Friday, March 30, 2012

Barack’s non-vision thing

History is full of political figures whose destiny leads them in one direction, before they storm off into quite another. George W. Bush, for instance, was supposed to be an insular president, for whom the furthermost horizon was Mexico. Instead, he took the United States into Afghanistan, Iraq and a global war against terrorism.

Barack Obama would shudder at the comparison, but he too is a man of displaced attention. Last November, the president announced that the United States would henceforth concentrate on the Asia-Pacific region in its foreign policy. He implied this would come at the expense of the broader Middle East. “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” Obama declared.

Obama had a point in realigning the United States toward Asia. Washington’s most substantial long-term competitor for global power is China, which also happens to be a vital prop for America’s unsettled financial system. At the same time, at a moment of grave economic fragility, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were, and in the latter case still are, a drain on limited American resources.

However, it’s difficult not to lament the fact that Obama’s haste in exiting from the Middle East, unseemly haste, has denied him a golden opportunity to redefine America’s regional role. After decades of stalemate, which America buttressed, the Arab countries are going through great transformations. Yet all Obama appears to want to do is leave the house and slam the door, as if ending a bad marriage.  

Surprisingly, Obama has earned high praise from numerous American pundits for lacking any vision whatsoever in dealing with the Arab uprisings. It’s funny how the foreign policy commentariat has traditionally been partial to those favoring nullifying prudence over audacity that might open up new political opportunities. Obama used the term “audacity to hope” in his election campaign, but when hope was expressed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, what most of us saw was an American president almost irritated by this.

That’s not to suggest that it’s been all mistakes by Washington. Ultimately, if belatedly, Obama embraced the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. While he was dragged kicking and screaming into Libya, he did go along with the military campaign when it became clear that the Europeans would take the lead. However, it’s in Syria, the bloodiest of the rebellions—therefore where America should have displayed the utmost moral authority—that Obama has been the most feckless.

The Syria crisis has profound repercussions for global human rights, not least with regard to the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. It also has strategic implications for Washington’s standing in the Middle East, particularly in the way it affects the crucial American relationship with Iran. Yet Obama has largely strayed away from Syria, concealing his inaction with loud but empty rhetoric.

Worse, the president has effectively followed the lead of Russia, whose objectives have been reflected in the strategy of Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy on Syria. That means endorsing negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition. Yet Assad’s victims reject this. They know it may allow the Syrian leader to regain control of his country.

It’s a pity that Syrians have to pay a price for Obama’s electoral calculations. With American voters going to the polls in November, the president wants to show that he is reorienting the United States away from the unpopular Middle East. But he could have taken another route. America has been offered a rare moment to reinvent itself in the Arab world, as the sponsor and defender of more open, pluralistic political orders. Why did Obama not consider this?

For years, many laughed when anyone mentioned liberty and democracy in the region. Then entire Arab societies took to the streets demanding liberty and democracy. The careful lawyer in Obama didn’t quite know how to react to this remarkable renaissance of ideas. Rather than identify an opening (in the same way, for example, that Qatar did) for America to mobilize its tremendous ideological influence and soft power, the president made it seem as if Arab aspirations were an imposition on American priorities elsewhere.

Political Islam has doubtless been a freezing factor on American behavior. There is a simplistic view in Washington that if you give Arabs the right to vote, Islamists will win. But Islamists have gained because they often were the only organized, or semi-organized, opposition to the autocrats. Their popularity has substantially been a result of their hostility to corrupt, violent regimes. This should be a lesson to the Americans, who bolstered these regimes. 

Ultimately, liberty, whether it is stifled by ruling families or by resurgent Islamist movements, will prevail as the yardstick for popular Arab aspirations. Obama should have sensed that before turning away from the Middle East. In failing to do so he has lessened America’s ability to shape aftermaths in the region. No true visionary would have so readily surrendered such a weapon.

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