EDITORIAL: Obama’s diplomatic flop

The O Force can’t match the Bush record in diplomacy

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During the campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama made light of what he saw as his predecessor-to-be’s lack of diplomatic skill. As Wednesday’s U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program showed, Mr. Obama’s team could learn a few things about diplomacy from George W. Bush.

The vote sent “an unmistakable message” to Iran about the international community’s commitment to stop nuclear proliferation, according to the White House. The vote tally also communicated a secondary point: President Obama is losing the international consensus that Mr. Bush once had. In three rounds of Bush-led U.N. votes on sanctions from 2006 through 2008, there were no negative votes and only one abstention, from Indonesia. By contrast, the resolution Mr. Obama spearheaded was met with two “no” votes, from Turkey and Brazil, and one abstention, from Lebanon. This is a very poor showing, especially given Mr. Obama’s smugness about his ability to improve America’s image before the world.

Turkey and Brazil were unimpressed at the warnings about opposing sanctions that reportedly came from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice. Turkey’s response was predictable; Ankara has actively opposed sanctions against Iran and was one of the architects of the failed “uranium swap” deal that was intended to stave off U.N. action. Turkey is also pursuing better relations with Middle Eastern countries and distancing itself from the West, as illustrated by its growing rift with Israel. This is a foreign-policy disaster in the making that the Obama administration has thus far been incapable of heading off.

Brazil’s defection is even more significant. Mr. Obama has touted his close relationship with Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose domestic policies mirror Mr. Obama’s big-government liberalism. At last year’s G-20 summit, Mr. Obama publicly asked Mr. Lula to use his good relations with Tehran to bring the Islamic republic to the negotiating table. Six months of intense negotiation primarily among Iran, Brazil and Turkey produced the nuclear swap deal. But Mr. Obama rejected the agreement in a letter to Mr. Lula after April’s Nuclear Security Summit, saying in essence that Iran was only appearing to cooperate and would not agree to any substantive measures. Rejecting this flawed deal was the right call, but it was a major embarrassment for Mr. Lula. Brazil’s “no” vote on sanctions can be read as a smack back at the United States. Brazil is also the first non-Muslim-majority country to fail to support sanctions against Iran.

Lebanon’s abstention is noteworthy in that Lebanon recently replaced Libya on the Security Council. The Bush administration had been able to convince Moammar Gadhafi’s government to join in the previous sanctions votes; Mr. Obama’s team failed to bring in a “yea” from Beirut.

Talk is cheap, but true diplomacy is difficult. Mr. Obama has been coasting on the initial burst of public acclaim he received when he entered office. As time passes, he is finding it hard to deliver on the promised diplomatic achievements he thought he could secure by charisma alone. It turns out that global politics is more complex than it once seemed on the campaign trail. Perhaps the president should take a trip to Dallas to pick up a few pointers from Mr. Bush about how to rally the world behind the policies that are in America’s best interests.

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