Barack Obama might still be overwhelmingly popular around the world, but here are five heads of state who probably wish they could have the old guy back.
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
What he misses: His old buddy. In 2008, Time‘s Jeff Israely called the Italian president Bush’s “Last Best Friend on Earth.” A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but it’s true that Berlusconi stuck with Bush when nearly every other European leader (and Italian politician) was scoring cheap political points by attacking him as a reckless cowboy. Berlusconi provided political cover for his American friend by supporting the war in Iraq while most of Western Europe opposed it, but the close relationship between the two leaders seemed to go beyond politics. The conservative Christian from Texas and the lecherous billionaire might seem an odd pair, but Berlusconi was a frequent guest at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, and Bush called the Italian leader a “man of sincerity and principle.”
Berlusconi committed an early gaffe with Obama, calling the African-American president “young, handsome, and also tanned.” There are also reports that U.S.-Italian relations have cooled somewhat and that the Obama administration is irritated by Berlusconi’s close relations with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. The United States also supports expanding the Group of Eight or consolidating its European members, a move that is likely to irritate Italy, which depends on G-8 membership for international legitimacy.
What he misses: The benefit of the doubt. Netanyahu took power (for the second time) just two months after Obama, but the two have never been in sync. Obama has been far more outspoken than his predecessors on the issue of settlement construction in the West Bank, including the so-called “natural growth” of existing communities, which Netanyahu is determined to keep on the table. “What the hell do they want from me?” he reportedly told an associate after a particularly contentious White House meeting.
The Israeli government claims that a tacit agreement was reached with the Bush administration that would have allowed natural growth to continue. The Obama team counters that no such agreement exists, though Bush’s former deputy national security advisor, Elliott Abrams, says that it did.
Despite the disagreement, Netanyahu’s team stresses that “there is no crisis” between the administrations and progress is being made on the settlements issue. However the current impasse is resolved, it’s clear the United States was far more cautious about issuing ultimatums to Israel in the Bush years.
What he misses: Unconditional support in the drug war. The Colombian president was a staunch pro-U.S. voice in a region where Bush had few friends. The affection was mutual. Bush authorized millions in military aid for Colombia’s war against drug cartels and leftist rebels and awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing his “immense personal courage and strength of character.”
These days, things aren’t quite so friendly. Obama campaigned on his opposition to a free-trade agreement with Colombia, citing human rights issues. There is also growing concern in the administration over Colombia’s methods in the war on drugs. An anonymous source told the Washington Post that at their meeting last week, Obama planned to question Uribe on a recent United Nations report that characterized extrajudicial killings by Colombian security forces as “cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”
Uribe has also lost the unique status he enjoyed under Bush, as Obama has made an active effort to improve relations with other Latin American leaders, including leftists. Both presidents say that progress continues to be made on the free-trade agreement and other issues, but the days when Colombia was the one reliable U.S. partner in South America are over.
What he misses: Being wooed over missile defense. Anti-Russian and pro-American almost to a fault, the Polish president came to power promising to strengthen his countries ties to the West. Kaczynski’s ardor paid dividends for Bush in 2008 when Poland, over angry Russian objections, agreed to host part of a planned U.S. missile- defense shield on its territory in exchange for aid for military modernization. In doing so, the Polish government set back relations with Russia and provoked the Kremlin into stationing missiles in Kaliningrad, just across the Polish border.
The relationship between Obama and Kaczynski did not start off a on good foot. The two leaders spoke over the phone soon after Obama’s election, after which Kaczynski immediately told the press that Obama had pledged to continue work on the shield. The U.S. president-elect said he said no such thing.
Several months later, Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offering to halt work on the shield in exchange for cooperation on other issues. The apparent misunderstanding has had domestic political repercussions for Kaczynski, helping the Polish opposition caricature him as a bit of a buffoon. His government has also faced several embarrassing reports of senior politicians — including Kaczyinski’s twin brother Jaroslaw, a former prime minister — making racist jokes about Obama.
What he misses: Speech fodder. Whether he was comparing him to Satan or calling him a donkey, nothing livened up a Chávez speech or an episode of his TV show Alo Presidente like an extended tirade against George W. Bush. After a botched coup attempt against him in 2002, Chávez routinely accused domestic political opponents of being part of a U.S.-backed coup to overthrow him. His main foreign-policy project, the ALBA economic union, was marketed to other Latin American countries as a way to counteract U.S. influence. Chávez’s bombastic anti-Bush statments earned him fans from Tegucigalpa to Tehran.
With the election of Obama — who is overwhelmingly popular in Latin America — the old zingers just don’t pack the same punch. As the Obama administration loosens restrictions against Cuba, it’s harder for Chávez to paint the United States as an all-purpose enemy of the Latin American left. The region’s new generation of leftists, like El Salvador’s recently elected president Mauricio Funes, are modeling themselves after Brazil’s Lula rather than Chávez or Castro. After last week’s coup in Honduras, Chávez tried to blame the United States for orchestrating the events, a claim that seemed a bit dubious after the Obama administration vocally supported ousted President Manuel Zelaya and invited him to Washington. With his foreign-policy influence declining along with the value of his oil reserves, Chávez might wish he had the old donkey to kick around again.