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For Obama, More Business Than Friendship With World Leaders

Much has been said and written about the perceived dislike and disagreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who used a March 3 speech before the U.S. Congress to denounce U.S. efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Israeli leader’s decision to speak at the request of House Speaker John Boehner, and President Obama’s decision not to meet with him while in Washington - citing a practice of not meeting with leaders right before elections in their home countries, brought U.S.-Israel ties to a new low.

Weeks later, just before the Israeli election, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he no longer supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in direct contrast to U.S. policy in the region. While Netanyahu backtracked after winning re-election, the damage seemed to be done.

Through it all, many have questioned how much the two leaders’ rocky relationship played a role in the current state of the U.S.-Israel bond.

Former State Department Middle East Advisor Aaron David Miller says Obama and Netanyahu are not the first American and Israeli leaders to have what he calls a dysfunctional relationship. Miller cites strained ties between former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, former President George H.W. Bush and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and former President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

But in those cases, the Wilson Center analyst says, there was still accommodation and production amidst the dysfunction, unlike the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

“Here you have dysfunction and no production, and that is, I think, a result of a confluence of differing personalities, different politics and different policies. It’s a perfect storm basically, and it’s resulted in probably the worst patch in the modern history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” said Miller.

The seemingly irreparable rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy.

Role of personal relationships

George Washington University Political Management Professor Matthew Dallek says if the relationship between both leaders were stronger and more resilient to begin with, it might not be so frayed right now.

Dallek adds cultivating friendships with foreign heads of states is important for American presidents, particularly if a crisis occurs. He says as the Islamic State swept across Syria and Iraq, President Obama reached out to other countries to form a coalition against the militant group.

“I don’t want to overstate the importance of personal relationships, those can’t necessarily overcome major policy disagreements. Having said that, when issues are tough they can make a big difference,” said Dallek.

In contrast to predecessors, Dallek notes President Obama has a more reserved approach, connecting with others through speeches to large audiences.

“[Former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan in some ways was this way as well - the ability in public settings to project and make people feel a part of what it was they were talking about, but then a sort of almost disengagement when it comes to these one-on-one interpersonal relations,” said Dallek. “It makes it harder to forge the kind of close relationships that all presidents need to operate effectively in the world.”

In his six years in office, President Obama is not known to have forged many close friendships with world leaders, though he has been said to call British Prime Minister David Cameron “bro.”

The president has referred to his relationship with Israel’s prime minister as “business-like” and his ties with other world leaders are not said to be much different.

Aaron David Miller, whose book The End of Greatness explores presidential performance, says successful world leaders have a love for politics and interaction. And personalities count.

“I watched Bill Clinton at Wye River charm the Israelis and Palestinians. I watched his personal commitment to both the late [Jordanian] King Hussein and the late [Israeli] Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He had emotional relationships. With Rabin, it was an extraordinary example of how personality and common policy and outlook produced one of the closest relationships.”

In contrast, Miller says President Obama is more analytical and introverted in his approach.

“In effect, you have a president who I think can be quite compelling at times when he does engage. The question is whether he enjoys it. He is more detached, more remote, less emotive than many of his predecessors including George W. Bush,” said Miller.

Still, both Miller and Dallek say while developing a rapport and a level of trust is important, close personal relationships cannot overcome huge policy differences between world leaders.