from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

No Bilats

September 25, 2012

Blog Post

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

International Organizations

President Obama is at the UN General Assembly today and the total number of foreign leaders with whom he is meeting is zero. These private meetings between two leaders are known as "bilats," short for bilateral meetings, and they are critical to the success of American foreign policy.

This is a serious problem for American diplomacy, and even the Obama cheerleaders at the New York Times have noticed it. In a story about Mr. Obama and the "Arab Spring" we find the following:

The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.” Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders."

I cannot recall an occasion when a president went to speak at the General Assembly and simply refused to meet anyone. Perhaps this is the product of Mr. Obama’s fight with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, for having refused a meeting with him Mr. Obama must now pretend (for obvious political reasons) that it isn’t personal and he simply has no time for these unimportant personal meetings. So dozens of foreign leaders--presidents, prime ministers, sheiks, kings--are in New York, have serious things to say to us, want to hear about our policies, and will not be able to see the president. This is a serious failure by Mr. Obama and limits the effectiveness of American diplomacy. One can only hope that if he is re-elected, Mr. Obama will somehow recognize the costs this failure have imposed. Or perhaps in her exit interview Secretary Clinton can explain it to him. Someone should.