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The Unconstant Gardener
How President Obama could have kept friends as friends and nipped the NSA fallout in the bud.
Newcomers to international relations may be forgiven for believing that allied resentment at the United States is a constant in American foreign policy. Believe it or not, there was a time when Washington managed to keep its allies pretty happy — even in the wake of major foreign policy shifts. In retrospect, the 20-odd years between George Shultz becoming Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and George W. Bush becoming president were they heyday of "gardening." Shultz coined this term in his memoirs to refer to the need to consult and listen to allies on a regular basis. That way, even if the United States decided on policies at variance with their allies, at least those countries would feel in the loop.
George W. Bush was not a very good gardener, outside of his constant watering of Tony Blair. Indeed, he was so historically bad at it that, in 2008, for the first time ever, more Americans thought that restoring America’s standing in the world was a higher priority than protecting jobs at home. When Barack Obama ran for president, he stressed the need to restore America’s standing — and less than a year into office, declared that mission accomplished.
For the past month, however, we’ve learned something important about President Obama: based on the global pique spawned by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, among other things, he’s just as bad a gardener as George W. Bush.
Pick a region of the globe and in all likelihood America’s allies located there have a valid case for being cheesed off at Washington. In the Pacific Rim, the fury is directed at the terrifically stupid government shutdown/debt-ceiling fight from last month. Countries there who hold massive sums of U.S. government debt were not keen on Congress’s flirtation with defaulting on U.S. debt. Tea Party bloody-mindedness is not exactly Obama’s fault, but his decision to cancel his trip to the region to deal with the crisis is on him. The contrast between Obama’s no-show and Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s heralded tour of Southeast Asian capitals did not go unnoticed by foreign affairs observers.
In the Middle East, longstanding U.S. allies are furious with Washington for what they see as its volte-face on longstanding adversaries. First, the Obama administration backs down from a military confrontation with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Then Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to praise the Assad regime for complying with their chemical weapons agreement in "record time." Meanwhile, the administration started to reciprocate Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s outreach efforts — rattling both Israeli and Saudi foreign policy circles. There’s little new with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s irritation with the Obama administration. And the Saudi pique has been long-simmering — but now it’s gone public, however, which is surprising.
Finally, there is Europe, home to America’s longest and strongest allies. Oddly, they might be the most upset with President Obama. Yes, these countries are also annoyed with Washington’s debt ceiling shenanigans and felt out of the loop on the dramatic reversal of course on Syria. But revelations that the NSA had bugged German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone have kicked tensions up a notch. As Merkel’s former defense minister explained recently, "we are at the level that European leaders don’t only lose faith in a partner, but also their face."
This lack of warmth between Obama and allied leaders is nothing new. Indeed, five months ago the New York Times was reporting that, "For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years…. Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him."
Rather, what’s striking is the way in which a little bit of gardening might have smoothed some of these issues. Sure, Saudi Arabia was never going to like any warming of U.S. relations with Iran, and no one was jumping for joy over the debt ceiling deadlock. That said, keeping the Saudis firmly in the loop on the evolution of U.S. policy towards Iran, Syria, and Egypt might have assuaged some anxieties in Riyadh. And the moment that Snowden fled the country, the White House should have crafted a damage control strategy with affected allies — just as it did when Wikileaks released a trove of U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010. But at least at the public level, it seems like there’s been almost no pruning and tending.
Why has the Obama administration been so bad at gardening? The obvious response would be to blame the president’s aloof demeanor and increasing disdain for personal politicking. That answer is a bit too pat, however. Gardening isn’t just a presidential activity — it encompasses the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the secretary of state to the national security advisor to the Pentagon. But in order to consult properly with allies, each of these bureaucracies needs to be familiar with exactly what U.S. intentions are in a particular situation.
The reason that consulting with allies has gone so badly is that it’s far from clear that the White House consults all that much with the rest of the executive branch. On Syria, for example, Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria took his own staff by surprise — not to mention Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. According to the New York Times, the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East came from a policy review conducted by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and "a tight group that included no one outside the White House." Obama and his staff insist that the White House didn’t know the extent of NSA surveillance on foreign leaders, which not only beggars belief but begs the question — maybe it would have been good to ask? As Dana Milbank snarked, "For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration."
Irritating allies is an occupational hazard of being a superpower. And there are times when policy shifts or espionage is warranted. The point of gardening is to make sure that these irritations don’t become full-grown thorns. But in order fo
r the United States to be on the same page with its allies, the White House needs to make sure that it’s on the same page with the rest of the executive branch. Maybe, before the Obama administration tries to garden abroad, it should try some gardening at home first.