President Obama is an admirer of President Abraham Lincoln, indisputably the greatest of all American presidents. Obama draws inspiration from Lincoln’s life experiences; he frequently quotes the speeches of the eloquent Lincoln, and aspires to be a good orator like him. There are other similarities between the two presidents and their times, from their legal background to their state of origin and humble beginnings.
Both have presided over a nation divided by wars, in Lincoln’s case the greatest war and the most cataclysmic and defining moment in the nation‘s history; and in Obama’s case the two longest wars in America’s history, fought in distant and misunderstood lands. Both Presidents were hated by certain segments in society, mostly in the South and both were intensely polarizing and partisan leaders.
But while Lincoln displayed strong leadership and saw himself and acted decisively as a war President, fighting his own rearguard battles against his reluctant and indecisive Generals in the first phase of the war, Obama eschewed decisive action, resented the wars he inherited as well as his ostensible allies, acted as a reluctant Commander-in-Chief, and avoided risks because he did not want to own his decisions. Obama is a war president, in as much as the war is limited to the safe use of drones and small scale special operations.
Lincoln’s leadership qualities, and his political judgements were tested repeatedly, and in the face of war defeats, personal and familial tragedies, and political machinations against him from within and without he never lost his moral compass, or his sense of what is vital and crucial an d what is transient. Lincoln was tough as steel, politically and strategically very wise, and when he was forced to engage in hand-to-hand political combats he did not hesitate, but he was also sympathetic, authentic and deeply moral. President Obama is calculating, tactical, distant, self-absorbed, petulant, capable of being vindictive and rarely self-critical.
Obama’s cold world
Jeffrey Goldberg’s intimate portrait of President Obama reveals a man strikingly impervious to introspection, unwilling or incapable of leading a great power, and for whom multilateralism consists of leading by a committee of nations almost on par with the sole superpower in the world. Clearly Obama is building the foundations for his foreign policy legacy, but he lacks some of the most important scaffoldings. A foreign policy doctrine has to be clear and positive, and for all of his eloquent speeches about America and the world, the most memorable line is a crass one: “don’t do stupid shit”.
In my response to the article I noted that “Obama comes across as a scholar who oscillates between providing compelling analysis of the problems and trends he is confronting or anticipating, and a tireless sophist and procrastinator weaving elaborate excuses and justifications for dithering and hand-wringing”. In his conversations with Goldberg, Obama is icily cold, churlish towards his allies, and disdainful of some of his aides and cabinet members particularly his Secretary of state John Kerry, when he curtly dismissed his entreaties for a proactive role in Syria, and for not consult him or his defense secretary Chuck Hagel when he made his decision not to act on his threat to attack the Syrian regime in August 2013.
Obama goes to excruciating lengths to blame others for his failures, and for denying embarrassing setbacks in the Middle East. The portrait unintentionally looks like that of a President who is arrogant in the extreme. He is totally and absolutely in the right, and time will convince his critics that they are in the wrong. Goldberg concludes that Obama “has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. But what the partners and the adversaries don’t understand ‘is that history is bending in his direction”.
With few months left for him in office, President Obama can point out to some of his foreign policy achievements, such the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, the trade agreement with Asia and the Paris climate agreement. But when the history of the Obama era is fully written, historian will note that by his actions and inactions he has contributed to the great unraveling of the Middle East.
Obama’s unwillingness to deliver on his promises and threats in Syria, and by his failure to secure a residual military presence in Iraq he had conceded the Levant and Mesopotamia to Russia and Iran. Obama, all but abandoned Europe in the face of Russia’s predations in the Ukraine, and a devastating refugee problem that could undermine the foundations of the European Union. In Asia, America’s traditional allies are watching with trepidation China’s assertive influence, backed by a belligerent military posture in the South China Sea, and a renegade nuclear North Korea.
Obama is not willing to accept partial responsibility for the chaos in Libya, although in the past he did admit to a lapse of judgment by not doing the necessary political follow up. And when he criticized himself, it was for not anticipating the shortcomings of European powers and the Libyan people. “There’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said.
“The social order in Libya has broken down,” Obama said. “You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya.” The Libyans clearly did disappoint Obama, “the degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected”. The European and Libyan shortcomings are glaring but President Obama, the leader of the International Coalition cannot escape his responsibilities.
Obama is in total denial of the enormity of Russia’s destructive military rampages in Syria and Ukraine. The president of the United States is lecturing the Russian President Vladimir Putin that his military intervention in Syria came “at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country.” Obama believes the Russians “are overextended. They’re bleeding.” This is reminiscent of the old derisive Western attitudes towards the “drunkard” and incompetent Russians. Yes, the Russians were drunkard when they defeated Napoleon, just as they were drunkard when they defeated Hitler.
The so-called Obama Doctrine is not predicated on the conviction that animated American Presidents since the Second World War, that the US is still capable of achieving great goals on its own, i.e. the Marshal Plan, the Peace Corps, and space exploration as well as providing strong leadership for the post-war strategic and economic architectures; the establishment of the NATO alliance, the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all of which the U.S. used effectively in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It is ironic, that King Abdullah of Jordan is quoted as saying “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does”.
Obama’s red lines
In his many conversations with Goldberg, Obama is expansive about the things and peoples he disdains in America and overseas, and they are a plenty. Obama disdains the so-called “Washington playbook” and what he describes as the foreign-policy establishment’s “credibility” fetish; the playbook, according to Obama’s exaggerated interpretation, requires the President to militarize his response to international crises. He decries what he calls according to Goldberg “the sort of credibility purchased by force”.
Obama speaks as if nations, particularly a great power can afford to lose credibility. Obama and his vice president Joseph Biden brag passionately that “big nations don’t bluff”, but clearly Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei and Assad took Obama’s measure and literally got away with mass murders in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
Obama complained about the Pentagon during the summer of 2013. Goldberg writes “four years earlier, the president believed, the Pentagon had “jammed” him on a troop surge for Afghanistan. Now, on Syria, he was beginning to feel jammed again.” Obama was never fully convinced that he should carry out his threat to attack Syria. The debate at times veered to the surreal. Vice President Biden, a man not known for his political wisdom, expressed his fear of the slippery slope thus: “what happens when we get a plane shot down? Do we not go in and rescue? You need the support of the American people.” A great power is immobilized by the fear of a potential loss of a pilot.
He speaks of authoritarianism in the Arab world, but spares Iran, which executes more people than any of its neighbors, and is the most rampaging state in the regionHisham Melhem
In addition to resenting the military, Obama resented the foreign policy think-tank complex. According to Goldberg “A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”
Obama’s justifications of his decision not to deliver on his threat against Assad’s regime are torturous. Once again, he embellishes and distorts the views of his critics of the Syria policy “You called for Assad to go, but you didn’t force him to go. You did not invade.” This is the biggest straw man Obama uses, to which one should tell Obama: Mr. President no serious scholar or policy maker ever suggested invading Syria.
Free riders and hopeless Arabs
President Obama tells Goldberg that “free riders aggravate me”; this was a reference to European allies which are not investing in bigger military budgets, and Arab states that seek American support. Obama is eager to implement his pivot to Asia and to turn his back on the Arab world. As Goldberg noted, Libya proved to Obama that the Middle East was best avoided “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa”.
According to Goldberg, President Obama sees Asia representing the future with Africa and Latin America deserving more attention, and “the Middle East is a region to be avoided, one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution,, will soon be of negligible relevance to the US economy”. The emergence of ISIS, the same group that Obama called earlier “Junior varsity”, has deepened Obama’s conviction that “the Middle East could not be fixed-not on his watch, and not for a generation to come”.
Obama sees no ray of hope in the immediate future of the Arab world, only an endless bleak desolation. While one could accept most of Obama’s gloomy diagnosis of the ills most Arab states suffer from, i.e. authoritarianism, fanaticism, and denial of basic rights, but what makes his remarks particularly jarring is their categorical nature, his implicit generalizations about the Sunni Arabs, and his lack of empathy. He speaks of authoritarianism in the Arab world, but spares Iran, which executes more people than any of its neighbors, and is the most rampaging state in the region.
Obama uses the phrase “the Middle East” but he means the Arab states, not Iran. “Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East”, he tells Goldberg. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”
He contrasts the forbidden world of the Arabs with the promising future of Southeast Asia, a region brimming with ambitious and energetic people driven by their desire to build businesses, get education and employment. In Asia, Latin America and in Africa, Obama sees young people yearning for modernity, self-improvement and material wealth. Then Obama turns incendiary “They are not thinking about how to kill Americans. What they’re thinking about is how do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?” Obama, continues his shocking comparison of young Asians and young Arabs “If we’re not talking to them,” he said, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”
Obama’s words, will alienate many in the Arab world, and will reinforce the prevailing view that the United States is retreating from most of the region, now that it secured a nuclear deal with Iran, one of Obama’s main objectives in the region from day one. Many Arabs will look with trepidation for Obama’s remaining months at the White House. His contemptuous words will be reciprocated, and he will make it extremely hard for his successor to navigate through the wreckage he and some of his regional counterparts have created in the last few years.
To paraphrase the two great men Nietzsche and Lincoln; Thus spake Obama, with malice towards the Arabs, with charity for none…
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem