Obama and the lack of deterrence

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
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Observers of Middle East affairs, particularly the inter-related affairs in Syria and Iran, are busy thinking about the possible outcome of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland.

According to reports coming out of Washington, there has been a fundamental shift in Barack Obama’s approach to the Syrian crisis after his administration became “convinced” of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on more than one occasion. This is something that means, according to the report, that the Assad regime has “crossed clear red lines,” prompting a move to arm the rebels.

Before the supporters of the Syrian revolution could recover from this surprising turn of events, other, more delightful reports referred to the likelihood of Washington setting up a no-fly zone in southern Syria, a move which gives the impression that Obama and his advisors have finally realized the risks of solely issuing statements. This comes, of course, while Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to send troops, Vladimir Putin is providing lethal weapons, and Hassan Nasrallah is deploying fighters to “guard” Shi’ite shrines across Syria.

However, as the popular saying goes: “What is right is always right.”

Just hours after this early ecstasy, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, clarified the White House’s real stance. In an eloquent speech, Rhodes went into detail, stressing the “difficulty” of enforcing a no-fly zone and the “high cost” of such a move. He even elaborated on the need for the weapons to reach the non-radical elements of the Syrian opposition. Following this, President Obama himself came out to reiterate Rhodes’s statement.

Incidentally, Rhodes is the man responsible for drafting Obama’s famous “A New Beginning” speech, which the president delivered in Cairo in 2009. He is also one of Obama’s top advisors and had a direct influence on Washington’s decision regarding Hosni Mubarak stepping down, as well as Obama’s political stances on the “Arab Spring.”

So nothing has changed in Washington. Has the Russian stance changed?

If Obama expects his opponents to make free gestures of goodwill, he will risk much of his credibility as well as present his Republican opponents with a valuable opportunity to emerge victorious at the next elections.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Absolutely not! During a press conference between the Russian president and British prime minister, Putin responded to Cameron’s accusations that Assad is responsible for the Syrian crisis by warning against arming those “who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies [and] eat their intestines, in front of the public and cameras”. He then added that Russia’s arming of the Syrian regime complies with international law because it is a legitimate power.

The Russian president finds nothing wrong with the “legitimacy” of a violent regime which has killed more than 120,000 of its own people—only 93,000 of which have been officially documented by the U.N. In fact, Putin, from all the tragic footage of killings and houses being destroyed in Syria, is able to recall only one disgusting incident which was roundly condemned by the revolutionaries. Unfortunately, all civil wars are awash with such incidents.

The Russian president, who has long experience in terms of “legitimately” dealing with the Chechnyans, seems to be oblivious to the fact that the Syrian revolution remained peaceful for over a year and a half despite the regime’s troops and “Shabiha” militia firing live bullets at demonstrations. This is not to mention the detentions and killings, and even the mutilation of Syrian citizen’s bodies, such as that of Syrian boy Hamza Al-Khateeb or the singer Ibrahim Kashoush.

Frankly, Putin—a KGB officer who grew up on violence—is not to blame. The blame lies with the U.S. administration claiming to operate within the political standards of morality. If I am not mistaken, respecting human rights, and particularly the right to live in a free and safe society, is one of the first moral standards of politics.

The statements by both Rhodes and Obama, which purposefully highlighted the “difficulties” of the situation in a bid to justify Washington’s policy of abandoning the Syrian people and turning a blind eye to the conspiracy to abort their revolution, fails to abide by one of the fundamental principles of a superpower’s foreign policy: deterrence. By this, I mean that the U.S. should seriously threaten to use force to facilitate a peaceful settlement.

The Theodor Roosevelt administration—in office between 1901 and 1909—adopted a successful foreign policy approach which can be summed up as “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” A prominent U.S. statesman, Henry Clay (1777–1852), who served as secretary of state, speaker of Congress, and unsuccessfully ran for the presidency three times, is known to have said, “I’d rather be right than president.” This saying continues to live on in the American memory.

In reality, President Obama, who is serving his second term in office, has been doing nothing but making statements and expressing optimism of a change happening somehow somewhere, brushing off prospects of the U.S. being drawn into a confrontation. However, time does not stop and wait for anyone and nature abhors a political vacuum.

This can be seen in Turkey, where a hotchpotch of protesters in Taksim Square have damaged the prestige of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On the other hand, the Iranian security apparatus has “allowed” a relatively moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, to win the presidential elections, in a smart PR move that will benefit Iran in terms of polishing its image and confusing its international opponents.

Accordingly, if Obama expects his opponents to make free gestures of goodwill, he will risk much of his credibility as well as present his Republican opponents with a valuable opportunity to emerge victorious at the next elections. Obama needs to recall the outcome of the moderation of Jimmy Carter’s administration which was exploited by both his foreign and domestic opponents, and ended up being viewed as a prime example of weakness and lack of leadership.

I do not mean to offer advice to the U.S. administration, which has dozens of advisers and “agendas.” Rather, I am trying to draw attention to a dangerous regional situation which is about to be lost amid the misleading statements and fake claims of animosity and resistance.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 20, 2013.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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