Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama is a bully

It was humiliating. Even after his plane took off for Washington, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu was still not assured the customary meeting with the American president. The White House — which knew about the visit for weeks — delayed confirming the meeting until the last possible minute. Even then, they brought him to the meeting in a simple van, not a limo, and denied him the usual press briefing and official photographers.

Why was Mr Obama making Mr Netanyahu sweat? American officials said it was a tactic meant to pressure Mr Netanyahu into expressing "a more robust and public commitment to the peace process". Others believe it was a calculated expression of Mr Obama’s displeasure at Mr Netanyahu’s policies.

Perhaps. But there is another, more psychological explanation. Mr Obama is a bully, who responds aggressively to weakness.

There was simply no call for such behaviour. Even if Mr Obama dislikes Mr Netanyahu personally, and thinks he has not gone far enough to freeze settlements, Israel is an ally, with whom he is supposed to be working closely to advance the peace process. Mr Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he accepted the two-state solution, was the only "robust and public commitment to the peace process" to emerge from the Middle East following Mr Obama’s own Cairo speech. By agreeing to even a partial settlement freeze, Mr Netanyahu became the only regional leader to offer any concessions whatsoever to help Mr Obama kick-start negotiations.

Alone of all the Middle East leaders, he has shown that he is "on side". Surely this earns him some respect — even grudging? And a modicum of civility?

Instead, he is publicly snubbed and badgered into making meaningless gestures.

This is not the first time Mr Obama has behaved this way. Gordon Brown may be unpopular at home, but Britain is the key ally supporting American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet who in this country can forget the ludicrous farce two months ago at the UN, when Mr Brown had to ask five times for a meeting with Mr Obama, and ended up spending 15 minutes with him in a kitchen?

That same week, Mr Obama did find time for official meetings — with Mr Putin and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, both rivals of the US.

Meanwhile, how does Mr Obama treat Mr Ahmadinejad? The Iranian president steals an election; rejects Mr Obama’s insanely forgiving offer for the West to enrich Iran’s uranium; smuggles weapons to Hizbollah; puts three American backpackers on trial for espionage; and explicitely rebuffs Mr Obama’s gestures of friendship. Just this week, he declared he is still waiting for "real change" from Mr Obama.

And yet, the US president — to the apparent disgust even of the French — reiterates again and again his desire for friendly relations, actively allowing the Iranians to play for time on the nuclear issue. The Americans met the Iranians last month without preconditions; they were not made to sweat.

So what puts Mr Netanyahu and Mr Brown on one side, and Ahmadinejad, Mr Putin and Mr Hu on the other?

Bad manners, for starters. Mr Obama appears to take his friends for granted.

But Mr Netanyahu and Mr Brown exacerbate the problem, by appearing too deferential and desperate. Both practically pleaded for meetings; they crave Mr Obama’s approval and attention, whether on a personal level (Mr Brown) or a national one (Mr Netanyahu, who knows his relationship with Washington is crucial for Israeli interests). During Mr Netanyahu’s first meeting with Mr Obama this summer, Mr Netanyahu, normally highly articulate, appeared so nervous he could barely string a sentence together.

The Israeli and British premiers exude weakness. Mr Obama responds by making them squirm.

The dictators are confrontational with Mr Obama, or else coolly indifferent. He treats them with respect.

Really, no better than a playground bully.

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