Obama turns a blind eye and it’s no accident
What was absent in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was more intriguing than what was said
What was absent in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was more intriguing than what was said.
Clearly, President Obama wanted the American people to acknowledge what he considers his own achievement in the remarkable recovery of the U.S. economy following the crisis. He wanted the American people to remember him as the president who rescued the United States from inherited wars and outsourced the initial “war on terror” so that no more American soldiers return in coffins to their country and so that American citizens no longer pay the price.
He boasted about having ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, declared the opening of a new page with Cuba, and called on Congress to authorize military action against ISIS. He mentioned Iraq and Syria from the standpoint of the war on ISIS, and mentioned supporting the moderate Syrian opposition in passing and also in the context of the war on ISIS.
But Obama did not mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at all, even though he had declared in previous speeches that Assad had lost legitimacy and that he must step down. He mentioned Iran only in relation to nuclear negotiations and his intention to veto any attempt by Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran during the negotiations. He deliberately ignored the Iranian military role in Syria and Iraq, and ignored the Israeli military strike that claimed the lives of senior Hezbollah and Iranian commanders in the Syrian Golan. He did not address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even though he had made the resolution of the conflict his top priority at the start of his first term. More importantly, President Obama did not mention Yemen -- a major theater of his secret drone war on al-Qaeda in collaboration with the Yemeni government -- even as the Iranian-backed Houthis were carrying out a coup against the same government while Obama was delivering the state of the union address. Interestingly as well, Obama did not mention al-Qaeda. In effect, this the first time since the attacks of 9/11 that al-Qaeda is not mentioned in the traditional annual speech given by the U.S. president.
It might be said: Why should the U.S. president talk about the tribal, sectarian, and authoritarian insanity in Yemen, when he is addressing the American people about the state of their country? Why should the U.S. president say anything to disturb the climate of reassurance for the economic recovery and the priorities of the middle class to talk about the consequences of not reaching a nuclear deal with Iran? Who said that the American people - or the U.S. president - is unwilling to entrust it to others to fight the war on ISIS in their own territories so that this war is not fought in American cities? Moreover, who said that Obama’s policy, which is averse to involvement in Syria, was not in the U.S. interest, after it became clear that Syria really is Iran’s Vietnam and after Russia realized it would inherit a fragmented Syria infested with extremist groups ready to take revenge against Russian policies in both Syria and Russia? Incidentally, isn’t it being said that the decline in oil prices, which has brought Iran and Russia to their knees, is U.S.-approved? Why should President Barack Obama detail all these “achievements” in the state of the union address?
What was absent in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was more intriguing than what was saidRaghida Dergham
The state of the world is certainly not the responsibility of the United States alone or the making of U.S. cunningness alone. However, the United States is not completely innocent vis-a-vis the world situation. The United States drafts policies that serve its interests for the long term and that do not stop with a president’s four-year or eight-year term. No doubt, U.S. policies in their majority are practical and pragmatic, sometimes to the extent that they contradict claims of moral superiority among Americans. This is a superpower that does not stop at anything that would slow down the fast train guaranteeing U.S. monopoly of superpower status. It places its economic, geopolitical, and strategic interests above any friendships and alliances, possibly with the exception of the alliance with Israel. Those who assumed that the U.S. invitation for them to join the VIP car is irreversible and that it entitled them to permanent partnership soon found themselves cast off at a passing station, being bade farewell and dispensed of.
The perception of U.S. President Barack Obama in the minds of non-Americans who pinned hopes on his promises that he showered on the world is not a good one. He was the man who tickled the fancies and dreams of a majority around the world, before everyone woke up to the pragmatic reality and fell into disappointment. Those who were disappointed in him have the right to be angry and to condemn him, because Obama made broad promises beyond his country that made people feel part of his popular base. But the practical reality is that Barack Obama is a U.S. president not a world president. He is part of the establishment in the United States, which drafts long-term U.S. policy and preserves U.S. interests above all other considerations. Nevertheless, there is no choice for him but to bear the consequences of the policies he chose for the executive branch, even if they were part of strategies drafted decades ago for decades to come.
Reading what was mentioned in the State of the Union address and what was absent is worthwhile, but overdoing it is harmful because the U.S. president is a part but not the whole of U.S. strategic policy. Tactics are important for those concerned with power in various positions, whether they are in power or are seeking to be in power. Because the Arab region is filled with both types, there will be many interpretations for what was said and what was left unsaid in the state of union address, because the impact on the men in power and those seeking power will be translated as actions on the American arena.
Avoiding others’ wars
In Yemen, where U.S. drones have been waging a war on al-Qaeda for years, the drone strategy is demonstratively flawed because it is not being accompanied by intelligence gathering on the ground to make the drone war more effective. But because Obama’s policy based on fulfilling the desires of the U.S. people is governed by the “cleanness” of U.S. wars, in the sense that no American blood should be spilled, the policy of flying over the ground in Yemen continued while the U.S. was content with watching the most dangerous development in a multilateral war, which has reached the extent of a coup ready to topple a government that is friendly to the United States.
The policy of turning a blind eyed that the Obama administration adopted in many places does not necessarily mean that the Obama administration chose one party over the other. It is simply a tactic in the strategy that seeks to avoid others’ wars, and part of a clear policy pursued under Obama based on attrition.
If the response to the insolence of the Iranian-backed Houthis who think they can control Yemen, is to let them be exhausted by al-Qaeda, then so be it. Let Yemen be a graveyard for both sides, just like Syria became a graveyard for all sides in a war of attrition that will not end in favor of any of the parties to it. The United States is not a direct party in these wars of attrition. This is a policy and it is no accident.
This policy is not wise. It is a risky investment that fuels the growth of extremism in all its forms, no matter how much it currently and provisionally serves the policy of not being dragged into involvement pursued by President Obama. True, the soil is fertile and ready for extremism in the Arab region at the slightest instigation from anyone - not necessarily from the United States alone - but the U.S. policy towards the region is not innocent and has led the Arab region into a spiral of bloody and chaotic change. It is not something transient or accidental that the United States abandoned under Obama U.S. allies in power. In some of these allies’ cases, their countries descended into the law of the jungle and breathtaking fragmentations like in Libya. In others, the former allies returned to take revenge against the U.S. policy of exclusion against them, such as former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now in an alliance with the Houthis to return to power, even if this should happen over the ruins of Yemen.
The other risky aspect in U.S. policy is the deliberate decision as long as it serves U.S. interests. The U.S. ruling establishment with its various departments and agencies realizes that it has in its hands both tools to induce and tools to punish that perhaps no other country possesses. It also knows that world leaders -- even those who are extremely hostile to the United States -- have an implicit desire to be partners of Washington. In U.S. calculations, these leaders are primed for U.S. deception though suggestion and allusion to them that they are ready for rehabilitation or partnership projects.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems ready at this stage to bet on a project of de facto partnership with the United States in the war on ISIS. He may assume that he is in the process of being rehabilitated by the United States and that he will be spared from the policy of exclusion.
Assad must have felt greatly relieved for what was left unsaid in the state of the union speech, forgetting that the U.S. official policy still calls on him to step down. Perhaps Assad read in the U.S. press that the Obama administration is not in a hurry for him to step down, but ignored the rest of the sentence which is that the administration wants his departure to be gradual and is preparing to separate him from the remainder of the pillars of the Syrian regime in power. Perhaps Assad believes that he has been given three years that the Americans say is needed to defeat ISIS, and believes he can outmaneuver the United States and turn things in his favor and remain in power. These are Assad’s calculations and dreams, as it seems, but it is not unlikely that Washington is feeding those dreams and calculations through the policy of deception.
Even with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose rules boast of being cunning and politically savvy, they have learned not to assume American naivety. They learned that the poles of power in the United States are not simpletons.
A segment of the rulers in Iran, such as the Revolutionary Guard, believes they can outsmart the Americans, allying with them in Iraq in the war on ISIS, and driving them to accept their ally Assad in power with a strong role given to them in Syria under the banner of partnership in the war on ISIS. For this reason, senior Iranian military “advisers” and fighters are going to Syria to support their ally Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the regime in Damascus, with cover from the U.S. policy of turning a blind eye. However, the Israeli attack in the Golan which killed senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders has reminded those concerned that turning a blind eye does not mean an blank cheque without oversight and accountability.
This is an American and Israeli message to Iran and Hezbollah via the Golan. The American message to the rulers in Iran is that Washington indeed wants a nuclear deal with Tehran, provided that the agreement would be free of Iranian “cunningness” as it tries to outsmart American “naivety”.
Washington is watching Iran become implicated in Yemen after becoming over-implicated in Syria. It is watching the effects of falling oil prices and sanctions on Iran with reassurance. The “state of the American union” is good. This is the message to world leaders led by Vladimir Putin, who has for long bet on the naivety of the United States.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 16, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.