Obama & Our Allies
The Bad Optics of the NATO Snub

The Secretary General of NATO is knocking at the White House door, but nobody seems to be home. Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports:

President Barack Obama has yet to meet with the new head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and won’t see Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week, even though he is in Washington for three days.  Stoltenberg’s office requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit, but never heard anything from the White House, two sources close to the NATO chief told me.

The optics are absolutely terrible, and in the best possible light constitute a big, unforced error:

Kurt Volker, who served as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO under both President George W. Bush and Obama, said the president broke a long tradition.  “The Bush administration held a firm line that if the NATO secretary general came to town, he would be seen by the president … so as not to diminish his stature or authority,” he told me.[…]

According to White House press releases, Obama didn’t exactly have a packed schedule. On Tuesday, he held important meetings and a press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House (Ghani will meet with Stoltenberg while they are both in town). But the only event on Obama’s public schedule for Wednesday is a short speech to kick off a meeting related to the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, he will head to Alabama to give a speech about the economy.

Russia is still holding a lot of good cards in Ukraine, and our allies in the Baltics and beyond are petrified; ISIS holds territory in Iraq and Syria as large as the United Kingdom; Iran is advancing on every front even while nuclear negotiations are reaching a head; and NATO is attempting a tricky drawdown from its Afghanistan mission—it is not like the President and the Secretary General would have nothing to talk about.

Furthermore, it is worrying that the Administration did not respond at all. Team Obama is six and a half years into the presidency—they shouldn’t be dropping the ball on something like that. At the most generous, this reads like the misplacing of the invitation to the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris—another unforced diplomatic error.

The good news is that it’s very fixable. The Obama Administration early on made noises about pivoting away from Europe to more pressing matters around the world. It would do well to now make some public gestures to pivot back when it’s clear to everyone that American leadership is still both necessary and desired.

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