Published November 29, 2011
Hundreds of enraged Pakistanis took to the streets across the country Sunday, burning an effigy of President Obama and setting fire to American flags after 24 soldiers died in NATO air strikes. Prime Minister Gilani saidhis country was re-evaluating its relationship with the United States. According to Army General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the average Pakistani’s respect for the United States is lower than ever. “[The average Pakistani who] doesn’t know the United States, doesn’t read about the United States or just watches something on television about the United States, at that level [the relations] are probably the worst they’ve ever been,“he explained. He added that the relationship between the U.S. government and Pakistan’s government is “on about asrocky a road as I’ve seen.”
Elsewhere in the world, our relations with Afghanistan and Iraq have frayed. Our relationship with Israel isat a low point, even as the Palestinian Authority ignoredObama and sought statehood through the United Nations. No progress has been made toward achieving peace in the Middle East. Our capacity to shape events in Egypt (where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be gaining in power) and Syria (where innocent people are being massacred in the streets) is severely restricted. Iran viewsObama with disdain as it continues on its march toward achieving nuclear weapons. North Korea also seems immune to Obama’s charm.
And there’s more. The efforts to “re-set” relations with Russia have failed. During the Bush presidency relations with Japan, China, India, Mexico, Colombia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain (to name just a few countries) were better than they have been during the Obama years. Relations with France and Germany are worse now than they were in Bush’s second term (Sarkozy and Merkel doubt Obama’s seriousness on Iran and don’t see the U.S. as a reliable partner in the Eurozone crisis). America’s counsel to Europe, on dealing with its crushing debt, has been politely ignored. Sub-Saharan Africa received greater attention from the last president than the current one. Nothing significant has been done on the matter of global warming. Guantanamo Bay remains open. And polls show that the United States under President Bush was more popular in the Arab world than it is under President Obama.
With these developments in mind, I decided to re-read several of Barack Obama’s foreign policy speeches and transcripts from debates during the 2008 campaign. And what one finds areextravagant promises, from a stronger and more sustained partnership with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan, India, and China; to getting leaders of the biggest carbon emitting nations to join a new Global Energy Forum that would lay the foundation for the next generation of climate protocols; to ending our dependence on foreign oil; to deepening our engagement to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict; to closing Guantanamo Bay; to meeting (without preconditions) Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Obama’s first year in office; to renewed respect for America in the Muslim world; to rapid economic growth in order to maintain our military superiority.
“Now it’s our moment to lead,” Obama said in an April 23, 2007 speech, “our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East. That this was the time when we confronted climate change and secured the weapons that could destroy the human race. This was the time when we brought opportunity to those forgotten corners of the world.”
Obama made these promises despite having no experience in foreign policy. No matter; his unrivaled intelligence, persuasive powers, and capacity to think strategically and anticipate events would lead to a “new era of international cooperation.”
It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?
Under Obama, we were supposed to see the flowering of diplomacy; what we’ve seen instead is a relentless (and welcomed) commitment to kill terrorists. As for the diplomatic failures we’ve experienced over the last three years, they cannot all be laid at Obama’s feet. The world is complicated; the problems we face are often vexing; and the United States cannot control how every country on earth conducts itself. Pakistan would be a tough nut for any statesman to crack.
Now in saying this, it should be pointed out, I’m extending significantly more grace and understanding to President Obama than he ever extended to his predecessor. Back when he was running for office, nothing was beyond Obama’s powers, or so Obama seemed to believe. Conflicts, intransigence and a burning hatred for America were easily fixable; the world would be as simple to shape as hot wax. After all, how difficult can stopping Iran’s nuclear program be for a man who said his election would heal the planet and reverse the ocean tides?
In Henry IV, Glendower says, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” To which Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?”
Obama has learned the hard way that he, like any man, can call spirits from the vasty deep—but often they will not come. And what then?
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.