Shadow Government

​Obama and Netanyahu: Why Presidents Don’t Get to Be Petulant

President Obama could afford to learn a thing or two from how the Bush administration handled difficult bilateral relationships.

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Whatever one’s view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to congress, there now appears to be broad consensus that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry came across as petty, petulant, and defensive in their reactions. The President’s partisans continue to argue that Netanyahu had it coming — but did he? Obama is hardly the first president to have personal friction with the leader of a close ally, but the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton White Houses never engaged in primary-style opposition campaigns the way this White House did with Netanyahu. This was not only because the Bushes and Clinton were more gracious with their counterparts, but also because they understood the importance of leadership relations to the national interest.

Recall when President Bush bore considerable insult from South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. On the way to Washington for a summit with the president in June 2005, Roh stopped in Los Angeles to give a speech condemning the president’s “hostile policy” towards North Korea. The talking points could seemingly have been written by Pyongyang, but we were ordered not to attack Roh personally or to refute his arguments to the press. President Bush knew that an open spat would only aid and abet  North Korea, so instead, he held a long breakfast with Roh in the residence to talk through their differences and reach common ground. In 2007, Roh suddenly pressured Bush to sign a peace treaty with North Korea in front of the cameras, and the president — though seething inside — chose to consider the issue, rather than rebut or lecture. The policy differences between the two leaders were difficult to hide, but the president never took pot shots in order to defend his own position politically at home. Instead, he focused on strengthening the alliance, and by the time he left office, the Korean public’s views of the United States had reached record highs.

There were other leaders who were no picnic — Vladimir Putin, Hamid Karzai, Gerhard Schroeder, and Jacques Chirac, for starters — but President Bush always kept his focus on demonstrating respect for his counterpart and our bilateral relationships. We had no shortage of problems with China, but the president invested great effort in his personal relationship with Hu Jintao. Even after the administration strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance, praised Taiwan’s democracy, and joined the Dalai Lama’s gold medal ceremony in congress, Hu still trusted Bush. When I was dispatched to Beijing as senior director for Asia in early 2005, Hu uncharacteristically broke protocol and met with me in person so that he could express his personal appreciation for the president’s friendship. I was not in the White House during the Clinton administration, but know that Clinton was not so different when dealing with the Japanese and Chinese leaders during tense confrontations over trade or human rights.

As one regional leader who met both Clinton and Obama put it to me: “After meeting with Clinton you left the room convinced he thought you were the most important leader in the world; but after meeting with Obama, you left the room convinced he thought you were the dumbest leader in the world.”

Presidents all have their own personalities and their own strengths and weaknesses, but it hurts the national interest when they treat key counterparts abroad like primary opponents at home.

Win McNamee / Staff

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair.

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