THE BLOG
06/21/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

Obama Summitry Encounters the Snowden Effect, Again

President Barack Obama's latest stabs at summitry -- with the G-8 in Belfast, Northern Ireland and again with Germany's leaders in Berlin -- met with mixed results this week. Overshadowing it all is the ongoing effect of ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of massive surveillance programs.

The G-8 had little to announce for its efforts, which took place amidst revelations of previous US surveillance of summits. Russian President Vladimir Putin was criticized by other G-8 members for his support of the Assad regime in Syria, but he certainly expected that from what is essentially, aside from Russia, a Western club.


President Barack Obama played the hits in his Wednesday address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, aiming for many of the same applause lines as in his 2008 Berlin appearance, with special focus on his latest proposal to sharply reduce nuclear weapons. But the NSA surveillance revelations put a damper on things.

Putin gave no ground to Obama on Syria in their summitry. The body language between the two in their public appearance was painful, or amusing, depending upon your perspective, to watch.

Obama and Putin, as I wrote at the time, notably did not bond during their lengthy initial encounter four years ago in Moscow. Quite the contrary.

Two years later, Putin was angry about his protege and former chief of staff, now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, choosing to go ahead during his presidency in backing the US on the fateful UN Security Council vote in 2011 to institute a no-fly zone in Libya. The no-fly zone, quickly achieved, was stretched into months of NATO air strikes helping the Libyan rebels, ultimately playing a decisive role in the ouster of veteran dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

Putin denounced all that at the time as part of his thoroughgoing opposition to the involvement of outside governments in internal affairs, loathe as he is to establish a predicate for what many in the West call humanitarian intervention. Now that he is back as president -- he stepped away for four years to avoid changing Russia's constitution -- he has made it plain that he will not allow what he sees as another Western-imposed regime change. Especially upon Russia's longtime ally Syria.

Obama came under fire for the massive US surveillance program both in Belfast and in Berlin, where he gave a speech calling for sharp cuts in nuclear weapons. It's a popular message in Germany and much of Western Europe, where Obama hopes to, if not regain his old rock star status, at least return to a position of high regard.

Obama got some bad news to begin his big trip to the G-8 Summit and Germany. A CNN poll indicates serious erosion in his popular standing over the past month.

And again, the Snowden effect looms large.

Obama's job approval rating has essentially flipped, now standing at 45% approval and 54% disapproval. The president's approval rating stands at 45%, down from 53% in mid-May. And 54% say they disapprove of how Obama's handling his job, up nine points from last month. It's the first time in CNN polling since since a year before the 2012 election that most Americans have had a negative view of Obama as president.

The drop in support was driven by a 17-point decline over the past month among people under 30. Young voters and African Americans have been at the core of the Obama coalition. Obama also endured a steep decline in support among independent voters. While a month ago he was essentially even, 47% approval to 49% disapproval, now he is at 37% approval and 61% disapproval.

What's behind the drop?

"It is clear that revelations about NSA surveillance programs have damaged Obama's standing with the public, although older controversies like the IRS matter may have begun to take their toll as well," said CNN polling director Keating Holland.


The Afghan government announced Wednesday that it is suspending security negotiations with Washington because of the Obama Administration's "inconsistent statements and action" over the Taliban peace process. The move came a day after the US said that it would engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban, who officially opened a political office in Doha, Qatar, a day earlier. "The president suspended the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement] talks with the US this morning," Aimal Faizi, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, said.

With Obama in the midst of a long string of public crises, the Afghan War, of all things, seemed this week to yield some very good news. But, after a triumph of sorts for the Obama Administration in announcing that negotiations with the Afghan Taliban were about to ensue, holding out the prospect of a negotiated end to the Afghan War, Afghan President Hamid Karzai halted talks about the ongoing presence of some residual post-2014 US force in something of a snit over being left out of the Taliban process.

Now the Taliban are on the verge of pulling out of the peace talks, insisting that their official name -- Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- and flag had been recognized for the talks and the Americans are now planning to renege.

American negotiators arrived in Qatar Thursday and talks were to have begun immediately. But the Taliban, from their new diplomatic office in Doha, have suspended things, and Karzai government reps say they no longer plan to come.

One good thing has emerged: The Taliban issued a statement denying future use of Afghan territory for purposes of international terrorism. I'm not sure we needed to fight the longest war in American history to get that.

These are just the latest migraine headaches for Obama, who has come to see this month's California summit with new Chinese President Xi Jinping in a new light with the revelation that Snowden had already been in Hong Kong for weeks. Clearly Obama had no idea of that when he had the White House signal before the summit that the president intended to push hard personally on the issue of cyber-espionage.

You can see an archive of my articles related to the geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with rising Asia and the Pacific by clicking here.

True, the Sunnylands Summit did yield a US-China agreement on cutting the emissions of the "super greenhouse gas" hydrofluorocarbons. And North Korea has changed its tune since, now calling for cordial talks with the US.

But Snowden's revelations dramatically undercut the Obama Administration's effort to corner China on the issue. Xi was able to counter Obama's complaints by saying that the rest of the world, including China, is a potential victim of America's massive, sophisticated program.

The lack of progress for Obama in Belfast and Berlin suggests that is a perspective that's taking hold.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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