Lots of People Love Obama, But Does Anyone in the World Really Fear Him?

Lots of People Love Obama, But Does Anyone in the World Really Fear Him?

By Greg Sheridan - September 24, 2009

It may seem rather unkind to express some serious doubts about US President Barack Obama just now. He is wowing the UN with talk of nuclear disarmament. He is mesmerising the Group of 20 with talk of global recovery. He is leading a policy review that talks of winning in Afghanistan and he will not send more troops in response to the request of the US military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, without deeper talks.

He has stirred hearts in the Middle East with talk of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And from October 1 he will be talking directly with the Iranians in pursuit of his talk of stopping Tehran from getting nuclear weapons.

It's a lot of very impressive talk. And yet, and yet...

Machiavelli said for a prince it is better to be feared than to be loved.

For much of his presidency, most of the world feared George W. Bush. For a brief, shining moment after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America's enemies feared Bush, while almost all the rest of the world loved him.

That is the perfect situation for any US president. It can't be sustained, of course, and Bush squandered the love part of the equation much more quickly and much more comprehensively than he should have. But he never lost the fear bit.

Here's my worry about Obama. Lots of people love him and he is indeed very lovable. But I wonder if anyone at all, anywhere in the world, really fears him.

Let's move forward a bit from Machiavelli for our strategic guidance. Let's refer instead to the great classic of American strategic pedagogy, Happy Days.

Happy Days pivoted around the friendship between two very different American teenagers, Richie Cunningham and Fonzie Fonzarelli.

Richie was clean-cut, wholesome, an absolute goody-goody, and everybody loved him. Fonzie, especially in the early series, was a tough nut. Greased-back hair, always astride his outlaw motorbike, decked out in Marlon Brando T-shirt, Fonzie inspired fear and envy in men, and swoons among the gals.

Everyone was frightened of Fonzie. He could banish bad guys with a look. In one episode, Fonzie tried to teach Richie his style. Richie practised the grimaces, the flexes, the stares, but alas the bad guys were not impressed and certainly not deterred.

In the midst of a desperate scrape, Richie turned to Fonzie imploringly and asked: Why are my deadly looks, threatening flexes and strategic grimaces having no effect?

Oh yeah, Fonzie replied, I forgot to tell you. For all that to work, once in your life you have to have hit someone. You cannot imagine a deeper strategic insight.

At some point, Obama is going to have to do something seriously unpleasant to someone.

Obama's one serious foreign policy initiative during the presidential campaign was to promise that he would talk productively to America's enemies. It would be easy to mock this; all US presidents, after all, have tried to talk to America's enemies, right up to the point at which they attack the US or its allies or just become unacceptable security risks. Nonetheless, Obama's approach, fortified by his huge global popularity, was certainly worth a try.

Which enemies, by the way, did he have in mind? The following list may not be exclusive but certainly Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, presumably, Syria all figured on it.

Yet the striking thing, almost a year into the Obama presidency, is how little substantial talk with these enemies has gone on and how what talk has gone on has produced absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Diddly-squat.

You see, I don't think any of America's enemies, or indeed any of its friends, fear Obama. I hope they are making a grave miscalculation, but I have my doubts.

The Iranians have made a kind of pantomime dance out of mocking dialogue with Obama. He wants to talk about their weapons-based uranium enrichment and their flouting of International Atomic Energy Agency rules. The mullahs of Tehran fall about laughing at this. They steal an election, bash, murder and rape their opponents into submission and deliberately miss Obama's solemn deadline of September for starting talks.

Obama set the September deadline partly so the Iranians could tremble before the assembled might of this week's UN General Assembly.

The Iranians said the talks would begin on October 1 and that is when they will begin. And the Iranians don't plan to talk about their uranium enrichment program. Instead they will talk about the injustice of supposed US domination of the UN.

Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, the Iranians took a couple of extra measures. They appointed a man wanted by Interpol for his part in blowing up a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s as their Defence Minister. Then Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his sick denial of the Holocaust. If the Iranians behave at the October dialogue as they say they will, then the Americans should persist with it for about 10 minutes before moving to comprehensive sanctions against Iran as the only possible alternative to an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, possibly before Christmas.

A genuinely tough sanctions regime on Iran would be the Fonzie moment in Obama's Richie Cunningham presidency.

So far Obama has courted popularity with America's critics by himself criticising America's past and by giving things away.

He gave the Arabs all kinds of rhetorical concessions, many of them factually wrong, in his Cairo speech in June. He gave the Russians a huge concession this month by abruptly cancelling a missile defence system that would have been based in Poland and the Czech Republic. This abrupt cancellation embarrassed and insulted the Czechs and the Poles, who incidentally may never again be as accommodating to the Americans. But they, you see, are America's friends and Obama's target audience is America's critics and enemies.

The action on the missile defence system will have any merit only if the Russians eventually join the most comprehensive sanctions regime against the Iranians.

Obama tried to give the Palestinians, and the Arabs more generally, an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank. But the most instructive element of this episode is that even the Israelis, with all their intimate dependence on the Americans, don't feel compelled to give Obama any serious face on this issue. They don't fear him either.

Of course, should Obama finally decide to take real action on Iran, all this soft shuffle and endless sweet talk in advance may have helped establish his bona fides.

I have been in London this week. The Daily Telegraph, a conservative but generally pro-American newspaper, carried a comment piece headlined: "President is beginning to look out of his depth".

It's too early to make that call, but I'm starting to get worried.

Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of The Australian.
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