Obama May Face Public Relations Disaster Abroad

Americans elected Barack Obama in part because he promised to improve the country’s image abroad (Gordon Brown and the U.K. apparently notwithstanding). An ABC News Online article gushed in October of 2008, “After a drop of confidence in the United States, presidential candidate Barack Obama has revived the U.S. brand, exporting a vision of American renewal to a world watching the election with unprecedented interest.”

67 days into the administration, however, some conservatives are expressing a lot of doubt about how Obama’s foreign diplomatic team is doing.

“I think it has gotten off to a fairly rocky start, both in terms of policy and performance,” said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton feels Obama’s policy presents several risks where it differs from the Bush administration but that the new administration has also continued strategies — such as its policy towards Iran and North Korea — which Bolton thought were flawed under Bush.

In other words, what’s changed is not what needed to be.

The Heritage Foundation’s Dr. Nile Gardiner had even stronger words for the new administration’s diplomatic performance. Gardiner was one of three experts at a Heritage roundtable discussion Thursday on the president’s upcoming G-20 and NATO summits.

“The Obama administration is taking incompetence on the international stage to a whole new level,” Gardiner said, and predicted the trip is potentially “a huge transatlantic public relations disaster for this administration.”

Bolton says he’s seen a lot of naïveté in the new administration’s diplomatic maneuvers, such as its openness to sacrificing missile defense of Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russian aid. Bolton is against the Obama administration’s apparent belief that it can be successful just by not being the Bush administration.

“The cost of learning could be very painful for the country,” Bolton said. For Bolton, simply relying on an attitude change in foreign policy is a risky assumption.

Americans have also witnessed a slew of painful diplomatic missteps during the honeymoon period, such as the gift Obama gave to a foreign head of state that he could have picked up at a White Elephant gift exchange and Clinton’s failure to find anyone in the state department who can translate English to Russian.

But are these gaffes seriously crippling Americans’ foreign policy? The press, according to Bolton, is accurately treating them as “one-day stories.”

“Realistically, that’s all they are,” Bolton said. He notes, however, the double standard the press has shown and points out these one-day stories would have grown legs and walked about on their own had they occurred under Bush.

Gardiner drew a more serious conclusion from the administration’s carelessness, saying it sends signals that America seems indifferent toward its closest allies — not only Britain, but also Israel, and even Poland and the Czech Republic.

“It is undermining long term alliances and relationships at the expense of trying to gain popularity in traditionally hostile places — Iran, for example,” Gardiner said.

His claim of the administration’s incompetence drew heavily from Gordon Brown’s botched visit and also the failure of the administration to respond to what Gardiner called “insulting” comments made by a senior U.S. state department official deriding the importance of Britain’s visit. Gardiner thought the comments were damaging enough to require an apology from Secretary of State Clinton.

CNN reported Wednesday that most Americans approve of the job Hillary Clinton is doing as secretary of state. She earned a 71% approval rating in the CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll, which was conducted March 12-15. But both Clinton and the administration she represents have raised eyebrows over their mixed messages to Israel.

“I think there are a lot of potential points of disruption here,” Bolton said, adding that he sees Israel coming under increasing pressure to agree to a two-state solution.

For panelist Dr. Tom Bromund, the administration — even making allowances for the economic crisis — has put out an anti-foreign policy and pro-domestic agenda. Bromund pointed to the lack of time devoted to the topic in Obama’s addresses and suggested that by appointing his strongest rival in the primaries as head of state, the administration is indicating disinterest in foreign policy.

Gardiner believes the administration needs to shrug off its complacency and also be willing to take on entrenched opposition to project U.S. leadership on the world stage.

Just as in every political discussion now consuming Washington, it’s time to stop focusing on the last eight years and concentrate on the next four. The upcoming G-20 summit is a good time to start.