Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Friend or Foe: Does the Obama administration know the difference?

A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or ...

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or a critical eye. A perfect example of this is the administration’s handling of the recent blow-up with Israel over settlements in East Jerusalem as compared with its response to Russia’s announcement last week on nuclear reactors in Iran.   

There is no question that Israel deserved pushback for having its interior ministry announce during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden plans for additional housing in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as surprised as Biden by the announcement, did not deserve the endless and condescending scolding from the Administration, however, including a 45-minute phone lecture from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Biden left Israel. Biden handled the response to the Israeli announcement quite well. Why then did Obama and Clinton think they needed to pile on? Do they not have confidence in the vice president? Indeed, it was rather shocking to see Obama administration condemnation of the Israelis continue for days and relations between the two countries reach their lowest point in years. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod went on the Sunday talk shows and called the Israeli move "destructive" and an "insult", even though the offense wasn’t even committed by Netanyahu but by a Ministry official in the coalition government. 

Fast forward to Moscow end of last week. On the day Clinton arrived in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran would be up and running this summer. Put aside the fact that Bushehr is well behind schedule as it is, the point here by Putin was to undercut U.S. efforts to present a unified position on Iran and embarrass the Secretary of State. Where was the firm U.S. response then?   

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov chimed in as well. "For us, unlike the United States," he said in an interview that appeared in Rossiskaya Gazeta on the day of Clinton’s arrival, "Iran is a near neighbor with which we have very long-standing, historically determined ties, a country with which we cooperate in the economic, humanitarian, and military-technical spheres. And I would like to highlight particularly the fact that this country is our partner in the Caspian along with the other three Caspian states. … Therefore what will happen in and around Iran is by no means a matter of indifference to us. This concerns both our economic interests and our interests in the security sphere. Of course it is very worrying to us that Iran is refusing to cooperate with the IAEA. But we are trying to act constructively, we are looking for compromises." 

During a joint press conference with Clinton standing right beside him, Lavrov downplayed the sense of urgency of dealing with Iran and even questioned whether Iran was moving toward developing nuclear weapons capability. 

What was the Secretary of State’s reaction to this blatant slap in the face from Putin and Lavrov? She characterized Putin’s Bushehr announcement as "premature" while her spokesman denied that the Russian statement was intended to embarrass his boss. "It’s not about her visit," Philip J. Crowley said to reporters. "It’s about the potential for a mixed message, as we are working to put pressure on Iran." 

Well, he was half right. Putin’s announcement certainly sends mixed signals and renews doubts that Russia at the end of the day will take a tougher approach toward Iran (and let’s remember that Russia voted for three U.N. resolutions against Iran in the past — after watering them down significantly). But to say that Putin’s announcement was not intended to embarrass Clinton is simply silly.       

In that same interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Lavrov described ties with the United States this way: "I won’t say that [Russia and the United States] are enemies, but we’re not friends, either." Welcome to Moscow, Mrs. Clinton. 

On Friday, after meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Clinton met with Putin, the real power in Russia, in a meeting arranged at the last minute. Instead of pushing back on the Russian premier’s Bushehr comments the day before, Clinton sat there while Putin, slouching in his chair, delivered an insulting litany of complaints against the United States Clinton "smiled stiffly," according to reporters there, and acknowledged there were differences — a less than inspiring performance, to say the least.  If he were watching, Bibi Netanyahu must have been wondering "with friends like this …"  

A slam against the Obama administration heard with greater frequency these days is that it is much harder on its allies than on its enemies (even former enemies). At the same time that it desperately tries to win over "new friends," the administration treats its old friends either with indifference (e.g., most of Europe) or a critical eye. A perfect example of this is the administration’s handling of the recent blow-up with Israel over settlements in East Jerusalem as compared with its response to Russia’s announcement last week on nuclear reactors in Iran.   

There is no question that Israel deserved pushback for having its interior ministry announce during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden plans for additional housing in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as surprised as Biden by the announcement, did not deserve the endless and condescending scolding from the Administration, however, including a 45-minute phone lecture from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Biden left Israel. Biden handled the response to the Israeli announcement quite well. Why then did Obama and Clinton think they needed to pile on? Do they not have confidence in the vice president? Indeed, it was rather shocking to see Obama administration condemnation of the Israelis continue for days and relations between the two countries reach their lowest point in years. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod went on the Sunday talk shows and called the Israeli move "destructive" and an "insult", even though the offense wasn’t even committed by Netanyahu but by a Ministry official in the coalition government. 

Fast forward to Moscow end of last week. On the day Clinton arrived in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran would be up and running this summer. Put aside the fact that Bushehr is well behind schedule as it is, the point here by Putin was to undercut U.S. efforts to present a unified position on Iran and embarrass the Secretary of State. Where was the firm U.S. response then?   

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov chimed in as well. "For us, unlike the United States," he said in an interview that appeared in Rossiskaya Gazeta on the day of Clinton’s arrival, "Iran is a near neighbor with which we have very long-standing, historically determined ties, a country with which we cooperate in the economic, humanitarian, and military-technical spheres. And I would like to highlight particularly the fact that this country is our partner in the Caspian along with the other three Caspian states. … Therefore what will happen in and around Iran is by no means a matter of indifference to us. This concerns both our economic interests and our interests in the security sphere. Of course it is very worrying to us that Iran is refusing to cooperate with the IAEA. But we are trying to act constructively, we are looking for compromises." 

During a joint press conference with Clinton standing right beside him, Lavrov downplayed the sense of urgency of dealing with Iran and even questioned whether Iran was moving toward developing nuclear weapons capability. 

What was the Secretary of State’s reaction to this blatant slap in the face from Putin and Lavrov? She characterized Putin’s Bushehr announcement as "premature" while her spokesman denied that the Russian statement was intended to embarrass his boss. "It’s not about her visit," Philip J. Crowley said to reporters. "It’s about the potential for a mixed message, as we are working to put pressure on Iran." 

Well, he was half right. Putin’s announcement certainly sends mixed signals and renews doubts that Russia at the end of the day will take a tougher approach toward Iran (and let’s remember that Russia voted for three U.N. resolutions against Iran in the past — after watering them down significantly). But to say that Putin’s announcement was not intended to embarrass Clinton is simply silly.       

In that same interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Lavrov described ties with the United States this way: "I won’t say that [Russia and the United States] are enemies, but we’re not friends, either." Welcome to Moscow, Mrs. Clinton. 

On Friday, after meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Clinton met with Putin, the real power in Russia, in a meeting arranged at the last minute. Instead of pushing back on the Russian premier’s Bushehr comments the day before, Clinton sat there while Putin, slouching in his chair, delivered an insulting litany of complaints against the United States Clinton "smiled stiffly," according to reporters there, and acknowledged there were differences — a less than inspiring performance, to say the least.  If he were watching, Bibi Netanyahu must have been wondering "with friends like this …"  

David J. Kramer is the director of European and Eurasian studies and a senior fellow at the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.