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In search of Obama

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

President Obama’s unusual leadership style, particularly in his approach to complex issues and challenges of the Middle East (that is leadership by proxy and by delegation), was recently on display. The president has asked his former presidential rival Senator John McCain and his colleague Lindsey Graham to visit Egypt and convey to the new rulers an American bipartisan message urging them to expedite the movement towards a new representative inclusive political order. This decision was revealed in the wake of the announcement by secretary of State John Kerry of the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis after he exerted great efforts variously cajoling, pleading and threatening the parties on six trips to the region during which president Obama remained in the shadows on purpose. When Obama met briefly with the negotiators, there were no cameras, and no pronouncements from the president who wanted to remain in the shadows.

This leadership pattern so to speak began to manifest itself in 2010 when president Obama decided that he is unwilling or incapable of engaging Israel’s intractable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a costly and unpredictable political duel in order to force a freeze on Israeli settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. After an infamous encounter in the Oval Office where Netanyahu lectured the president of the U.S. about the history of the conflict and how it should be resolved, Obama folded the tent and left his special envoy George Mitchell to pick up the pieces. President Obama’s alienation from the Middle East and its problems was reinforced when he realized in 2011/2012 that the so-called Arab Spring has given way to a dark horizon of chaotic upheavals and civil wars. Gone were the lofty ambitions of his Cairo speech of 2009 about a different Middle East linked with the U.S. in a new qualitative relationship.

The bloodbaths

In this new inhospitable Middle East, the president and his senior aides delegated to capable Middle East hands at the State Department the impossible mission of dealing with a problem from hell named Syria with its attendant human tragedies and regional ramifications shaking Syria’s five immediate neighbors, whose stability is crucial for the U.S. When Iraq’s brittle polity began to fray and its security began to unravel, President Obama sub-contracted to his vice president Joe Biden the mission of holding together the fragmented country where the U.S. invested tremendous amounts of blood, sweat and tears and untold treasure. After each blood bath, which is becoming almost a daily macabre ritual, the vice president makes the obligatory telephone calls to various Iraqi leaders to urge restraint, and plead reconciliation.

Gone were the lofty ambitions of his Cairo speech of 2009 about a different Middle East linked with the U.S. in a new qualitative relationship.

Hisham Melhem

This indirect approach to Middle Eastern crises was adopted also by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was all too content initially to let her trusted friend ambassador Richard Holbrooke deal with the various bloody conflicts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre. Even, after the death of envoy Holbrooke Secretary Clinton did not pick up this hot issue and left it to the White House, which was only too eager to regain full control of decision making in that crucial theatre from the tenacious Holbrooke. From the beginning, Secretary Clinton did not exhibit real interest in Arab-Israeli peace making, and her ambivalence continued after Mitchell’s retirement. Clinton also supported Biden’s ownership of the Iraq “file”. This arrangement allowed Secretary Clinton to focus on other issues that do not threaten her viability as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, such as the empowerment of women, internet freedom among other such issues.

Even when the victims of the death machine in Syria exceeded one hundred thousand and after U.S. intelligence services confirmed Assad’s use of chemical weapons and Scud missiles against his people, and with Egypt’s steady slide towards the abyss, and the stunning ferocity of terrorist attacks in Iraq, president Obama continued to resist calls from within and without to play a more direct and decisive role to deal with these conflicts. It is as if president Obama has turned his back on the Middle East and lost his intellectual interest in its issues. It is difficult to remember when was the last time president Obama talked about the hemorrhaging of Iraq, the slow death of Syria and the chaos in Egypt?

Secretary of State John Kerry has achieved an important, albeit limited success when he revived the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. However, as the history of peacemaking in the Middle East shows, no breakthroughs are expected without strong, direct and persistent presidential leadership. One wonders when the inevitable immovable obstacle(s) appears, if president Obama will emerge from the shadows and enters the stage to play the character of the decisive leader.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on August 1, 2013.

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Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, 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. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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