President Obama under siege

Hisham Melhem
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The European Union is angry, and Germany in particular is livid. Brazil and Mexico are very upset. Iraq and Afghanistan are afraid. Turkey is confused. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are frustrated. Syria’s rebels are disillusioned. Some of America’s friends in East Asia feel slighted. This range of emotions was either actively created by the Obama Administration and/or passively allowed to fester. What makes this phenomenon unique is that most of these countries are allies or partners who find themselves alienated from an American administration perceived to be slowly disengaging from some of its old international responsibilities, and reluctant to exercise bold leadership. The National Security Agency’s spying program on European and other allies, President Obama’s botched Syria policy following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in August, which angered regional and European allies, his episodic involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq where the limited political and security gains achieved in America’s two longest wars are quickly evaporating, and his approach to the crisis in Egypt and Iran’s nuclear program which have alienated the Gulf states and Israel; highlights Obama’s isolation and the unfulfilled promise of a “transformational” administration.

By the end of the first year, in his second term, president Obama finds his foreign policies roundly criticized by an international chorus of strong voices that read from the same musical sheet, but with more than one conductor taking turns. For President Obama to alienate countries in almost every continent is striking to say the least given his public persona and his past pronouncements on international relations and America’s commitments. For Obama to anger strong allies like Germany, France and Spain, countries that fought alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and against al-Qaeda by conducting widespread monitoring and espionage operations including tapping the private telephone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to court resentment. For Obama to threaten Trans-Atlantic relations, given that in June 2008 he was the presidential candidate that hundreds of thousands of youths hailed as the antithesis to George W. Bush, in Germany of all places, is ironic in the extreme. Obama, then projected himself as the man who will improve America’s relations with Europe, frayed because of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and with a Muslim world estranged not only by the horrendous war in Iraq but also by a war against the amorphous “Islamic extremism,” instead of focusing on eliminating the terrorists of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It was close to where the Berlin Wall once stood that Obama intoned “In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in the world rather than a force to help make it right has become all too common.”


For countries to spy on each other’s is a given and that includes those in the categories of friends and allies, although the U.S. has a no-spying agreement with four old English speaking allies; Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, known as the Five Eyes. But even spying on friends has some informal rules and limits. That is why for the U.S. to monitor the cell phone conversation of a close ally as German Chancellor Merkel, and “scoop” millions of calls in France and Spain, with or without the knowledge of President Obama is such an egregious and unprecedented violation. The non-denial, denial of the White House and the claim that the U.S. is not spying now on Merkel confirmed that the NSA did spy on the German Chancellor in the past. The flippant reaction of some congressional leaders did not help matters either. Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee criticized the reaction of European leaders as ‘disingenuous’. In fact he was expecting the French people to be grateful that the U.S. is conducting espionage in France “It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe; it keeps the U.S. safe…”

The damage

The negative effects of these Intelligence operations, when their full scope becomes clearer will linger on for some time, and they may cause some lasting damage to the trust that is the glue that kept the trans-Atlantic relations for such a long time. There will be political, intelligence, economic and legal ramifications. Germany and France will send Intelligence delegations to Washington seeking explanations, and guarantees that this kind of intrusive monitoring should stop.

When Obama realized that the complex crises and difficult problems besetting the region require sustained, steady and strong leadership, he flinched

Hisham Melhem

The scandal could disrupt intelligence sharing of anti-terrorism data, European restriction on U.S. owned internet firms and even threatens trade initiatives with the EU. Moreover, a rift, even a temporary one between the EU and the U.S. at a time when both sides are still struggling to overcome the last economic recession, and when the shift in economic power from the Western world to East Asia and the rise of other regional powers like Brazil is accelerating, not to mention a more assertive Russia, is especially troubling. The relative economic decline of the U.S. and the EU, countries that share much more than economic interests, calls for a full restoration of confidence and those political and cultural values that are at the core of their political systems, open societies, soft power and liberal heritage.

Obama turns his back on the Middle East

President Obama’s style of international leadership; tentative, hesitant, inconsistent and ad-hoc has created a political wreckage on the world stage somewhat reminiscent of the one created by George W. Bush in the wake of invading Iraq. The disillusionment stretches from Latin America, to Europe, the Middle East all the way to Asia. But nowhere is the disillusionment is painfully felt than in the Middle East. The president went to Cairo in June 2009 to address the whole Muslim world, offering lofty and inspirational words, promising a “new beginning” and pledging to undo the damage that his predecessor has wrought.

Unfortunately, Obama’s words were never translated into deeds. And when he realized that the complex crises and difficult problems besetting the region require sustained, steady and strong leadership, he flinched. It was painful to watch the president of the United States in the oval office listening silently to the prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu lecturing him for more than 7 minutes about how he should see and deal with the Palestine-Israel conflict. His Middle Eastern leadership and promises began to unravel when he was stiffed by Netanyahu over the issue of settlement freeze. His extended hand and “engagement” with Iran and Syria led nowhere, then came the season of Arab uprisings. The president did the right thing initially in Egypt, when he called a week after the Jan. 25, 2011 demonstration for a “transition” to a post Hosni Mubarak era. However, during the subsequent weeks and months his leadership style allowed for contradictory moves, and later on during the reign of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces SCAF and the brief presidency of Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood he exhibited reluctance to strongly articulate a clear strategy towards Egypt and the other uprisings stating what the U.S. expects from them and what it will do to help, and more importantly what it will not accept or tolerate. The fact that The Obama administration failed to strongly condemn the gross human rights violations of both regimes has alienated many Egyptians. After the overthrow of Mursi, President Obama finds himself being blamed by the pro-military forces and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood. President Obama was a reluctant warrior, “leading from behind” during the Libyan conflict.

However, President Obama’s most egregious failure was in his dealing with the Syrian tragedy which has claimed at least 120,000 dead, mostly civilians. Obama’s moral ambivalence here is astonishing. By allowing the Syrian war to fester for more than two years, the reluctance of the U.S. to play a constructive role (short of deploying troops) created a political/security vacuum the radical atavistic Islamists were only happy to fill. A few months after the peaceful uprising began, Obama called on Assad to step down, but he did nothing to make that a reality. More than a year ago he threatened a strong reaction if the Syrian President Assad crossed a virtual “red line” by using chemical weapons against the rebels. When U.S. intelligence agencies initially confirmed the use of chemical weapons Obama acted as if he was in denial. After the horrors of the August chemical attack made moral ambivalence too embarrassing, Obama found himself forced to unsheathe his sword, but only temporarily, when he went through a series of embarrassing and conflicting moves, then finally landing on a raft provided by Assad’s principal international accomplice, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Syrian debacle worsened Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as with Turkey and Israel. Already, the Gulf states (and Israel) are concerned because they were not consulted sufficiently before the beginning of contacts and negotiations between the U.S. as part of the P5+1 and Tehran over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. While the U.S. should pursue any diplomatic mean to resolve this conflict with Iran peacefully, the Obama administration, given its proclivity to compromise under pressure (domestically and internationally) should recognize that its regional allies have legitimate concerns and fears that it could reach an agreement that will allow Iran to maintain enough nuclear capabilities to manufacture nuclear weapons in a relatively short time. A recent policy review of the U.S. approach to the problems of the Middle East confirms what many observers have sensed in recent years, that the Obama administration is turning its gaze away from the region. This is not only the so-called pivot to Asia (even some Asian countries were miffed by Obama’s slow move on this track and his cancelation of some stops during his last trip to the region). President Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, confirmed the shift saying “ we can’t be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is” she added that Obama “thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region.” President Obama has totally abandoned the ambitious role he had envisioned for the United States in the Middle East in the speeches he delivered in Ankara and Cairo.

The current tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States (over Syria, Egypt and Iran) is the worst since the Arab oil embargo following the October war 40 years ago. The people and the governments of the Middle East should realize that President Obama has, on the whole, disengaged intellectually and emotionally from the region where he sees only intractable problems. Obama’s leadership style, more akin to a professor than the leader of the only indispensable country in the world, has alienated the United States from large swaths of the world.

This article was first published in al-Nahar on Oct. 31, 2013.


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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