The burden of empire, the price of leadership

President Obama will bequeath to his successor a shattered and infinitely more tormented Middle East than the one he had inherited

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Light years separate the depth of alienation and disillusionment felt by many Arabs and Muslims today and the high expectations of the promised ‘New Beginning’ in relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds that was embodied in President Obama’s speeches in Ankara and Cairo in 2009.

Many in the Middle East were willing to suspend their entrenched cynicism and even their harsh judgements of the United States just to partake in that fleeting moment of enthusiasm ushered in by the young ‘transformational’ American president.

Barack Hussein Obama, came, saw, smiled, wowed and almost conquered. But it was not meant to be. The infatuation was brief and the encounter was never consummated. The American president was no Caesar, and when he realized that the world he was beginning to discover was about to become more forbidden and more unforgiven, he flinched.

Never before had so many allies of the United States in the Middle East been so disenchanted with a sitting president. America’s relations with Egypt are strained; its special relations with Israel are tense, the old alliance with Turkey is fraying and the once close political and strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE is under mounting pressure.

President Obama will bequeath to his successor a shattered and infinitely more tormented Middle East than the one he had inherited

Hisham Melhem

And after the tremendous American investment in Iraq since 2003 both human and material, alienation and mistrust are setting in. To be sure, some of the men hurtling the region towards the abyss are duplicitous, devious and merciless, and some of the long term political, social, and economic trends are alarming, yet what the U.S. did and did not do in the last few years in that tortured region stretching from the Hindu Kush Mountains to the Maghreb is partly responsible for its current tumults, wars and unfulfilled promises. By not checking Iran’s influence in the region, and by not helping to stop the atrocities of the Assad regime, the U.S. is alienating, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. The Obama administration obvious eagerness to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, is seen by these countries and others as a naïve willingness to go too far on the road of accommodating a predatory regime.

Admittedly, the region that President Obama inherited from President George W. Bush was mostly broken. The two longest wars in America’s history in Afghanistan and Iraq have sapped its military and exposed the flawed political judgment of its political leadership. Gaza was literally burning, from another brutal pounding by Israel when Obama sat for the first time behind the Oval office. And what transpired between Palestinians and Israelis later on was a slow process towards more conflicts, more Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands by Benjamin Netanyahu the duplicitous, race baiting Israeli Prime Minister, and a corrupt and ossified Palestinian Authority that can barely functions and a reckless in the extreme Hamas rule in Gaza. It is doubtful, that the President will stick to his current threat that the U.S. will re-asses or re-evaluate its positions and options regarding Israeli settlements, or seeking a resolution from the Security Council about a two state solution based on the 1967 borders. In past confrontations with Netanyahu, the president did flinch when he was in the right morally and politically.

Some Arab autocrats, including those depending on American largess established the kind of order and quiet associated with cemeteries, for others political stagnation appeared to hide temporarily the tremendous explosions that will happen later. Militant and jihadist Islamists were on the rise, and the ambers of sectarianism were quietly smoldering. Iran was on the ascendency, and laying down the necessary infrastructure for the realization of what it sees as its ‘manifest destiny’; regional dominance.

That was the week that was

A week in the life of the region exposes its violent fissures. From one end of the Arab world to the other a long trail of blood connected innocent people while contemplating Holiness in Mosques and admiring aesthetics in a Museum. Islamist extremists killed more than 130 Zaydi Shiite worshipers during Friday prayer in Sanaa, Yemen. Even mosques, have lost their sanctity. Similar extremists stormed the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and massacred 20 foreign tourists and 3 Tunisians, threatening the only democratic, albeit fragile polity that had emerged from the long nightmarish season of Arab uprisings.

Within one week, the world continued to watch impotently the gradual slide of Libya and Yemen towards civil wars. And as if to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Syria’s calamitous war and its slow agonizing disintegration, the lisping, fire breathing and bearer of barrel bombs Bashar Assad, decided to once again send his air force to drop chlorine gas bombs on Syrian civilians. All the while Iraq continued to drift in Iran’s orbit, with its political leadership content to abdicate its responsibilities to Iran’s viceroy in Iraq and the commander of the Shiite brigades (Iranians, Iraqis and Lebanese) General Qasem Soleimani to lead the charge to ‘liberate’ Tikrit and other Sunni areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) which took Sunni extremism to unimaginable levels, thus heightening and deepening the sectarian strife in the region. A sense of entitlement permeates this new-old and lazy Iraqi leadership. More than ten years ago, Iraq officials expected the American military to deliver to them a modern, functioning new state to rule and enjoy. Today, the new masters, the Iranians and their Shiite legionnaires (is there a Persian equivalent to the Turkish Janissaries?) are expected to fight on their behalf and to deliver them from ISIS.

In the same week, an international economic conference was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, to support Egypt, another Arab state suffering from a sense of entitlement and the syndrome of ‘too big to fail’ in its ceaseless quest for internal political and economic stability and elusive regional role. As a sign of the new times, the major donors to Egypt are the UAE and Saudi Arabia, a fact that explains Washington’s diminishing role in Egypt, and the growing estrangement between Cairo and Washington.

To lead or not to lead, that is the question

President Obama, more than any previous president since the U.S. assumed world leadership after WWII, is hobbled by what he sees as the limits of American power. His exercise of military power has been limited, tentative and hesitant. But more fundamentally, it seems that he does not believe that the U.S. is still capable of achieving great things in the world by itself if necessary or by leading coalitions. The ‘leading from behind’ during the Libya campaign and the current limited air campaign against ISIS are emblematic of his leadership. There is a widespread sense in the Middle East and beyond that this president is reluctant to accept as a given that the sole superpower in the world has to bear the burden of empire and be prepared when vital national security interests are at stake to pay the price of leadership. I am not talking about an open ended and potentially dangerous commitment to ‘bear any burden, meet any hardship…’ a la President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, but about the deliberate, rational and cold exercise of political and military leadership in a world where states like Russia, China, North Korea, Syria and Iran can and will threaten U.S and allied interests through conventional and unconventional means.

And since European states, with the exception of France are reluctant or unwilling to use military force, (it was U.S. leadership not European that stopped the first mass killings of civilians on European soil since the Holocaust, during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s) that means the President of the United States has to have the mantel of leadership. President Obama’s aversion to the use of military power, as evidenced by his retreat from his commitments to strike the military assets of the Syrian regime following its use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, approaches a religious dogma. His commitment to withdraw military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan (and I believed that the war in Iraq was unnecessary and the Afghan campaign was badly managed and unnecessarily prolonged) did cloud his judgement about military surges with timed exists, and leaving Iraq without pushing hard for a residual force; decisions that were as unwise as allowing his red lines in Syria to be trampled upon unpunished. Watching the way the Obama administration is managing Syria, Iraq and Iran as well as the Ukraine crisis, one can say that America’s foes don’t fear its power, and America’s friends don’t feel secure by its power.

What legacy?

President Obama’s dithering on Syria, and his misleading way of framing his choices there as either doing nothing or invading with ‘boots on the ground’, not to mention his unfulfilled threats and promises, his less than honest pledges to help and train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, have contributed significantly to making Syria the worst man-made disaster in the twenty first century. By now most people know the shocking statistics; more than 225,000 Syrian killed, almost 4 million refugees, and almost 8 million internally displaced. When Assad used chlorine as a weapon against civilians, few days ago, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is ‘deeply disturbed’ and that the administration is ‘looking very closely into this matter and considering next steps.’ Seriously? This is the same leader that CIA director John Brennan said during this week that the U.S. does not want to see his regime collapse, because this would raise ‘a legitimate concern’ and open the possibility for ISIS and other Jihadists to march on Damascus. Is there a better way to embolden a regime that continues to kill more Syrians than ISIS?

The combination of Obama’s refusal to intervene (to stop the killings, protect the interests of Syria’s neighbors, most of whom are traditional friends of America, and to guard against the spread of terrorism to Europe and the U.S) and the boundless brutality of the Assad regime, has led to the rise of the genocidal ISIS. By not hitting the Assad regime, the very magnet that attracted ISIS and the foreign jihadists to Syria, and by not helping the moderate opposition to fight ISIS and the regime together, ISIS was able to expand to Iraq, a development that provided Iran with a historic opportunity to expand its military and political influence in both Syria and Iraq.

As things are unfolding in the region, and as America’s ability and willingness to exercise effective leadership to shape the present and influence the future remain in doubt, one can safely say that President Obama will bequeath to his successor a shattered and infinitely more tormented Middle East than the one he had inherited.

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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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