Obama’s doctrine of passivity

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Once again, the Obama administration displayed its utter impotence in dealing with Russia’s savage war against the Syrian city of Aleppo, and was forced finally to muster enough indignation – after repeated public humiliations from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov- to suspend its “participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the Cessation of Hostilities” in Syria.

It took a year of Russian military rampaging, accompanied by open deception and promises never meant to be honored, for President Obama and his team to come close but not close enough to consider Russia part of the problem and not part of the solution.

This decision was made on Monday. But by Wednesday the diplomatic itch has overtaken the peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry, who dialed his partner Lavrov on the other side of darkness to discuss Syria for the umpteenth time.

“Engagement remains,” intoned the spokesperson of the State Department trying to spin a sophist interpretation: the bilateral engagement regarding Syria, “doesn’t preclude the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Lavrov from talking.” What remains also at the State Department and the White House is an abundance of illusions, wishful thinking and denial of hard realities. In the meantime, death was hovering over Aleppo, claiming in two weeks more than 400 people, including at least one hundred children.

One can see that Aleppo will continue to burn, while the words will continue to gush from President Obama and his two old Senate colleagues, with no discernible effect on what is happening in the real cruel world.

Hisham Melhem

By mid-week, the plumbers at certain government agencies were given the mission of leaking to the media that the Principals Committee, and later the Deputies Committee representing the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met to discuss military options including strikes against the forces of the Syrian regime to punish it, and to force it to sue for peace.

The leaks were laughable and insulting at the same time, because even the supporters of punitive strikes against the forces of the Syrian tyrant, were quick to assert that President Obama remained an immovable object on the issue of striking the Syrian regime. When a Russian military spokesperson warned US military planners that they should “carefully consider the possible consequences” of such an attack, the State Department responded meekly that such Russian threats “are not helpful”, and reiterated along with the White House that the US is not seeking to escalate militarily in Syria.

But, seriously who would take these leaks at face value? How many times in the last 5 years we heard this nauseating refrain that the Obama Administration is considering military options in Syria?

The abandonment of Syria

The blunt truth is that President Obama who declared at the beginning of the conflict that Syria is “somebody else’s civil war” and who may say now words to the effect that “I don’t own Syria” will not do anything significant to save Aleppo, particularly if it requires the use of force, even though, he knows that Syria will tarnish his legacy. Four months from now, when Obama leaves the White House, the American abandonment of Syria will be complete, probably with him watching stoically the fall of Aleppo, while denying any moral or political responsibility.

The passivity of the Obama Administration, and its refusal to give President Assad his well-deserved comeuppance, and the reluctance to deter Iran’s ambitions in Iraq and Lebanon, and finally, the overall “political and financial” approach to the brazen Russian occupation of Crimea, all have combined to create the impression that the Obama Administration is weak and feeble. And President Obama, has no one else to blame but himself. In dealing with states ruled by unscrupulous autocrats, populists and strongmen, Machiavelli’s dictum that “it is much safer to be feared than loved” should be headed, if the President is to be treated with respect and not held in contempt.

In many parts of the world, but definitely in Russia and the Middle East President Obama is seen as the man who can talk the talk, but not walk the walk. He failed his first test with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue of building settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Netanyahu, decided to bid Obama farewell, by announcing the building of new settlements after securing $38 Billion in US military aid over 10 years. He failed the test of checking and blunting the corrosive and dangerous sectarian policies that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki pursued with tragic consequences for Iraqis and Americans. He spectacularly failed the test of standing up to the tinhorn dictator in Damascus, with devastating consequences, first and foremost to millions of Syrians, the peoples of the neighboring states and the faraway European societies. So much for Syria, being “somebody else’s civil war”.

Words, words, words

Senators are talkers; and the legislative process is radically different from the executive process. The three most senior positions in this Administration are occupied by former senators. Between them, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary Kerry have 60 years of service in the Senate. President Obama did not even finish his first term. But the three of them act sometimes as if words are synonymous with actions. Words are always gushing from them, and there is nothing that cannot be explained, justified or obfuscated by words.

President Obama can deliver a speech about the concept of Responsibility to Protect (RtP) innocent civilians from genocide and war crimes, but can argue and litigate for an eternity to justify not helping the civilians of Syria by asking for absolute (unattainable) guarantees from his aides that there will be no adverse consequences. He used similar arguments to deny the people of Ukraine American arms for self-defense. A wise ruler of a great power should be deliberate and cautious, but Obama’s caution leads to immobility. The fear of adverse consequences was used to justify not punishing Assad’s regime, (for fear of Iran’s reaction “in the form of IED’s” against American personnel, military and civilians deployed in Iraq).

When the Iranian Navy captured ten American sailors who lost their way in the Gulf and entered Iranian territorial waters, the sailors were treated as prisoners of war; they were filmed (illegally) and humiliated publicly. The White House did not denounce the treatment publically, and Secretary of State Kerry spoke with his counterpart Javad Zarif to secure their release. A senior official in the Administration then, lamented to me that President Obama did not realize what the humiliating footage (and Iran avoiding the consequences) would do to the reputation of the US in countries like North Korea and China.

Russia’s week in Washington

By the end of the week, Secretary Kerry, who spent a year chasing and courting the Russians for cooperation in Syria, finally saw the light and accused Russia and Syria of committing war crimes because of their deliberate bombing of hospitals, and killing of women and children. But one may be excused to doubt the resolve of this administration to carry out such a threat until its logical conclusion. One wonders if Kerry was aware of his ironic position when he was denouncing the savagery of Russia’s Air Force, the same Air Force that he was willing to cooperate with against another set of enemies.

This was in a way Russia’s week in Washington. On Friday, America’s Intelligence agencies took the unprecedented decision of directly accusing Russia of hacking the computer systems of American organizations, institutions and individuals to interfere in the upcoming US elections, as was evident from leaking emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other entities. It took the Obama Administration four months to point the finger to Russia. The initial reaction from the Administration confirms the reluctance of the White House to extract a price from Russia for going where no other government had dared to go in the past, to influence American elections.

Russia’s contempt for the Obama Administration is based in part on their analysis of Obama’s Modus Operandi, and it was also on full display this week. Russian officials in Moscow and at their embassy in Washington were poking fun at American officials, while they were engaged in peddling wild accusations against the US such as claiming that the American Air Force bombed Syrian soldiers intentionally few weeks ago in Eastern Syria, when the US vehemently denied that and admitted to a mistake. The eagerness of the Obama Administration, particularly Secretary Kerry to accommodate Russia in Syria, and avoid challenging Moscow’s destructive policies in the Ukraine has raised a lot of eyebrows among American observers and officials in friendly countries. Secretary Kerry became a frequent flyer to Moscow where he appeared at times as if he will pitch a tent at the Kremlin; he flew many times to Geneva to pursue the implementation of the cessation of hostilities and diplomatic progress in Syria, even though his Russian interlocutor rarely kept his word. I heard disparaging words about Kerry “who has diminished this building” from career diplomats at State.

Looking ahead at the next four months, one can see that Aleppo will continue to burn, while the words will continue to gush from President Obama and his two old Senate colleagues, with no discernible effect on what is happening in the real cruel world.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for 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 Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. 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 US-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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