It hasn't really been a great few weeks for Barack Obama in an arena where he hopes to highlight his strengths as president: foreign policy. A series of multilateral meetings beginning with the G-8 summit at Camp David in May and ending Tuesday with the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico seemed to yield mainly defiance, and not just from unruly Russians like Vladimir Putin, who's doing his own thing in helping Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, but even from the Western Europeans.
Egypt's generals also seem rather unconcerned about what Obama thinks at the moment. Only days after the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on June 15 "highlighted the need to move forward expeditiously with Egypt's political transition" in a conversation with Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF announced a kind of legal coup, voiding most of the powers of the presidency and legislature.
As they did at last year's G-20 summit in France, European leaders showed some public exasperation with Obama's efforts to pressure them to resolve the eurozone crisis more aggressively. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti noted that no one has forgotten that the biggest financial crisis started in America in 2008, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso declared, "Frankly we are not here to take lessons in democracy."
It's a pattern that goes back even further: at last year's G-20 summit the Germans considered Obama's appearance to be a "disaster, in the words of one senior German official. The president spent most of his camera time blaming the Europeans (read: Berlin) for the euro crisis that could cost him his presidency. "Who did he think he was?" the official asked. "We don't lecture you about your budget problems."
Much of what dogs Obama is structural: the U.S. is just one of several big players, especially at G-20 summits, and there is frankly little that Obama can do to pressure Europe over the eurozone. On Egypt and other Arab Spring upheavals, he's caught in the geopolitical version of a rock and a hard place: caught between two equally undesirable outcomes involving the advent of either Islamist politicians or revanchist generals.
Ironically, it is unilateral action where Obama has been most effective: drone strikes and special operations. But because that is largely covert, he can't talk about it. Or maybe just leak a little