- - Sunday, December 15, 2013


Just five years ago, President Obama was one of the most popular figures in Europe, with favorability ratings hovering in the 80 percent to 90 percent range. He’s not so cool in Europe anymore, though, as polls have shown an average slip in the double digits throughout the Continent.

I gained some firsthand insights as to why during a think tank-sponsored trip to several nations in Central Europe this month, and how this negatively impacts Americans.

While Mr. Obama’s idealism of global citizenship and a world without nuclear weapons was well received in Europe and rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 2009, it remains laughable to hard-line regimes in Iran, Russia, China, North Korea and Venezuela, which don’t share those values. Dangerous nonstate actors, such as Hezbollah, al Qaeda and fellow radical Islamic affiliates see it simply as weakness.

Europe, justifiably traumatized by its role in World War I and II, which collectively killed more than 75 million people globally, has downplayed military might, deferring to U.S. power through NATO ever since, while focusing on individual human rights. Mr. Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008 was music to their ears — ending the war in Iraq, closing the U.S. detention facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and abandoning coercive interrogations.

Yet while Mr. Obama preached about the moral high ground, as president, he was responsible for governing and protecting Americans from terrorist attacks. This translated into a sixfold increase in drone strikes against Taliban, al Qaeda and affiliated leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, killing an estimated 3,000 people, including U.S. citizens, without so much as a hearing.

If the drone strikes weren’t distasteful enough for our European allies, the National Security Agency surveillance on their leaders revealed by ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden was worse. Jakob Augstein, columnist for Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, summed it up with his piece, “Obama’s soft totalitarianism: Europe must protect itself from America.” While arguably effective, Mr. Obama’s drone strikes and intelligence operations are entirely incompatible with his positions on Guantanamo and granting constitutional rights to foreign terrorists bent on destroying America. Europeans see and resent the president’s hypocrisy.

Many European Union allies are also concerned that Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry lack gravitas and that they don’t have what it takes for effective foreign policy and collective security leadership.

For all their praise of multilateralism and criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq War, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry made the case for essentially unilateral military strikes on Syria with talk of a “red line” in September. Fortunately, Mr. Obama blinked just hours before his publicly hyped missile launch, punting to Congress and avoiding the misadventure, damaging his credibility in the process.

Europeans also remain haunted over the Munich Accord in 1938, where Britain’s Neville Chamberlain led an international delegation to sign over German-speaking Sudetenland, a vast swath of Czechoslovakia, to the Third Reich’s Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain said it was for “peace in our time.” A year later, Hitler invaded Poland.

Many see history repeating itself over Iran’s nuclear-program negotiations. Geneva II places limits on uranium-enrichment levels and boosts verification measures. However, since the deal doesn’t stop the “right to enrich,” it is only as good as the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s promises and his chess game. Which, of course, was invented in Iran. Of the so-called “P5+1” powers (the U.S., Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, plus Germany), France has been the toughest of the bunch, but can only pull so much weight.

Then there’s Russia. Europeans realize that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset button” was pure folly, and they see how Russian President Vladimir Putin has since routinely embarrassed Mr. Obama on the world stage. Russia continues to bully its neighbors, Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia, and props up Syria’s terrorist-supporting regime.

Mr. Obama’s “flexibility” on missile defense whispered to Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, left the Czechs and Poles without the radars and interceptors that Mr. Bush had planned to install. Petr Lang of the Prague Security Studies Institute recalled the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bolster public support, noting the intense internal debate.

Those who grew up behind the Iron Curtain know that President Reagan’s words ring true: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” So much so that Budapest’s Antall Jozsef Knowledge Center, named after Hungary’s first freely elected prime minister, is translating Reagan’s autobiography, “An American Life,” into Hungarian.

Why is Mr. Obama’s sinking popularity in Europe important?

First, because European countries are our closest allies, and both he and Mr. Kerry are undermining their trust. Erosion of such trust between nations is difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

Second, similar to America, Europe is struggling financially. Since the 1940s, they have relied on U.S. military might, which is fading fast under $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade. The bottom line is if Europeans value their freedom and our shared values, they will have to start sharing more of the cost. If they can’t trust American leadership, they’ll re-evaluate their options, and perhaps look elsewhere. Both sides may live to regret it.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009.

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