Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mort Zuckerman gets it wrong

Canadian American billionaire Mort Zuckerman has a new opinion piece in his U.S. News and World Report in which he claims -- right in the headline -- that the "world sees Obama as incompetent and amateur" in the area of foreign policy.

In an attempt to support his claim, he cites criticism of Obama on a single issue (nuclear weapons) from French President Nicolas Sarkozy (a man fighting for his political life in a country that thrives on populist anti-Americanism), scorn of "a number of Obama's visions" from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (an authoritarian who got along well with Bush), disdain from the Chinese during Obama's first visit there, disappointment and dismay from the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (the authoritarian leader of an oppressive regime that profits off America's dependence on foreign oil), and objections from an unnamed Middle East commentator, an unnamed "renowned Asian leader," "many Arab leaders" (critical of the decision to give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a civilian trial), and Leslie Gelb (who says that Obama "gives wonderful speeches" but "might confuse speeches with policy").

In other words, who cares? It's important for Obama to have broad international support for his policies, but criticism from such sources hardly carries much credibility. Furthermore, such criticism must be put in context. It is hardly surprising that Obama's policies would meet with criticism from Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, and various other such sources. Indeed, wouldn't Obama be roundly criticized if his policies met with the approval of Sarkozy, Putin, Abdullah, et al.? Do we really want a president who is (and whose policies are) beloved by what is, Sarkozy and Gelb aside, a collection of authoritarians who have no great love for liberty, democracy, and the American way?

These critics, with their generally limited criticism, hardly amount to "the world." Indeed, as a new Pew Research Center survey found, Obama is actually extremely popular around the world:

[I]n most countries, especially in wealthier nations, President Barack Obama gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for the way he has handled the world economic crisis. The notable exception is the United States itself, where as many disapprove of their president's approach to the global recession as approve. This pattern is indicative of the broader picture of global opinion in 2010. President Barack Obama remains popular in most parts of the world, although his job approval rating in the U.S. has declined sharply since he first took office.

Obama's popularity has declined at home largely, I would argue, as a result of the poor jobs situation (and a relentless Republican opposition that spews propaganda in an attempt to undermine his presidency). Around the world, though, both Obama and the U.S. are popular, with much of the world holding a favourable view of America. The notable exception is much of the Muslim world, where anti-American sentiment still prevails (except in Indonesia). That's hardly Obama's doing, though. America's image has weakened in Mexico, but that's because of Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law, not Obama.

But that's not all Zuckerman gets wrong. Consider:

The end result is that a critical mass of influential people in world affairs who once held high hopes for the president have begun to wonder whether they misjudged the man. They are no longer dazzled by his rock star personality and there is a sense that there is something amateurish and even incompetent about how Obama is managing U.S. power. For example, Obama has asserted that America is not at war with the Muslim world. The problem is that parts of the Muslim world are at war with America and the West. Obama feels, fairly enough, that America must be contrite in its dealings with the Muslim world. But he has failed to address the religious intolerance, failing economies, tribalism, and gender apartheid that together contribute to jihadist extremism. This was startling and clear when he chose not to publicly support the Iranians who went to the streets in opposition to their oppressive government, based on a judgment that our support might be counterproductive. Yet, he reaches out instead to the likes of Bashar Assad of Syria, Iran's agent in the Arab world, sending our ambassador back to Syria even as it continues to rearm Hezbollah in Lebanon and expands its role in the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance.

Zuckerman is fairly conservative on anything having to do with Islam and the Middle East, largely because of his pro-Israeli conservatism, so it's hardly surprising that he objects to Obama's more nuanced approach to the war on terror. Obama is right, of course, that America is not at war with the Muslim world. After all, the Muslim world includes Muslim communities in the U.S., along with friendly Muslim states like Jordan, as well as Iraq (the U.S. is still at war there, but it's not at war with Iraq). The fact that some parts of the Muslim world are at war with the U.S., extremist elements that are also at war with much of their own world, doesn't change this. Perhaps Zuckerman wants America to be at war with the Muslim world generally, and perhaps also with Islam as a faith, but the right course of action is one that does not alienate the Muslim world by treating it as a monolithic enemy. Even Bush didn't do that.

I would argue that it is similarly proper to reach out to leaders like Assad. It is much better to engage with them than to treat them like enemies and thereby to push them further away, and together, where they are much more likely to unite in common opposition to America. Even the early attempts to reach out to Iran made sense. Ahmadeinejad has been unwilling to talk in good faith, but the the attempts had to be made, if only to show Obama's willingness to seek peaceful, diplomatic solutions to difficult issues like Iran's nuclear program. And because he reached out to Tehran, and indicated to the world that he wasn't going to pursue military intervention, as some American conservatives recklessly prefer, Obama now has broad international support for sanctions.

On the Iranians who took to the streets, I would just add that they made clear that they didn't want America's direct involvement in their cause. It was clear where Obama stood, and that was with the protesters and with the reform movement generally, but he was right not to signal that support too aggressively, lest the protesters be written off as agents of Americanism. (Furthermore, the Iranian regime is not the same as Islamic jihadism, yet Zuckerman equates the two here.)

To his credit, Zuckerman does acknowledge that "Obama clearly wishes to do good and means well," but far from proving that "the world" finds Obama incompetent and amateurish, his piece simply reflects his own bias against Obama. It's a highly selective and deeply egotistical piece. And it pretty much gets it all wrong.

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  • Thank you for putting Mortimer's thoughtless garbage into perspective. A friend sent me a link to the article in question expecting it to enlighten me... unfortunately I have an education and can see through the thin veil of baseless claims made in the article. I applaud your response to this nonsense.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:54 AM  

  • I agree that Obama doesn't get much credit for his foreign policy initiatives, most of which are spot on. For too long, US foreign policy has failed to understand the nuances in the various regional disputes. One possible exception is the Palestine question, which Obama is investing a lot of his credibility in but which I regard as insoluble [detailed analysis here.

    By Blogger Dennis Hodgson, at 10:10 PM  

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