Friday, October 11, 2013

Barack Obama: real, unreal, for real?

Turn to your manual of realpolitik, dear reader, and contrast two very different forms of political behavior.

The United States decides to cut military assistance to Egypt because it is displeased with the slow pace of democratization after the coup against President Mohamed Morsi. But then, off the record, officials characterize this as “temporary,” and say they hope assistance will resume as democratic practices are adopted.

Then look at what is happening in Syria. A psychopathic regime has carried the country into a civil war that has quickly become a regional and international free-for-all. It uses chemical weapons against its own citizens, but somehow manages to make it sound relative by killing not far from 100,000 people, most of them civilians, in other ways. Despite all this its Russian ally continues to supply weapons, defend the Syrian leadership, and look the other way on its most monstrous crimes, all the while retaining its influence.

Morally, the United States is right and Russia wrong. But politically, Washington is ensuring that it becomes less relevant in a country that had been a cornerstone of its regional policy until not so long ago. Russia, in contrast, has used stubbornness over Syria as a trampoline back into regional relevance after a long period of marginalization.

But are things as clear as that? The zeal with which American officials sought to play down the measures against Egypt was reminiscent of Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that an attack against Syria would be “unbelievably small.” The effective consequence was to negate the very policy Washington was implementing--without, however, tempering Egyptian annoyance, since nothing is more annoying than to be penalized by a country unconvinced by the penalty.

The Obama administration is still not clear about what it wants in Egypt. That’s partly because Egypt presents such a litany of contradictory reactions and impulses. In 2011 the Americans called on their old ally President Hosni Mubarak to step down, fearing that by not doing so the US would be overtaken by events and fall on the wrong side of the revolution. They then supported the democratic process, which brought in an Islamist majority to parliament and Morsi as president. When he was overthrown by the army, the US found itself again caught up in a dilemma of either supporting a legitimate president or backing the army with whom it had close ties.

Barack Obama’s choice satisfied nobody. The president tried to play the middle ground--neither calling the military intervention a coup, so as not to be legally bound to cut funding to Egypt (a charade that convinced nobody), nor endorsing the actions the military took against the Muslim Brotherhood--even as it warned against the consequences of repression. For this ambiguity it was accused of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, a ridiculous charge, but one which the cutoff in military aid will not help to discredit.

Russian behavior has been less angst-ridden. President Vladimir Putin opted to go all the way with a barbaric Syrian regime, whatever the consequences. That meant aiding and abetting mass murder, but apparently with no lingering consequences to date, since Putin has been hailed around the world as a master tactician while Obama is routinely (and justifiably) dismissed as a tiresome ditherer.

How strange it is to hear that. Recall that political realists welcomed the president’s election as a refreshing contrast to George W. Bush, whose alleged neoconservatism and taste for democratization jarred with the practical and calculating realist mindset. But it very quickly became apparent that Obama’s desire to disengage from the Middle East did not really qualify as “realism,” because as the region dissolved into violence, American interests were seriously harmed.

The Arab Spring provided both challenges and opportunities for Washington. In retrospect the US failed on both counts. While Obama managed the initial revolution in Egypt well, he has since lost much ground. Ironically, this happened once Morsi was overthrown, which should have been a moment the Americans would welcome. Instead they waffled, allowing Saudi Arabia to intervene with a generous cash injection that bolstered the military’s credibility.

Now the Egyptian Army is far more concerned with Saudi approval than with American disapproval. And many Egyptians agree.

In Syria, a true realist would have exploited the opportunity in 2011 to help get rid of the Assad regime, and in that way undermine Iranian power in the Levant. Obama opted to do nothing, neither arming the rebels with weapons that could have threatened the regime nor using its influence to impose unity on the fragmented Syrian opposition groups and the divided countries bolstering them.

The delay (for Obama, typically, would later reconsider and start arming the rebels) gave Iran and Russia the time they needed to send weapons and reorganize Bashar Assad’s army, allowing him to regain his footing. While Washington was emptily calling on Assad to step down, the Iranians and Russians were making sure he wouldn’t do so.

So what are the lessons of the story? There are several. That being morally right but politically indecisive is worse than being morally wrong yet clear-minded about one’s objectives. That Barack Obama is a realist only in the imagination of his admirers. That America in two years has lost in Egypt much of what it spent more than three decades building up. And that nothing is more wretched than a president who wants to be a moral paragon and a cool calculator at the same time.

Above all, that a successful leader is the one who seizes the moment, not the one who has the hubris to believe that the world will somehow bend itself around his priorities and hesitations.

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