Irrespective of their politics, flawed leaders share a common trait. They generally remain remarkably oblivious to the harm they do to the nation they lead. George W. Bush is a salient recent example, as is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When it comes to foreign policy, we are now witnessing a similar phenomenon at the Obama White House.
Here is the Obama pattern: Choose a foreign leader to pressure. Threaten him with dire consequences if he does not bend to Washington's will. When he refuses to submit and instead responds vigorously, back off quickly and overcompensate for failure by switching into a placatory mode.
In his first year-plus in office, Barack Obama has provided us with enough examples to summarize his leadership style. The American president fails to objectively evaluate the strength of the cards that a targeted leader holds and his resolve to play them.
Obama's propensity to retreat at the first sign of resistance shows that he lacks both guts and the strong convictions that are essential elements distinguishing statesmen from politicians. By pursuing a rudderless course in his foreign policy, by flip-flopping in his approach to other leaders, he is also inadvertently furnishing hard evidence to those who argue that American power is on the decline -- and that the downward slide of the globe's former "sole superpower" is irreversible.
Those who have refused to buckle under Obama's initial threats and hardball tactics (and so the impact of American power) include not just the presidents of China, a first-tier mega-nation, and Brazil, a rising major power, but also the leaders of Israel, a regional power heavily dependent on Washington for its sustenance, and Afghanistan, a client state -- not to mention the military junta of Honduras, a minor entity, which stood up to the Obama administration as if it were the Politburo of former Soviet Union.
Flip-Flop on Honduras
By overthrowing the civilian government of President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, the Honduran generals acquired the odious distinction of carrying out the first military coup in Central America in the post-Cold War era. What drove them to it? The precipitating factor was Zelaya's decision to have a non-binding survey on holding a referendum that November about convening a Constituent Assembly to redraft the constitution.
Denouncing the coup as a "terrible precedent" for the region and demanding its reversal, President Obama initially insisted: "We do not want to go back to a dark past. We always want to stand with democracy."
Those words should have been followed by deeds like recalling his ambassador in Tegucigalpa (just as Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela did) and an immediate suspension of the American aid on which the country depends. Instead, what followed was a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the administration would not formally designate the ouster as a military coup "for now" -- even though the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union had already done so.
This backtracking encouraged the Honduran generals and their Republican supporters in Congress. They began to stonewall, while a top notch public relations firm in Washington, hired by the de facto government of the military's puppet president Roberto Micheletti, went to work.
These moves proved enough to weaken the "democratic" resolve of a president who makes lofty speeches, but lacks strong convictions when it comes to foreign policy. Secretary of State Clinton then began talking of reconciling the ousted president and the Micheletti government, treating the legitimate and illegitimate camps as equals.
Having realized that a hard line stance vis-à-vis Washington was paying dividends, the Honduran generals remained unbending. Only when Clinton insisted that the State Department would not recognize the November presidential election result because of doubts about it being free, fair, and transparent did they agree to a compromise a month before the poll. They would let Zelaya return to the presidential palace to finish his term in office.
That was when rightwing Republican Senator Jim DeMint, a fanatical supporter of the Honduran generals, swung into action. He would give Republican consent to White House nominees for important posts in Latin America only if Clinton agreed to recognize the election results, irrespective of what happened to Zelaya. Clinton buckled.
As a result, Obama became one of only two leaders -- the other being Panama's president -- in the 34-member Organization of American States to lend his support to the Honduran presidential poll. What probably appeared as a routine trade-off in domestic politics on Capitol Hill was seen by the international community as a humiliating retreat by Obama when challenged by a group of Honduran generals. Other leaders undoubtedly took note.
A far more dramatic reversal awaited Obama when he locked horns with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.