Hunger Games

Where's this big, transformational change we've been craving from Barack Obama?

No U.S. president is ever quite as simple as the caricatures that emerge from pundits' sound bites. That said, few presidents are so complex or full of contradictions as Barack Obama. That was illustrated again this past week with Obama's smart, troubling nomination of Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim to be World Bank president.

It is almost axiomatic that stories about Obama initiatives can be written at least two ways, one focusing on real accomplishments, the other on frustrating shortcomings. Take his health-care program: Is the story his passage of the first major reform in a generation, or is it instead a failure to address underlying costs or to provide coverage for all? On the economy, should he get credit for steps to oversee banks, or is this a story of the failure to fund proper enforcement or deal with problems like opaque, risky derivative markets? Is it saving America from depression or failing to address the housing crisis that started the disaster of 2008 and 2009? Is the narrative of Obama's foreign policy about getting out of Iraq or doubling down in Afghanistan; effective sanctions against Iran or giving extra time to the mullahs; stepping in for Libya or letting Syria bleed?

For the world, one of the most frustrating of these dichotomies has to do with the hopes that Obama raised even prior to entering office that he would oversee both a transformation in America's traditional exceptionalist, Atlanticist approach to global affairs and a consequent shift in the structure and function of global institutions. This past week, with the U.S. nomination of the Korean-born, MacArthur "genius award" winner and physician Kim to succeed Robert Zoellick at the World Bank, we have again seen two steps forward undone by having one foot immovably anchored in the past.

The steps forward are Obama's decision to put a man who has devoted much of his life to development issues in line for a job held primarily by politicians and bureaucrats in the past and the move to pick someone for the job who was actually born in a developing country, not in the United States. But Obama failed to seize the moment to put his actions where his rhetoric was about creating a new global order and actually end the tradition of requiring that a U.S. citizen occupy the World Bank's top job. This error was further compounded by Obama's decision to go ahead and pick someone who was far from the best available candidate, even after correctly asserting it was time for a bank president chosen based on development credentials. Kim, though admirable and accomplished, is not better qualified for the job than other prominently mentioned U.S. choices like Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, Hillary Clinton, or PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Nor is he in the same league as serious international contenders for the job like Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or Colombia's José Antonio Ocampo. All these candidates have far broader international development backgrounds and greater experience dealing with the global leadership of the international development and financial communities.

As a consequence, Obama's nomination of Kim has produced not only criticism from some in the development community (Harvard University's Lant Pritchett likened it to picking a minor leaguer to start at shortstop for the New York Yankees), but intensified speculation about whether the rest of the world might finally be ready to outvote the United States at the bank. Of course, if the United States obligates its European allies to honor the gentleman's agreement that has either side voting with the other to ensure U.S. leadership at the World Bank and European leadership at the IMF, then Kim is a shoo-in.

If Obama really believes his man is the best for the job, he should publicly end the gentleman's agreement and encourage all countries to vote for whomever they think is best. He won't. But he should. One reason he won't is the belief -- promoted in part by Zoellick -- that the U.S. Congress won't support the World Bank if it doesn't have a U.S. president. That's where leadership should come in and the president should be confident that he could persuade enough members of the opposition to vote with him based on the simple fact that it's in the U.S. interest to do so as a way of leveraging limited American contributions into a safer, more prosperous world.

But beyond the considerations associated with World Bank politics or operations, there is a bigger issue here. Obama is not the transformational figure on the global stage many expected him to be. Certainly there are myriad positive achievements that deserve respect -- getting out of Iraq, undoing much of the damage done to the U.S. reputation associated with that war, fashioning a coalition to oust Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, pivoting to Asia, recognizing the importance of the U.S.-India relationship, etc. But while it is clear that the era of bullying, values-compromising, international law-breaking policies of George W. Bush's administration are over, what Obama has replaced it with is exceptionalism-lite.

America may not invade countries with great armies as it did in Iraq, but instead the country is increasingly relying on attacks by drones and special operations forces in violation of national sovereignty worldwide -- raising the specter of the rich United States waging white-collar wars against poor and failed states. Such tactics may not be as boldly contemptuous of international law, but they are still illegal and arrogant. America may not publicly thumb its noses at the international system that it created, but neither has it renounced the elements of that system that anachronistically and anti-democratically give special privileges and disproportionate power to the victors of a war that ended almost seven decades ago.

Perhaps it was the fact that Obama's father was born in Kenya or that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia that led the world to think he would embrace a different approach. Perhaps it was his and his cabinet's repeated rhetoric that the United States wanted to reflect and respect a new global order with its actions. Perhaps it was his early embrace of a broader group of international decision-makers like the G-20 or Secretary of State Clinton's focus on strengthening ties in Asia and with big emerging markets.

But that's not where things stand now. The G-20 has not in fact emerged as a centerpiece of a new international order, and the United States' dealings with emerging powers like India may have been strengthened, but look at how prickly Washington remains when such new players dare to offer contrary approaches (see the backlash to Turkey and Brazil's Iran initiative). Against that backdrop, the World Bank choice is another missed opportunity to do the right thing and actively seek to remake the outmoded, unjust international order.

Is Obama's America an improvement over that which immediately preceded it? No doubt. Is the good he has done compromised by the seemingly enduring view that there should be one set of rules and privileges for America and rich countries and another for the world's poor? It is.

But it's not too late -- in his remaining year, or more likely five, there's still time for a more confident president to go from promising compromiser to agent of lasting and overdue change.

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David Rothkopf

The Iceman Leadeth

The cool diplomacy of Barack Obama.

After British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visits Washington this week for consultations at the White House, and U.S. President Barack Obama ultimately leave office, it is unlikely you'll find the two of them vacationing together. While the Tory PM and his American counterpart have developed a comfortable working relationship that is actually somewhat warmer than many had predicted given the political distance between the two, these guys aren't pals. But Cameron shouldn't dwell on it. Obama doesn't have a lot of pals among the members of the world's leadership club.

Obama doesn't dream up clever nicknames for his international buddies, as George W. Bush did. The PM will never be "the Cameronator" or "Mr. Horses and Hounds" in this White House. Nor should he expect the kind of late-night phone calls from Bubba that were a hallmark of the Bill Clinton era and made the Clinton-Blair relationship such a close partnership. And the kind of soul-mate, connected-at-the-heart-by-a-Laffer-curve, mind-meld of the Reagan-Thatcher years is out of the question.

At issue is whether Obama's cool is an impediment -- or an asset. Although he is, to use a term favored by my daughters' kindergarten teachers, "slow to warm," he is also famously even-keeled in the face of pressure or difficult circumstances. He hasn't much liked the lecturing and condescension of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he manages his emotions well and, I'm told, it is only after the pedantic, arrogant Israeli prime minister leaves the room that Obama feels free to express his emotions to some of his very small circle of close colleagues. ("No drama" caricatures aside, Obama has certainly shown his inner circle that behind the scenes he is frequently capable of losing his temper and, more frequently, of sharply communicating his displeasure with staffers who frustrate him with lack of preparation or an inclination to try to draw him into their petty agency politics.)

Interestingly, it looks like the Republican Party is going to present him with an opponent who is just as chill. As one senior Democratic Party observer put it, "2012 could be the year of the icebox vs. the refrigerator." Mitt Romney is no hot-blooded back-slapper either. According to an article in this past Saturday's New York Times, Romney had chilly relations with the Massachusetts legislature that parallel those of Obama with Capitol Hill. Neither man has particularly warm relations even with the leaders of his own party.

Obama, of course, has one strength that has thus far eluded Romney. He can turn on the heat and stir up the passion with crowds. In this he is like a lot of great actors, somewhat remote in their personal lives but capable of incandescence on the stage or screen. The contrast between the rock star Obama of the 2008 campaign and the cooler, behind-the-scenes real man was a bit confusing to global leaders during the first two years of the administration. Although clearly a brilliant guy and always very well briefed, he was difficult to connect with, some complained, and in some cases, so businesslike that he seemed brusque, leading to concerns about what this entailed for U.S. relations. From Cameron to Germany's Angela Merkel to Latin American leaders who interacted with him at the first Summit of the Americas he attended, there were doubts and even unhappiness. One now out-of-office Latin American head of state lamented the loss of the easy connection he had with Bush. When Time's Fareed Zakaria recently asked Obama about his closest international relationships, the example he offered of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to many observers to be a reach, further proof of Obama's remoteness. And most recently, here at Foreign Policy, GOP gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie suggested that the president's "cold and aloof" character made Obama vulnerable to Republican attacks, charging that his lack of closeness with Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki had somehow undercut U.S. relationships with those countries (neglecting to consider whether in fact it was Karzai's corruption and obduracy and Maliki's drift toward strongman status and, for that matter, Iran that might have posed bigger problems for these relationships).

But gradually, people have come to see Obama more for his actions than his sometimes too-businesslike demeanor. He has shown courage in his decisions to go after Osama bin Laden and Muammar al-Qaddafi. He has shown tenacity in his pursuit of a negotiated solution in Iran and his patience with the slow progress in Libya. He has shown vision in his pivot from the Middle East to Asia. He has shown flexibility in his ability to reassess policies from Iraq to Afghanistan to global financial markets. He has shown a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved, whether during climate talks or tough discussions with the Israelis. What's more, gradually, he has built constructive working relationships founded on a clear sense of professionalism and candor, be it with Cameron, Sarkozy, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, or, in fact, Erdogan.

Furthermore, the president has done what many wise leaders do and surrounded himself with top officials who complement his strengths -- deepening relationships, working them behind the scenes, offering warmth and an attentive ear where he can't or doesn't have the time to do so. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has masterfully and tirelessly shouldered much of the burden in this regard, but so too have Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the administration's two secretaries of defense, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. Collectively and quietly, they have changed the character of America's relationships with the world. The warmth Bush showed for his friends was always undercut by the alienation produced by his us-or-them policy stances (though it must be acknowledged that Gates, together with Condi Rice and Steve Hadley, made valiant and increasingly effective efforts to undo the damage of Bush's first term). What Obama has done is not just restored America's reputation with the tenor of his rhetoric and the substance of his speeches, but he has also turned his seeming aloofness into an American strength.

We've seen it before: For every Bill Clinton or Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has also had effective and even great presidents of considerable reserve, starting with the country's first one. Indeed, drawing on the sang-froid Obama has shown in approving covert, high-risk missions like the one that took out bin Laden, it is increasingly possible to see his remoteness as many of his top military leaders have, not so much as a defect or quirk but rather as the kind of calm, self-possessed "right stuff" of a Chuck Yeager. The reality is that the United States doesn't need a back-slapping president who is chums with other heads of state. In fact, in a world buffeted by crises and fraught with complexity, having a top guy who is unflappable and effective seems to be working considerably better than Americans' recent experience with having one who is a jovial, likeable frat boy oblivious to the havoc he wrought wherever his deeply held convictions took him.

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