When you go on a business trip, you generally want to return having achieved much of what you set out to accomplish. President Obama returned this weekend from his trip that included a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, an economic meeting in Brussels, an audience with Pope Francis in Rome, and a visit with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.
It is reasonable to assume that the goals that Obama had set for the trip months ago never had a chance of being realized — even before he left Washington on March 21.
Originally, the trip was designed to affirm many of Obama’s fundamental policies. He has long championed nuclear non-proliferation, and his meeting with G-8 leaders in Holland was meant to reaffirm their commitment to removing and reducing nuclear stockpiles.
The meetings in Brussels were set to underscore the success of the NATO alliance and its effectiveness in preventing significant encroachments in Europe. Despite some bumps, overall the alliance looked strong and cohesive.
The president’s visit to Belgium and the cemetery in Flanders was extremely poignant, especially for a politician whose anti-war stance was critical to his first presidential run. The administration clearly connected the ceremonies marking the100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I with the NATO meetings, forthcoming U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and the looming Iranian threat.
In the Vatican the president had a warm meeting with Pope Francis, with whom he shares a deep commitment to social justice. Obama’s history of community organizing and raising up social have-nots put him at one with the Pontiff. Although the Vatican and the White House agreed to disagree over health-care mandates and contraception, the visit was a bright spot on a trip overshadowed by current events, especially Russian moves in the Ukraine and Crimea.
Russia’s confrontation with the West turned a planned affirmation of the president’s geopolitical agenda into a series of “batten down the hatches” meetings among Western diplomats and sometimes ugly threats and counter threats between Washington and Moscow.
Among other things, the Russian crisis distracted attention from Obama’s final stop in Saudi Arabia, a visit of potential great importance to Israel and American Jews. The agenda was made public: The Saudis want the United States to define its level of support to non-radical Muslims fighting in Syria against the Assad regime. The king was seeking a clearer definition on how the U.S. will ratchet up sanctions against Iran should the Vienna talks fail to change Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Saudis also wanted Obama to take a harder line against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and support the military government there. Meanwhile, the United States wanted Saudi support for the U.S. peace framework between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is striking how few photos, statements, or pronouncements emerged from the meeting. For the president to return home with nothing but platitudes might suggest that there is much more tension between these allies than had been assumed.
In between follow-up meetings among the western allies, Secretary of State John Kerry is communicating with Russian representatives in an effort to negotiate some sort of step back by Russian President Putin. Europe does not want a confrontation, not does it want to endure the consequences of elevated sanctions.
And if that wasn’t enough, Kerry was shuttling back to the Mideast in order to salvage his proposed framework for peace talks. Palestinians are firm on yet another prisoner release in order to relieve the pressure on Abbas. Israel is pushing for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, which might give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the political cover he needs to release prisoners and even agree to the U.S. preference for a settlement freeze. Although Pollard is not the toxic issue it once was, setting him free won’t go down well in U.S. intelligence circles.
Not the trip Obama expected!