Kerry in Obama’s shadow

Hisham Melhem

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Media leaks and reports in the past few weeks showed that during President Barack Obama’s first term, prominent officials had different ideas on how to deal with the war in Syria. The secretaries of defense and foreign affairs, in addition to the C.I.A. chief and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, supported providing the Syrian opposition with arms. But prominent officials at the White House and the National Security Council rejected the suggestion.

Media leaks once again confirmed that despite the presence of strong personalities that have their independence in Obama’s government (Hillary Clinton and Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta), it was Obama and his close aides who made foreign and security decisions, and they have succeeded in particularly limiting the freedom of Clinton to take action.

Political infighting

In this context, American sources revealed a new dimension of Clinton’s stance that was not known before. That is her suggestion to resort to military power in Syria. Sources told an-Nahar that during a meeting of prominent officials concerned in the war in Syria, Clinton suggested warning Bashar al-Assad that if he continues to suppress the revolution Washington is prepared to punish him by raiding “Hezbollah’s” arms’ warehouses inside Syria. When National Security Advisor Tom Donilon did not respond and tried to evade the discussion, Clinton repeated her suggestion. But Donilon and another aide for Obama ended the discussion in a manner implying that seriously discussing such suggestions was out of question for the White House. When Clinton realized that the White House will keep her hands tied, she turned to focusing on women’s rights, freedom of expression and improving America’s image.

Kerry granted more freedom than Clinton?

As for Obama’s new-old team, it does not include officials known for adopting stances different than Obama’s security and foreign positions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel share Obama’s desire to speed up withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, grant diplomacy a new chance to resolve the Iranian nuclear program and also deal cautiously with the war in Syria. Hagel, who assumed his post tired and wounded after an ugly battle with his former Republican colleagues, will not stage any coups and will avoid risks.

It is believed that Obama will grant Kerry a little bit more freedom than he granted Clinton and have him try his luck in reviving negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. He has granted him a little bit of freedom as during this week, Kerry tried his luck in mobilizing international support to reach a political transitional process in Syria that leads to bringing an alternative to Assad’s regime. As some media reports said, this may require, in addition to diplomatic support, providing non-combat military support for the opposition and maybe training opposition members. But even this “development” in American policy will remain within the realm of cautious behavior, and it will reflect the essence of Obama’s stance which rejects involvement in foreign disputes.

This article was published on Annahar newspaper on Feb. 28, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of 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 Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. 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

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