The late Rodney Dangerfield (formerly Jacob Cohen of Deer Park, New York) made a successful career out of getting no respect. "Last week I told my wife we needed a home improvement loan; she gave me $1000 to move out," was the comic's sort of gag.
These days President Obama might consider taking his own no respect routine on the road. Last week he was playing a pretty convincing Rodney Dangerfield.
In as many days, two American allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered back-to-back snubs to the President. Abbas rebuffed U.S. efforts to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization from pushing for non-member observer state status at the United Nations, and Bibi plowed ahead (literally) with plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem -- including the radioactive E-1 project, which would effectively cut the West Bank in half by separating Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Last week's string of no's should hardly have come as a surprise to anyone following the course of Obama's foreign and domestic policy during his first term.
Over the last four years, the nadas have come fast and furious -- from friends and foes alike. Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki said no to a status of forces agreement, the Iranian mullahs said no to stopping enrichment, Putin said no to any U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, and Pakistan continues to support the Taliban and oppose American goals in Afghanistan. The one no that actually helped Obama -- but hurt the country -- was the Republican "Just Say No" platform to every facet of the White House's agenda, which cost the GOP big-time at the polls.
Nor is there much prospect that the no's are going to end anytime soon. From wrangling with Republicans on the edge of the fiscal cliff to wrestling with the Russians, Chinese, and the Iranian mullahs, Barack Obama seems trapped between his "Yes We Can" hopes and the "No You Won't" realities.
But is anyone really surprised? It's a cruel and unforgiving world out there and America doesn't control it. Indeed, in my favorite part of the world -- the angry, broken and dysfunctional Middle East -- we have even less influence these days. Our old friends (dependable autocrats like Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh) have gone the way of the dodo. And the new rising Islamists (Mohamed Morsi, Hamas, and even the Turks) don't care much for our policies.
It's no wonder that the most successful aspects of Obama's foreign policy are those areas where the United States acts unilaterally and doesn't have to depend on the naysayers (see: The withdrawal from Iraq and soon Afghanistan, and the drone war). Obama abroad can we summed up in one phrase: no spectacular successes and no spectacular failures. Anything more in the win column will depend on a cast of characters (Putin, Abbas, Morsi, the mullahs, Netanyahu) who have little interest in giving in to American persuasion or pressure.
But saying no to America is a more complex business than you might imagine. There are different ways of saying no, and the reasons behind the rejections are often more nuanced than they appear at first glance. However they are delivered, they still come out as negatives, of course, -- never a great thing for a great power's street cred. Here's a definitely politically incorrect guide to the art of rejection.