and the U.S.”
That different view included “apology tours” and conciliatory speeches to the Muslim world. It also earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and fawning coverage of his foreign policy efforts from the U.S. media. But while the administration was giving Russia a “reset” button and the president was telling a Cairo audience America had been “arrogant,” it was snubbing America’s allies. And the U.S. media were silent about it.
The administration has ignored, taken for granted and undercut such staunch friends as Great Britain, Israel and Poland, and the broadcast networks have mostly remained silent. Just since March, he’s professed U.S. neutrality on the renewed Argentinean claims to the British-owned Falkland Islands and was caught on an open microphone asking Russia for “space” and promising more “flexibility” on the Eastern European missile defense shield the U.S. has promised Poland and the Czech Republic.
As for Israel, the president has bewildered that ally with changing demands during the peace process, tying Israel’s hands against Iran and possibly leaking Israeli preparations for a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
In those nations, the press and public have reacted with alarm and anger.
During the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration engaged in what London Mayor and one-time Obama admirer Boris Johnson called “anti-British rhetoric, buck passing and name calling,” including the boast that it had a “boot on the neck of BP.” As a result, the oil company’s stock lost half its value and threatened the pensions of 18 million Britons, and 64 percent of the British public said Obama’s petulance had weakened the transatlantic relationship.
Polish newspaper wondered if Obama and the Russians were “trading Poland” in Obama’s hot-mic plea for “space” from Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, in Israel, Obama is the least popular U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.
But in the United States, the broadcast networks have mostly ignored, and major newspapers have excused or minimized, the slights to America’s unambiguous friends. It’s an odd reaction from those who worried that the previous administration had “isolated” America.
What Special Relationship?
The three great international contests of the 20th Century – World War I, World War II and the Cold War – bound the United States and the United Kingdom together in the most consequential alliance of modern history. But where previous presidents took care to nurture what Winston Churchill dubbed the “special relationship,” the Obama administration has been neglectful and even derisive of the British.
The latest incident was particularly harmful, and not just symbolically. In May 2012 someone in the Obama administration leaked the news that the CIA had infiltrated Al Qaeda and foiled a second “underwear bomb” plot. Coming just after Obama’s victory laps during the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the story was just what the president needed to reinforce his national security image.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the operation was run by British intelligence, and that they had to prematurely shut it down because of the leak, endangering lives and squandering further intelligence opportunities.
That incident came on the heels of the Latin American summit in Colombia in April 2012. That was the month marking the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, in which the British decisively defeated the Argentine troops who’d seized the islands.
With the recent discovery of oil off the coast of the Islands and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s need for a uniting issue to distract from domestic political problems, Buenos Ares has begun reasserting its claims to the “Malvinas,” as the Falklands are known there. Backing her call for negotiations over the Islands were left-wing American actor Sean Penn (claiming to be speaking in his farcical capacity as “ambassador at large for the Haitian government”) and the government of socialist dictator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
The British, however, have rejected Kirchner’s demands for negotiations. The U.K. has been unequivocal about its possession of the Islands. The 3,200 residents of the Falklands have been unequivocal in their support for British dominion. There is nothing to negotiate.
But in Colombia in April, Obama offered equivalence, saying in a press conference:
And in terms of the Maldives or the Falklands, whatever your preferred term, our position on this is that we are going to remain neutral. We have good relations with both Argentina and Great Britain, and we are looking forward to them being able to continue to dialogue on this issue. But this is not something that we typically intervene in.
Perhaps to avoid reporting on Obama’s gaffe (the Maldives are islands off the coast of India on the other side of the world from the Malvinas), the U.S. broadcast networks never mentioned his statement, despite numerous stories on the visit.
The Washington Post had, prior to the Summit, marked the anniversary of the Falklands War by noting, “The Obama administration, which unsettled London by supporting the idea of negotiations two years ago, has wisely refrained from pushing that position.” But when Obama again came down on the side of negotiations, the Post didn’t report it.
The New York Times mentioned the statement but offered no analysis.
But the British press took notice – angry notice in some cases. In his Daily Mail blog, Toby Harnden pulled no punches.
To spell it out: Obama is "neutral" over the sovereignty of islands that British troops, with American support, fought and died for at a time when British troops are fighting and dying alongside their American comrades in Afghanistan.
Not only that, Obama thinks that the term "Malvinas" is just as valid as the correct name on all the maps: the Falklands. Except that he cannot read his briefing notes carefully enough even to get the incorrect name right, mixing up the Malvinas with the Maldives.
What a way to treat the foremost ally of the United States.
The Falklands statement was just one more example of Obama snubbing the allies “across the pond.” In fact, Nile Gardiner of The Telegraph (UK) has kept a running tally of them. In March 2012, he published “Barack Obama’s top ten insults against Britain – 2012 edition.”
It’s helpful to look at just a few of Gardiner’s incidents and how they were covered in the U.S. media.
“Betraying Britain to appease Moscow over the New START Treaty” – Wikileaks documents revealed in early 2011 that the Obama administration had provided Moscow sensitive intelligence about Britain’s Trident Missile submarines to entice Russia to sign the new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.” The Telegraph and other British publications reported the story. In the United States., The New York Post was alone among major newspapers to cover it.
“Throwing Churchill out of the Oval Office” – “It is hard to think of a more derogatory message to send to the British people within days of taking office than to fling a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office and send it packing back to the British Embassy,” Gardiner wrote, “not least as it was a loaned gift from Britain to the United States as a powerful display of solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.”
ABC, CBS and NBC all ignored the offending gesture. U.S. newspapers noted it – in some case because readers had written in to ask about the story they’d heard second hand. If it bothered the papers, they didn’t say so.
“Insulting words from the State Department” – In March, 2010, then-U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown made his first state visit to President Obama and was treated rather poorly. He wasn’t given a formal state dinner or even the customary dual press conference. Mr. Brown gave Obama a thoughtful gift – a pen holder made from a British Navy ship that had been instrumental in crushing the transatlantic slave trade. Obama gave Brown a box of DVDs that wouldn’t even play on British equipment.
Asked about it, a senior State Department official shrugged, “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”
The insult has garnered just three mentions in U.S. newspapers in the last three years – in a report in The New York Post and editorials in The Baltimore Sun and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Unsurprisingly, the networks haven’t mentioned it at all.
Flexibility on Missile Defense
Just a few weeks before he upset the British, Obama had been caught on an open microphone asking outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to tell his successor Obama needed “space” on missile defense and would have more “flexibility” after the election.
At issue was the U.S. missile defense shield it had promised allies in Eastern Europe, ostensibly to protect them from missiles fired from Iran. But Russia believes the shield is for use against it, and has made it a point in nuclear weapons reduction talks with the Obama administration.
The Polish tabloid Fakt: ran a headline asking, “Were they trading Poland? Puzzling Obama talk with Medvedev about the missile shield.” While the U.S. networks reported the incident and Republican reactions to it, none covered how pro-American countries in Eastern Europe would view it. Yet more than 5,000 Polish troops have served alongside Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Czech Republic’s contributions have been much smaller, but their units have performed vital support and training functions.
The New York Times predictably defended Obama in an editorial, taking Mitt Romney to task for calling Russia the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” “His comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics,” the Times sniffed. But “The Gray Lady” couldn’t spare a thought for how Obama’s whispering was going down in the democracies of Easter Europe.
Of the other major newspapers, only The Boston Herald and The New York Post addressed it directly. The Poles, said the Post, have “reason to worry: Poles have a long history of being dealt like chattel and sold out by world leaders – including Obama himself, who abandoned President Bush's plans to install a missile shield there that could help keep Russia at bay.”
Earlier in his term, Obama had backed off on a more ambitious long-range missile shield for Poland and the Czech Republic that the Bush administration had negotiated. That time, Obama had sacrificed the system to get Russia to sign onto sanctions against Iran. It didn’t. Few called the administration to account then, either.
On the Sept. 20, 2009, “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, was asked about the move. “What they did, in my view, undercut two good allies, the Poles and the Czech Republic,” Graham said. The same day on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Bob Scheiffer asked the president about it. Obama protested that he wasn’t scrapping missile defense, but that the conceived technology wasn’t “the best possible system.” “If the by-product of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or the nuclear development in Iran, you know, then that`s a bonus,” Obama said. He didn’t mention the concerns of allies, and Scheiffer didn’t pursue it any further.
Ambivalence Towards Israel
When the “biggest summit in NATO history” convenes in Chicago on May 20, Israel won’t be represented. According to differing reports, either Turkey blocked Israel’s invitation to the summit, or NATO was never planning to invite Israel in the first place, since it isn’t a member. But given the attendance of a number of non-member nations who have the same “partner” status as Israel, its exclusion is notable – not least because the United States, as senior partner in the alliance, could demand the friendly nation be invited.
But under Obama, there’s little chance of that happening, and the Israeli people know it.
President Obama is currently enjoying his best poll numbers in Israel and still, Jewish Israelis are split on whether Obama is pro-Israel. According to a poll sponsored by The Jerusalem Post, 24 percent said Obama is pro-Israel, 24 percent said he is pro-Palestinian and 36 percent said he was neutral.
At his lowest point in June 2009, just 6 percent of Israelis saw Obama as pro-Israel, By contrast, when George W. Bush left office just six months before, 88 percent of Israelis perceived him as pro-Israel. Even now Obama is just one-third as popular as Bush.
It’s hardly surprising that so many Israelis feel Obama is ambivalent toward or even hostile to the Jewish state. He’s given them plenty of reason.
Most recently, in March 2012, three U.S.-sourced leaks appeared the media. The result of a classified Pentagon war game simulation made its way to The New York Times. The game concluded that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.” In addition, the simulation concluded that in the end, strikes would only delay Iranian development of nuclear warheads by three years.
A second leak from a congressional report appeared in Bloomberg and questioned the value of a military strike. The report said that it was "unclear what the ultimate effect of a strike would be…" and it may delay the Iranian nuclear program by only six months.
Around the same time, an article in Foreign Policy Magazine appeared to give away important information on Israeli preparations for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The article quoted a “senior administration official” and U.S. intelligence officials about Israel gaining the use of airbases in Azerbaijan, on Iran’s northern border.
Foreign Policy’s Mark Perry wrote, “‘The Israelis have bought an airfield,’ a senior administration official told me in early February, ‘and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.’” Perry quoted a U.S. Intelligence officer as saying, “[W]e're now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we're not happy about it.”
The article led former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton to tell Fox News, “I think this leak today is part of the administration's campaign against an Israeli attack,” and called the Azerbaijan revelations “very sensitive, very important information.”
The leaks are the latest in a long series of slights and missteps that have cast doubt on Obama’s commitment to the only Western liberal democracy in the Middle East. In November 2011, in another open mic incident, Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were overheard commiserating about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When Sarkozy complained of Netanyahu, “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Obama responded, “You're tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.”
ABC was the only broadcast network to report the exchange, giving it just 63 words on “Good Morning America” on Nov. 8. CNN, however, did cover it, and its website included an analysis of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship by veteran Middle East diplomat and public policy scholar Aaron David Miller. Miller said that, while Netanyahu is difficult,
[T]here's the president himself, who clearly believes he knows best how to run the peace process. Obama doesn't just have a Bibi problem, he's got an Israel problem. Obama is not anti-Israel, but unlike his two predecessors – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – he's not in love with the idea of Israel … His early tough rhetoric against settlements and his commitment to fix the peace process whether or not Israel agreed created a pretty rocky foundation for gaining the trust and confidence so critical on the Israeli side, if a president wants them to do politically tough things later.
Other Obama statements and actions that have caused problems with Israel included his May, 2011 public declaration that “the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — adjusted to some degree to account for Israeli settlements in the West Bank — should be the basis of a deal,” with the Palestinians, according to The New York Times. The statement shocked the Israelis, who maintain that the 1967 borders leave them indefensible. (The 1967 boarders refer to Israel’s borders before the Six-Day War, when it defeated the Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian armies and took the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel has since returned Sinai and the Golan Heights.)
In 2009, Obama called for a halt to construction of Israeli settlements, including “natural growth” construction for settlements already in place. The construction, he maintained, was an impediment to restarting stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
But according to Asaf Romirowsky, a scholar at the Foundation for Democracies and the Middle East Forum, Obama’s demands surpassed anything the Palestinians had contemplated. “In reality, both parties are aware that the settlement issue will only be solved when final borders of Israel and a future Palestine are created, which is why both Abbas and Arafat previously entered into negotiations without a freeze on settlement construction,” Romirowski wrote in 2010. But Obama’s statement “effectively forced Abbas to go along with the policy; the leader of the PA could not ask for less from Israel than the American president. As Abbas said, ‘President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?’”
The president’s carelessness with other nations also impacts Israel. When in early 2011 Egypt erupted as part of the “Arab Spring,” Obama was far from the only person to hint that Egyptian President Hasni Mubarak should step down. But as President of the United States, Obama did have the obligation to weigh whether withholding his support for Mubarak would destabilize the Middle East and jeopardize Israel. Mubarak, for all his faults, stood by Egypt’s Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Time will tell whether Egypt continues to be a source of regional stability.
Conclusion: With Friends Like Obama
There are other, less high-profile incidents that establish a pattern of Obama sacrificing allies to political expedience or personal preference.
Canada had planned on shipping oil south across the United States in the Keystone Pipeline, only to have Obama bail on the project until after the 2012 election to shore up his support on the environmentalist left. Colombia, which has worked closely with the U.S. for years in a bloody, difficult but ultimately successful conflict against the drug cartels that had plunged it into violent chaos, had to wait two years into the Obama presidency for him to make approval of a free trade agreement a priority. Only after the bill had been loaded with pork for U.S. unions was it passed in late 2011.
In April 2001, the liberal Brookings Institution took the new George W. Bush administration to talk for insufficient engagement with and support for our allies. Bush had refused to sign the Kyoto carbon emissions protocol, had expelled Russian diplomats over espionage, had ended pointless nuclear talks with North Korea and was reluctant to “get involved in the day-to-day management of issues like the Middle East peace process.
“It is a curious attitude to adopt for an administration that campaigned on a platform of ‘restoring the strength of our alliances,’” wrote Brookings’ Philip H. Gordon. And perhaps it was. But liberals like Brookings and their friends in the media have leveled few similar charges against President Obama, despite a track record that casts doubt on whether the president believes America’s alliances are worth restoring or even maintaining.