Nations have an existence apart from their leaders. But the men who lead a country are inevitably its public face. What impressed King George III the most about Washington was his simple ability to yield power like a gentleman.
The actual resignation of his command … took place in Annapolis, Maryland, on December 23, when he formally handed back to Congress his commission as commander in chief.
No one who knew Washington was surprised. Everyone else, in varying degrees, was astonished at this singular failure of the corruption of power to work. And, indeed, it was a rare moment in history. In London, George III qustioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. “Oh,” said West, “they say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Esteem for the occupant of the presidency has fallen from that height of late. Most readers will already be aware that Angela Merkel has very publicly rebuked Barack Obama for allegedly tapping her phone — as well as those of other heads of state. Two American ambassadors have been “summoned” before the foreign ministers of France and Germany to receive an earful, a very public dressing down, an almost unprecedented occurrence between traditionally close allies.
What is even more remarkable is that blame is being laid not so much on the United States as on Barack Obama himself. Individually and personally. The German magazine Spiegel does not characterize the espionage as a continuation of the “failed policies” of the Bush years, but as what you can expect of a a poorly bred, uncouth and lying man who happens to occupy the White House.
Diplomats are not surprised that the security agencies under US President Barack Obama have reportedly been monitoring close allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has failed to foster close relationships with other heads of state, causing much frustration around the world.
US President Barack Obama was scheduled to visit the Church of Our Lady cathedral in Dresden during a June 2009 whistle-stop visit to Germany. Diplomats from the German Foreign Ministry had painstakingly planned every last detail. They were looking forward to the photographs of Chancellor Angela Merkel with the US president in front of cheering crowds.
But the White House bristled. The president didn’t want to do that — that was the word in Washington. He reportedly placed little value on such photo ops, and he had to leave as quickly as possible, to get to an appearance at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The haggling went back and forth for weeks, and in the end the White House gave in, but only a little. Obama raced through Dresden. After their visit inside the church, Merkel had to shake hands with visitors by herself. The president had already disappeared.
On this day, at the latest, it must have dawned on diplomats that this US president was different from his predecessors. He was someone who did not attach value to diplomatic niceties nor to the sensitivities of his close friends, which he already had proven as a presidential candidate. At that time he put Chancellor Merkel in an awkward position by wanting to make a campaign speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. This site was traditionally set aside for sitting presidents, which Obama also knew.
In other words Obama insulted the German chancellor personally, imposed upon her hospitality and treated her like hired help. Nor was Merkel singled out for rude treatment. The French president and even the British prime minister were treated like flunkeys.
Obama angered Nicolas Sarkozy by choosing to dine with his family instead of with France’s then-president during his visit to Paris. The Polish and Czech heads of state informed the president by telephone that they would not install a long-planned missile defense system. And when it comes to Britain, traditionally America’s closest partner, Obama was initially uncomfortable with the long-held notion of a “special relationship” between the two countries. He may have expressed his vision for the friendship when, on his state visit, he brought the queen an iPod as a gift. London was not amused.
The frustration extended well beyond the typical bruised vanities of the Europeans, whom members of the Obama administration like to describe behind closed doors as infantile. An African head of government said during a visit to Washington that he longed for the days of George W. Bush. At least with him, he said, one knew where one stood.
And if on top of that he spied on Merkel — well enough’s enough. Behind the fractured Teutonic phrases a single unmistakable signal pulses through like a drumbeat: people who have met Obama — his fellow heads of state — have found him to be a distasteful sort of person.
The inference is that a man like him can only be expected to listen at keyholes.
The very open display of European pique comes on the heels Saudi Arabia’s astonishng departure from the American coalition. In the last few days the Saudis have rejected a UN Security Council seat and openly announced their intention to distance themselves from Washington.
Pundits have been at a loss to account for the vehemence of the Saudi action. It seems to go beyond the rational policy reasons — their disappointment over its backing of Morsi, frustration over Syria and their fear of Iran. There is in it a visceral antipathy, an almost palpable hostility toward Obama, as if by one betrayed, not just by a president reluctantly putting the interests of his country first, but by a worthless common grifter.
There is in high council a sense of the personal and the official. King George the III was under no illusions that for the duration of the war Washington was Britain’s enemy. But he was equally certain that as human being Washington was “the greatest man in the world.”
And that is perhaps not the judgment of Obama’s contemporaries. Dan Henninger at the Wall Street Journal recently wrote that President Obama’s credibility was in total collapse. “All of a sudden, from Washington to Riyadh, Barack Obama’s credibility is melting.”
Obama is the face of America, but perhaps the allied leaders now wish to signal in every permissible way how they hoped it were not so. Louis the XIV once said,”I am the state”. But from the signals sent by heads of government the desire is for the opposite: please tell us that Obama is not America.
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