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Forget Biden’s words, the problem is Obama’s thoughts

This crisis is not in what Biden said, but rather how the current U.S. administration views the region

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

One of the most famous quotes by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is that “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” This is something that, in one way or another, applies to what is happening today in the Middle East, as well as Washington’s approach to the regional crises, whether of the chronic or acute variety.

Lincoln, that great American president who was the first American leader to be killed by an assassin’s bullet, assumed presidency at a difficult time in American history. The country was divided and subject to a devastating civil war due to the southern states insistence on what it viewed as its right to maintain slavery. The war as a whole took on a new dimension regarding slave liberation and Lincoln became famous as the Great Emancipator. However, the most important aspect of this civil war was defining the relationship with the federal system as to where a state’s authority ended and the federal nation’s began. Perhaps one of Lincoln’s greatest achievements as a national leader during those challenging times was his keenness to avoid dealing with the southern states as the defeated party, and his respect to equity between the Northern (Federal) and Southern (Confederate) states under the Union.

Lincoln realized, by dint of his idealism, wisdom and deep political awareness, the impossibility of building a national partnership on a zero-sum basis, and the pointlessness of one national component sanctimoniously asking allegiance from another whose patriotism it questions.

As the history of the U.S. tells us, by the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) the Republican Party (Lincoln’s party) that believed in the importance of the central government collapsed across all Southern states while the Democratic Party (which then defended the states’ rights) actually succeeded in monopolizing political life and power in these states until World War II. Nevertheless, the federal government did not punish the Southerners for their reaction, nor did it accuse them of vindictively uniting against the state or being openly disobedient.

As the years and decades passed, and political thought and factional and class interests evolved, the intellectual identity of both parties changed. The Republican Party became a fortress for the conservative right, losing much of its traditional influence in the liberal North. On the other hand, the Democratic Party became a haven for moderate liberals and secular leftists and labor unionists, thus, its support was almost completely eradicated in the traditionally conservative South.

‘Change’

The victory of African-American Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the 2008 presidential elections greeted by the tears of joy of Jesse Jackson—the first African-American to practically aspire to enter the White House—crowned Lincoln’s victory, despite their different partisan identities.

At the time, Obama’s victory under the “Change” slogan carried huge indications. With the success of the new president’s realistic handling of the economic crisis which had been exacerbated by the dogmatism of the right-wing Republicans, and his pledge to stop foreign military adventures—a step that prematurely earned him the Nobel Peace Prize—Obama managed to win another four-year term in office. But the practical or “pragmatic” approach that characterized Obama’s first term, it seems, has turned into a “dogmatic” one, similar in terms of magnitude to that of the right-wing Republicans, albeit in the opposite direction.

At this point, Obama forgot, either intentionally or unintentionally, that the U.S. is not a medium-sized country that can afford to solely focus on its domestic issues. He deluded himself into believing that so long as he does not fabricate external crises that justify his intervention in foreign countries, the U.S. will remain safe from regional and factional crises and their political, security and economic repercussions. However, as far as the Middle East is concerned, Obama’s gamble has been very expensive and the true cost of his policy may not become clear until years to come.

Defining political Islam

To begin with, Obama has taken a vague line in terms of defining the phenomenon of “Political Islam,” whether in its Sunni or Shiite version, and laying out a coherent strategy to deal with this, whether in the Arab world or in Turkey. Later on, based on his commitment not to deploy U.S. soldiers on foreign soil following the pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama chose a strategy of “leading from behind” leaving allies at the forefront, as evidenced by what happened in Libya.

This crisis is not in what Biden said, but rather how the current U.S. administration views the region

Eyad Abu Shakra

He was also vague in his understanding and treatment of the overlap between “Arab” and “non-Arab” factors in the region. After submitting to the Israeli right-wing’s rejection regarding offering any concessions to rescue the peace talks with the Palestinians, particularly with regards to the issue of halting settlement building, Obama implicitly adopted the concept of unconditional cooperation with Tehran. Indeed, the Syrian crisis and the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria have proved that cooperation with Tehran’s rulers is now an essential part of Obama’s vision regarding the region’s political and strategic map regardless of what Iran has been doing across the Mashriq.

Today, with the exception of empty statements from U.S. officials about Iran’s nuclear program or Bashar al-Assad’s regime losing legitimacy, we can clearly see changes taking place on the ground. This includes Iranian officials’ alleged boasting that four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa—are now controlled by and subservient to Tehran.

Following Obama’s historic remarks in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in early March in which he praised Iran’s “strategic” thinking and blamed Washington’s regional allies who were “taken by surprise” by the “Arab Spring,” his Vice-President Joe Biden has now gone beyond pointing the finger of blame.

Speaking at Harvard University, one of the beacons of U.S. education and politics, Biden accused three Middle Eastern countries of causing problems to Washington and supporting extremist groups in Syria. In fact, this comment represents a dangerous precedent and reveals the Obama’s administration’s true view of the region. Regardless of Biden's apologies, the true crisis seems to be somewhere else.

This crisis is not in what Biden said, but rather how the current U.S. administration views the region; this is characterized by a terribly selective memory in terms of defining terror and extremism, and confronting those who supports terrorists and extremists.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 11, 2014.


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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined 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.


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