Mountaintop Diplomacy

The early 17th Century writer Francis Bacon is credited with the line: "If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain." I have no idea whether Bacon was more familiar with the Koran than his peers might have been, but I suspect that there is little, if any, discussion in the Koran about Muhammad going to other people's mountains. Doesn't work that way, I gather.

And there's nothing wrong with that perspective, if you can pull it off. Even little children playing "king of the mountain" have a rudimentary perspective on the sometime shifting dynamics of power. Not everyone has a mountain, and not every child gets to stay forever atop his mountain. All of which brings me to President Obama's remarkably clumsy decision to host on May 14 a summit at Camp David (the presidential retreat located in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains) on the Middle East with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

Only two of these nations, most of which are important and longstanding U.S. allies in the region, bothered to send their leaders: Kuwait and Qatar. After the White House announced that Saudi Arabia's new king would attend, the Saudis said the very next day that King Salman, in fact, would not attend. He planned instead to send two other senior representatives. The White House immediately went into face-saving mode, but it was undeniable that President Obama had been publicly and globally snubbed. To add further insult, Bahrain's King Hamad skipped the summit in favor of attending a horse show at Windsor Castle with England's Queen Elizabeth II. The White House press release at the conclusion of the meeting somewhat lamely referred to the "Heads of Delegations" who had attended.

What was this White House thinking? This is, after all, the sixth year of the Obama presidency and, apparently, the amateur-hour summit planners overlooked some basic lessons of diplomacy, not to mention tact. To begin with, Obama reportedly doesn't even like Camp David, so why invite these foreign monarchs to a place where the president is not comfortable?

Second, the monarchs invited have been openly distancing themselves from the U.S. position with respect to Iran. Some of the monarchs are reported to be furious with Obama's policies and, especially, the contents of the draft nuclear deal with Iran. When you want to win over someone who is publicly disagreeing with you, the usual approach is to approach them first, not summon them to you.
Third, these are Arab leaders. Inviting them to your mountaintop is, for starters, a nonstarter. It was not surprising that four of the six monarchs skipped the meeting altogether. The optics were incredibly poor. President Obama should have avoided mountaintops altogether.

Fourth, how do you explain announcing on one day that the Saudi king would attend, only to have the Saudis say - the very next day - that the king was not coming? Usually such White House announcements are thoroughly buttoned down well before the public is informed. What happened? And finally, would it not have been better for Barack Obama to have suggested that the discussions with the GCC states be held closer to the Middle East, perhaps in Geneva, Paris, or Vienna? As things played out, it looked like Obama was summoning the monarchs to be lectured to in a Moses-like manner that some observers might find condescending.

It should not be a mystery however, as to how this summit fiasco occurred, because throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has demonstrated similar skill, tact, and sensitivity in other areas as well, most notably when it comes to dealing with the U.S. Congress - both Republicans and Democrats in his own party. Why should things be any different when it comes to foreign leaders? A more detailed exploration of the Obama administration's overall shortcomings appears in a stunning article by David Bromwich who wrote the cover story in the June 2015 issue of "Harper's Magazine." The Bromwich article is appropriately titled "What Went Wrong." It's a statement, not a question.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.