One of my favorite television shows was Yes, Minister/Prime Minister. In one currently significant episode the Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, complains to his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, that he is in need of some good news for his premiership and wants a summit with the French President in order to conclude the stalled negotiations over the Channel tunnel leading to a well publicized ground-breaking ceremony.
Sir Humphrey, aghast, explains that this would be quite impossible. Negotiations are left to the Foreign Office and for good reason. The PM says that he believes he could iron out the remaining issues himself with the wily French President without the aid of Whitehall. Sir Humphrey then poses the tunnel's sticking point questions to Mr. Hacker: where will the new border be between Britain and France; which language should appear first on signs; who would have legal jurisdiction were a British truck to be hijacked in France, French or British police? And on and on. Hacker thought these silly points of minutiae although he had no simple answers for any of them. Sir Humphrey explained that they weren't silly to the French who were demanding the border be at Dover, French be the first language on all signs, etc, etc. That is why these matters were left to the diplomats to iron out first. He further reminded him that the reason the Concorde was spelled the French way - with an 'E' at the end - was due to prior British Government's hastily giving in to the French.
Why am I bringing this up and why am I claiming it's currently relevant? Because of the unprecedented performance by and towards our President in Copenhagen. For decades, the American media have criticized the pre-packaged nature of U.S. summits; whether with the Soviets, Chinese, or whomever. But as we know from history, working out the details in advance is crucial to avoiding huge historical missteps. You work out treaties in advance of a presidential visit in order to avoid the embarrassment of accomplishing nothing and to guarantee that the details are in U.S. national interest. Neo-cons are still losing sleep over what almost happened in Reykjavik when a U.S. President decided to wing it.
Barack Obama went to Copenhagen yet again hoping to charm himself into a successful outcome. First he flew in for the Olympics without any groundwork having been laid and came in fourth. Now he swoops in at the last minute and cobbles together a 'treaty' that is a sell-out to his supporters and a gift to his enemies. Moreover, the President is treated in a manner by other leaders that has never been seen in the modern era. For starters, he was lied to and left standing alone by the Chinese. Then, like a dissident union delegation, he was forced to storm a meeting to which he had not been invited. Finding no chair he had to squeeze in next to Brazil's President where he made awkward pleasantries in order to appear relevant. He looked like of one those H.S. band kids trying unsuccessfully to fit in at the cool kids table during lunch. How did this man go from being rock star cool to the world's biggest nerd in the span of one year?
The answer is lack of focus and poor planning. I actually like Hillary Clinton now after spending the whole of the 90's hating her guts. I think she is smart and capable. But these embarrassments have to be the result of State dropping the ball. On the other hand, it's also entirely possible Obama ignores her advice, feeling like FDR that if only he could engage personally all problems would slip away. That didn't work out too well at Yalta and it's not going to produce any international accords for this administration.
As a conservative and someone who does not believe at all in so-called Global Warming, I am deliriously happy with the outcome in Copenhagen. I actually think that George Bush would have felt compelled to accomplish more because of the domestic and international criticism lobbed at him on this issue. Ironically we made out better with a true believer then an unabashed skeptic. Now that may make me feel better, but to the President's fans and other world leaders who care about this issue and were looking for him to carry the day, he is looking weak, abused, and inept.
It seems to me that this White House needs to stop buying their own P.R. and start putting a little faith in the striped pants set at Foggy Bottom. Sir Humphrey, in the episode, provided the PM with a mechanism to get what he wanted. It's too bad no one at the White House is a fan of the show or as smart as a fictional British Cabinet Secretary. Surely Sir Humphrey would be shaking his head and saying, "I told you so," to Rahm Emmanuel right about now.