Obama and the Copenhagen Syndrome
It’s dangerous to believe in your own miracles.
By BRET STEPHENS
Copenhagen Syndrome: The peculiar psychology of Barack Obama’s first year in office.
Let’s expand on that a bit. In September, Mr. Obama paid a semi-impromptu visit to Copenhagen to make a personal appeal for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. It failed. The nice way to think about it: The president was trying to win one for Team America. Less nice: It was a feckless and unpresidential errand on behalf of the Chicago political machine to which he remains beholden.
And then there’s the possibility that Mr. Obama really believed that he alone could pull the rabbit out of the hat. Not Dick Daley, not the First Lady. This one would require the full Barack abracadabra.
Mr. Obama was back in Copenhagen a couple of months later, this time for the U.N.’s climate summit. It was a chronicle of a fiasco foretold. In the run-up to the conference, dozens of press accounts noted the gaps between the otherworldly idealism of “Hopenhagen” boosters and the calculated realism of China and India. A politically rational president would either have stayed away or made an appearance at the beginning of the conference, so as to be far from the scene of the crime when it ended.
Instead, the president chose to raise expectations by showing up at the end of the conference, as if he were sure that the magic would not fail him twice. It did. “The debacle of Copenhagen is also Barack Obama’s debacle,” editorialized Der Spiegel, a left-of-center publication. No points in old Europe for the old college try.
In fact, Mr. Obama’s first year in office amounts to a long parade of rebuffs. His inaugural address famously offered the world’s dictators an outstretched hand in exchange for an unclenched fist. From North Korea, he got missile and nuclear tests. From Iran, he got a contemptuous rejection of his extraordinary offer to enrich uranium for it. From Cuba, Fidel Castro said last month that “the empire’s real intentions are obvious, this time beneath the kindly smile and African-American face of Barack Obama.” From Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is now comparing Mr. Obama to the devil, a shtick he first tried out on George W. Bush back when liberals thought it was kind of funny.
Of course these are America’s enemies, so we probably should not have expected better even if Mr. Obama seemed to believe we might. What about our (ostensible) non-enemies? The president pre-emptively conceded the Czech and Polish missile-defense bases to Russia in hopes of getting Moscow to take a tougher line on Tehran’s nuclear programs. The Kremlin isn’t biting. Neither is China, never mind Mr. Obama’s gratuitous snub last year of the Dalai Lama.
As for the Muslim world that Mr. Obama has been at such pains to court (the Cairo and Ankara speeches, his opposition to Gitmo and the war in Iraq, etc.), the 2009 Pew Global Survey that measures opinions about the U.S. finds as follows: Turkey, 14% favorable views of the U.S.; Palestinian territories, 15%; Pakistan, 16%; Jordan, 25%; Egypt, 27%. Granted, this is up slightly from the last year of the Bush administration, but only by a couple of percentage points on average. So that’s the great Obama perception dividend?
And then there are America’s friends. Hondurans will not soon forgive the administration’s efforts to shove ex-president Manuel Zelaya down their throats. Among Israelis suspicion of Mr. Obama is pervasive. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy wonders aloud, “Est-il faible?” (Is he weak?)
Now the same question is being asked in the U.S. in the wake of Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts. The president from Oprah Nation, says Newsweek, suffers from an “inspiration gap”; the prevailing wisdom is that he’s too cool and detached for his own political good. Are they kidding? Should the president now take squealing lessons from Howard Dean?
Mr. Obama’s real problems are of a different stripe. It’s not as if he lacks for charisma. It’s that he believes too much in the power of charisma itself and specifically too much in his own.
He seems to have come to office believing that America’s problems abroad could mainly be put down to the rough-edged persona of his predecessor. Change the president, change the tone, give magnificent speeches, tinker with the policy, and the world would revert to some default mode of liking America and wanting to work with it. It doesn’t work that way. Nor does it work in domestic policy, where personal salesmanship has failed to overcome the defects of legislation. Americans still generally like Mr. Obama, or at least they’d like to like him. It’s the $12 trillion deficit and Rube Goldberg health schemes that rub them wrong.
So what’s Copenhagen Syndrome? It is a belief in your own miracles. It is thinking that those who crowned you king actually knew what they were doing. It is buying into your own tulip bulb mania. It is the floating evanescent bubble of self. God help you when it bursts.