It is no secret that President Barack Obama's first European trip earlier this month was a washout.
The G-20 summit in London, brainchild of the British prime minister Gordon Brown, contributed nothing to alleviating the global economic crisis or moving European leaders, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, to support Washington's stimulus tactics.
While Obama honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by attending its 60th anniversary, none of its leaders responded to the US president's appeal for more combat forces to Afghanistan. They were only willing to part with a niggardly 5000 troops for the three months after Afghanistan's presidential elections in August, whisking them home thereafter without them fighting a single Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorist.
The White House did not expect anything more of the President and First Lady's European tour, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources. Ankara was therefore tagged on and loaded with symbolism to ginger it up. A sparkling speech refreshed US-Turkish friendship and telegraphed a signal to the Middle East and Iran that Turkey was again America's favorite ally in the region.
The message to Moscow, Central Asia and the Caucasus was that, notwithstanding the 2008 Georgian War, Washington had not relinquished its influence in these regions and would use Ankara as a stepping stone to regain its former positions.
The Istanbul visit pointedly included meetings with religious leaders, a tour of the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia, an important Orthodox church for nearly 1,000 years before its conversion to a mosque 500 years ago by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. By ending his tour on the city which straddles Asia and Europe across the Bosporus, Obama reached out to the Muslim world and demonstratively broke with the policies of George W. Bush.
“We have begun the process of the United States re-engaging the world,” White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs intoned.
Deaf ears, poor timing
The view from Ankara, Moscow and other European and Muslim capitals could hardly have been more different.
President Obama's vigorous lobbying in Strasbourg and Prague on behalf of Turkey's admission to the European Union not only fell on deaf ears but aroused resentment in EU capitals.
Shortly before this issue was published, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as remarking caustically that while the US President is very intelligent and charismatic, he is “not always at his best when it comes to decisions and efficiency.” Talking to MPs on the results of the G20 conference, Liberation of Thursday, April 16, ran this comment by the French president: “He has only been elected for two months and has never managed a ministry in his life. There were things on which Obama had no opinion.”
Seizing on the issue of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, as urged by his advisers, he discovered belatedly that Ankara was there before him, patching up its historic quarrel with Yerevan under the auspices of… Moscow.
In fact, this week, Armenian president Sezh Sargsyan paid an official visit to Tehran, during which he signed economic cooperation agreements. This event was stage-managed by Moscow and Ankara contrary to Washington's interests.
The hand the US president extended to Muslims was largely ignored.
The only significant Arab comment was dismissive:
“Obama’s Turkish appearance was extremely disappointing for those who expected radical changes in the American stance (towards the Moslems) and for those who wagered on reconciliation across the world,” wrote a leading Lebanese columnist.
White House staff are making light of the slender gains the President garnered from the G-20 and NATO meetings and prefer to emphasize the enthusiastic popular acclaim greeting Barack and Michelle Obama.
As one senior official put it, “Our first priority was to take the weapon of anti-Americanism out of the hands of our adversaries. In that regard, the trip was highly successful, especially in connection with US relations with Islam.”
However, even Obama's magical effect on the public was muted by the riotous anti-American demonstrations that sprang up in London and other European capitals.
Secretary Clinton uncertain, NSA frustrated
Who then was responsible for these setbacks? Or, put another way: Who runs American foreign policy?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, the answer depends on who you ask.
Some White House figures close to President Obama hold US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responsible for the inconsequential outcome of his first expedition to Europe. In private conversations, members of Clinton's circle reply that the secretary had no access to Obama's itinerary. Their European schedules crisscrossed because Clinton attended the Afghanistan conference and NATO summit, but there was no other coordination between the presidential and secretary's teams.
Insider impressions, according to sources on Capitol Hill, are that Hillary is not quite clear of her position or role in the Obama set-up. A sense of disconnect between herself and the White House comes across in her recent appearances. “She talks eloquently, but her choice of words betrays uncertainty about whether she is voicing cut-and-dried policy or fears she will wake up the next morning and find changes.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who offered himself to the president as a veteran foreign policy pro, has faded into the background.
Sources close to National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, who has won the Washington epithet of “the invisible man” or “the quiet man”, say he soldiers on quietly to carry out the President's directives. But even they admit that this does not fit the NSA's job description or what Jones expected to be doing when he accepted the post.
According to one of those sources, “Jones may have expected to be the one shaping US foreign and national security policy and liaising between the White House, State Department and Pentagon. But he was wrong.”
Three special envoys adrift
The three special envoys, Richard Holbrooke (Afghanistan/Pakistan), George Mitchell (Middle East) and Dennis Ross (Iran) have not fared much better than the national security adviser in terms of clear guidelines and empowerment.
Holbrooke, in particular, celebrated for negotiating the Dayton Accords, expected to call many of the shots in foreign policy-making for the inexperienced president from his Afghanistan-Pakistan cockpit. He had marked out Hillary Clinton as his foremost rival, but was surprised to discover that neither of them had been asked to fill that key role. Now he confides to close confidants that President Obama is not focusing on the Afghan-Pakistan arena and it would take a major military crisis or terror attack to shake him up.
Mitchell, who began his second mission to Israel and the Palestinian Authority Wednesday, April 16, has a similar grievance although his tone his more moderate, while Ross chooses to keep his feelings under his hat. It is hard to find anyone in Washington who claims for certain he knows who is making the decisions on America's Iran policy.
As for the United States' back door in Latin America, Obama greeted Brazilian President Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva at the White House on March 14 with great warmth. But Lula went home disappointed and puzzled. He gained the impression that the US president has no interest in the continent's problems. He did not keep this impression to himself but shared it with every world leader he met.
Word of this reached the White House and no doubt evoked Obama's over-the-top praise of the Brazilian president when they met again at the G-20 summit on April 2: “Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the planet's most popular politician, the US President said. “That's my man right here,” Obama greeted Lula. “Love this guy. He's the most popular politician on earth. It's because of his good looks.”
No word yet on whether Lula bought the act.