America in the mind of President Obama

The erudite president, who has a gift for words, may have believed that his diction can substitute for action

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Everything President Obama has done and/or articulated in the last weeks and days regarding national security and foreign policy; releasing his National Security Strategy (NSS), asking congress to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State (ISIS) and closing the U.S. embassy in Yemen, all the while stressing in a series of interviews and in a variety of ways his aversion to the use of military force, reinforced in bold relief once again his core belief that America is no longer capable of achieving great things in the world.

It is true that Americans have rediscovered the limits of their military power in the inhospitable mountains of Afghanistan and the harsh deserts of central Iraq, but President Obama’s obsession with ending the two wars even if conditions for peace and stability are not there yet, has muddled his worldview, and deepened his proclivity to compromise and seek accommodation, when assertiveness and decisiveness are needed. He is determined not to allow 'foreign entanglements' to derail his presidency the way Vietnam sapped Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and undermined his domestic agenda.

America in the mind of Obama is light years away from the one John F. Kennedy had in mind when he said ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’ Kennedy did not live long to see what the burden and hardship of Vietnam did to America.

A prudent president should avoid the extremes of Obama and Kennedy, and believe that the U.S. can still achieve great things in the world. I always ask Arab and European friends who complain bitterly (and in some cases correctly) about U.S. foreign policy decisions and blunders, that if this world of competing states is going to be dominated by one political culture, would they want that political culture to be that of Russia (under Putin), China (under the Communist party) or any other aspiring power like Iran, Brazil, or even the European Union which failed in the 1990’s to stop the first mass killings on European soil since the Holocaust, OR America warts and all? Many of them usually struggle with the answer before agreeing grudgingly.

President Obama’s soaring rhetoric and eloquently crafted pronouncements on foreign affairs, whether his Cairo speech, his Nobel Prize address, or the West Point speech never hidden the fact that he is a reluctant practitioner of assertive American leadership in the world, or that his diplomatic forays where mostly hesitant, tentative and half-hearted. He can articulate compassion, but never with passion. Instead of making caution in foreign policy a virtue, he turned it into a vice.

A prudent president should avoid the extremes of Obama and Kennedy, and believe that the U.S. can still achieve great things in the world

Hisham Melhem

The erudite president, who has a gift for words, may have believed that his diction can substitute for action. He came to the White House with lofty ideas and hopes; ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, finally achieving peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, a historic opening to Iran, similar to Richard Nixon’s opening to China, the ‘reset’ policy towards Russia, a new beginning with the Muslim world. But, when his hopes hit reality and he realized that such entanglements require sustained, tough and cunning leadership he flinched. Here’s Obama in his recent Vox interview, ‘I came in with some very clear theories about what my goals were going to be…And then the Arab Spring happened. I don’t recall all the wise men in Washington anticipating this. And so it has been this huge, tumultuous change and shift, and so we’ve had to adopt, even as it’s happening in real time, to some huge changes in these societies.’

"Gimme Shelter"

The National Security Strategy was high on aspirations and low on specific future expectations. In fact it was a document that celebrated the policies of the past six years and for those looking for a strategic framework for the future they were given the palliative of ‘strategic patience’. The document is expansive about the effectiveness of U.S. leadership role in the world, a claim belied by the failure to deter Russian aggression in the Ukraine, or in seriously containing ISIS let alone destroying it, or in preventing the disintegration of countries like Yemen and Libya. In the President’s accompanying letter, he warns against over-reaching, and that ‘we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power.’

After six months of waging a limited air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, President Obama asked congress to authorize a three year military campaign that does not include ‘the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations’ like those the U.S. conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Obama asked for ‘would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations…such as rescue operations…or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIS leadership.’ President Obama is the first president who asks congress to put limits of time and scope on his ability as the Commander-in-Chief to wage war.

And although Obama stressed that the U.S. ‘should not get dragged back into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East.’ Many weary Democrats in congress are concerned that the ambiguous language about ‘enduring offensive ground combat operations’ could be stretched to mean long wars. Some powerful Republicans on the other hand are criticizing the White House proposed (AUMF) as too restrictive. These Republicans also, are criticizing Obama because his request does not mention Syria’s president Assad, and certainly does not target his forces. The expected battle over the (AUMF) will likely last for months, and while it is clear that the President does not really need it to continue the military campaign, it is believed that Obama, the ever cautious president wants the Republican congress to shelter him from potential criticism, by providing him a political cover for a military campaign that does not look like it is serious in delivering its core declared objective of destroying ISIS.

Withdrawal symptoms

The American diplomatic withdrawal from Yemen is emblematic of America’s estrangement from the Middle East and its slow and gradual retreat from the region. In one year the U.S. was forced to close its embassies in Libya and Yemen, two brittle states threatened with disintegration. The Obama Administration finds itself now at odds with some of its old and traditional allies and friends including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. The reasons for this state of alienation range from how to deal with Syria, the war with ISIS, political Islam and Iran’s nuclear program and its role in neighboring countries.

From the beginning of the conflict in Syria, even in its early peaceful stage, President Obama was very reluctant to get involved in it. By that time it seemed as if the President who wanted to engage the Arab and Muslim worlds in 2009, has suspended his intellectual curiosity about the region. His reactions to the Arab uprisings were episodic, reluctant and contradictory. When the Assad regime’s repression plunged the country into greater violence, President Obama declared the conflict as ‘someone else’s civil war’. Obama never intended to own or act upon his pronouncements that Assad should step down, or that he will change his calculus if Assad used Chemical Weapons. His decision to renege on his commitment to punish the Assad regime in the summer of 2013 when it was established that Syrian government forces used Chemical Weapons against civilians, is still reverberating negatively in Syria. The initial limited program organized by the Central Intelligence Agency to train ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels was not meant to create a credible force to challenge the Syrian regime.

The emergence of ISIS, particularly after it succeeded in obliterating the Syrian-Iraqi borders and following its occupation of Mosul set in motion dizzying political and military dynamics and shifting alliances that very few could have predicted when the Syrian uprising began in early 2011.

The pretend Caliph and the Ayatollah

Today the United States and Iran (with its numerous Shiite proxies) are de facto allies in the war against ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The control of the Houthi (Zaydi/Shiite) rebellion of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, could lead to tacit cooperation with the Houthis, supported by Iran, against Al Qaeda in Yemen, considered by the U.S. as the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda. The Obama Administration sees the prosecution of this war, and the potential for a nuclear agreement with Tehran requires illicit collaboration with Iran. It is not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. has acquiesced to Iran’s emergence as the regional power with the most influence in four Arab capitals; Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and the recent prize, Sana’a.

The emergence of the pretend Caliph in Mosul has accelerated the implicit cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in order to shore up various Iraqi forces, from the battered government in Baghdad to the Kurds in the north. This collaboration has alienated the Syrian moderate forces as well as those Sunni states that have been providing them with material and financial support. The United States has stopped calling for Assad’s departure, and privately U.S. officials say that there can be no political solution without Assad. Even the objectives of the proposed ‘train and equip’ for the moderate Syrian opposition that the U.S. has announce have been amended to reflect Washington’s priorities. The program will focus ‘narrowly’ on assisting the opposition to combat ISIS. There is total U.S. denial now that it was the brutal Assad regime that has brought the brutes of ISIS to Syria. It is intriguing that the Obama Administration keeps raising questions and doubts about vetting the backgrounds of moderate Syrian opposition members, while at the same time U.S. weapons are being used by Iraqi Shiite groups including the Badr brigade, whose members had American blood on their hands. There is no vetting of America’s allies in Iraq.

American officials involved in the fighting in Iraq and Syria, both military and civilians confirm that Iran is the main reason why Assad’s forces have been immune to attacks by U.S. forces. The U.S. is concerned that if American bombers attack the Syrian army, Iran will retaliate against the U.S. in Iraq. Also U.S. officials admit that the desire of the White House not to drive Iran out of the negotiations is another reason Washington does not want its actions in Syria to lead Iran to bid the nuclear negotiations adieu. Senior U.S. officers have said that the reason U.S bombers are not hitting ISIS installations located close to other Syrian opposition groups, so that these groups can benefit and control these locations, is that some of these non-Islamists would turn their guns against Assad.

After 11 years of American and Iraqi blood, sweat and tears, unspeakable sacrifices, pain and sorrows, Iraq has an entrenched sectarian political system that is barely functioning, with America’s influence diminishing and Iran influence is on the ascendance. These are indeed strange days in the Middle East.

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

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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