The American people have punished Obama for his weakness

The Republican-dominated Congress intends to rob Obama of the means to achieve a legacy

Raghida Dergham

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The Republican-dominated Congress intends to rob Obama of the means to achieve a legacy, which Obama plans to weave through the nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Republican Congress wants to freeze Barack Obama’s historical legacy at the moment he had threatened, pledged, and then backtracked in the 11th hour, when he effaced his own red line that he had threatened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with, following accusations against the latter of using chemical weapons against his own people. The U.S. people punished Barack Obama for his weakness.

The U.S. people came to believe they were deceived by the candidate Obama, whose electoral campaign had presented him as a strong and determined leader capable of delivering change and maintaining U.S. exceptionalism. American voters gave the Republicans in the election last Tuesday the mandate to put pressure on Obama, but it is not yet clear whether the American people are ready to move from the comfortable isolationism under Obama in the direction of confrontation that intimidates the U.S. people under the Republicans. Clearly, the Americans do not want to be dragged into other people’s wars, and do not want to send soldiers to fight. As is known, the decision to go to war, in the end, is in the president’s – and not Congress’s – hands. However, what U.S. foreign policy will witness in the next two years will not be business as usual. To be sure, the Republican Congress intends to pave the way for a Republican in the White House, by highlighting the incompetence of the Obama administration and of Obama himself, and challenging his foreign policy, beginning with Iran and Syria, and not ending with Russia and China. Barack Obama’s date with history will suffer many a setback, if it is indeed in his intention to get there through Tehran.

U.S. schizophrenia is evident from the fact that Americans want their country to be powerful with exceptional global interests and privileges, yet do not want to offer sacrifices

Raghida Dergham

Barack Obama thought that he had read well the mood of the Americans and their priorities, and that he had done well by withdrawing quickly from Iraq and Afghanistan, and by refusing to become involved in Syria. He thought that the American people would thank him for honoring their isolationist tendencies and by entrusting foreign policy to traditional institutions such as the CIA and the new agencies created following the attacks of 9/11, specifically the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees 22 different agencies.

Waging airstrikes

Barack Obama thought that he did well by adopting a strategy based on waging airstrikes without boots on the ground, and by using drones that do not capture the attention of the American people although they kill people all the same. These wars are out of sight, and do not provoke the Americans. Obama thought this is exactly what the Americans wanted.

The economy is better. Unemployment is lower. Terrorism did not return to U.S. soil. However, even the three states that benefited from the healthcare system known as Obamacare, which dramatically reduced insurance premiums, punished Obama, with Arkansas, West Virginia, and Kentucky voting for Republicans.

The American character is suffering from schizophrenia at this period of history. The Americans had voted in a man who was preacher-like, and had great oratorical skills. They knew he was not an experienced leader or politician. They knew he was the product of the streetwise political game in Chicago rather than the path of gradually increasing experience leading to political wisdom.

Perhaps the thing that infuriated the Americans the most against Obama was his weak personality, which exposed the tenuousness of his promises as a candidate. Americans always want their president to be a powerful leader, taken very seriously in the world, and do not like for their president to be reluctant or stubborn. Obama has gained himself a reputation for both dithering and stubbornness, and lost his international prestige after he backtracked from his red lines.

U.S. schizophrenia

The U.S. schizophrenia is evident from the fact that Americans want their country to be powerful with exceptional global interests and privileges, yet do not want to offer sacrifices and do not want to be engaged. Americans take pride in that they are superior to everyone else when it comes to human rights and ethics, yet they do not agonize over turning a blind eye to U.S. violations in covert wars or by sitting idly by vis-à-vis the atrocities in Syria, one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in this era.

Perhaps history will note later that Barack Obama’s policies, which seemed for many to be ignorant or weak, were in fact shrewd in the way that characterizes the policies of institutions that design the long-term strategy of the United States. He is the man who sat in the back seat of these institutions, including the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA. Perhaps what happened in Syria was not innocent when President Obama refused to engage. Maybe history will record later that the United States under Barack Obama implicated Russia and Iran together in Syria, where Syria has became the equivalent of Iran’s Vietnam and a trap for Russian arrogance.

So far, the Obama administration has succeeded in preventing terrorism on U.S. soil. Former President George W. Bush fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent terrorism from returning to American cities, and succeeded. The difference between the two administrations is that the Bush administration had fought costly wars with money and American soldiers to achieve its goals, while the Obama administration outsourced those wars to others and their soldiers, yet this also prevented the return of terrorism to American cities.

Wrong policy

The Republicans believe that the Obama administration has been pursuing the wrong policy on Syria, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah and their various levels of involvement in Syria. They do not approve the theory of implicating Russia and Iran in Syria, to hand the latter over to them only after it becomes fragmented, torn, and infested with all kinds of extremism and terrorism, making Syria their problem rather than the U.S.’s problems. The Republicans believe that Syria’s transformation into a fertile ground for terrorism and ISIS threatens U.S. national interests in the Middle East and increases the likelihood of terrorism making a comeback on U.S. soil. They believe that Barack Obama’s reluctance to engage in Syria early on to topple Bashar al-Assad had radically contributed to turning Syria into a dangerous hotbed for global terrorism. The Republicans blame Obama and call on him to implement his declared policy; otherwise, they will hold him accountable whenever they get the chance.

The Republicans’ view is that the Obama administration must demand Moscow and Tehran to stop playing their game in Syria. They welcome the use of oil price cuts to weaken Russia and Iran, and insist on seeing the Obama administration go forward with these policy instruments. This is in addition to sustaining the sanctions on Russia – because of Ukraine – and Iran because of its nuclear program. They also want to expand the scope of the sanctions on Iran to cover its unlawful intervention in Syria and Iraq, and perhaps even in Yemen and Lebanon, where the Islamic republic is violating a U.N. Security Council resolution barring it under Chapter VII from exporting weapons, military equipment, and troops outside its borders.

They also want more firmness with China in various areas, and to stop exempting it from accountability over its position on Iran. China is able to import oil from Iran despite the international sanctions imposed on Tehran thanks to implicit U.S. approval. The Republicans want this reconsidered, especially in light of expectations that Iran intends to reject any nuclear agreement that would not recognize its nuclear capabilities and that would include its long-range missiles in the terms of the agreement.

Preventing a nuclear deal

The Republican Congress is determined to prevent a nuclear deal with Iran in its current format, and will do everything in its power to thwart a nuclear agreement that would meet Iranian demands. This is a priority to the Republican Congress. Even if President Obama were to approve an agreement opposed by Congress, he would be repeating what happened with former President Bill Clinton, who agreed to the Kyoto protocol before Congress refused to ratify it.

Iran is probably one of the biggest losers in the U.S. midterm elections, which gave the Republicans a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Most likely, Senator John McCain will be appointed as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Republicans will then pursue a strategy of tightening the screws on defense minister Chuck Hagel.

The Republicans realize, though they will not admit it publicly, that the war on ISIS in Iraq may at some point require U.S. soldiers on the ground. Some say this could be inevitable because air strikes alone will not be enough. President Obama suggested he could head to Congress to obtain broader powers to wage war on ISIS. He said that Iraq is a priority in the war on ISIS to expel the radical group from Iraq. As for Syria, President Obama is pursuing a strategy of “isolating extremists,” rather than a strategy that would find a comprehensive solution fro the situation in Syria in general, as he said. He might elaborate this later when the Republican Congress will start to interrogate him and hold his feet to the fire, about this issue.

Lebanon may benefit from the Republican control of Congress, because the Lebanese-American community is mostly Republican leaning or consists of Democrats who are opposed to Obama. Under a Republican Congress, developments in Lebanon will be raised more and will receive more attention.

Turkey will benefit because the Republicans will support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on clarity regarding the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, and they believe that the Turkish role is crucial in the war on ISIS, and therefore will find there is no alternative to accepting Turkish demands. On the other hand, the Republicans intend to put pressure on Qatar, which - like Turkey – has alleged ties to various organizations such as al-Nusra Front or ISIS, as the Republicans believe Qatar’s supposed support for such groups harms U.S. interests. Furthermore, Qatar’s support for Hamas hurts the chances for reaching Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

Behind Israel

The Republicans traditionally are behind Israel no matter what it does. For this reason, the Palestinians will suffer under a Republican Congress, and will have to draft a new strategy that takes this development into consideration. President Obama failed to establish a legacy where history would have credited him for achieving Palestinian-Israeli peace at the start of his term. This was his first test as a U.S. president, and ultimately, he proved that he knew little about the reality of the political landscape in the United States when it came to Israel.

The continued construction of Israeli settlements and recent events in Jerusalem may seriously impede better ties between the Gulf states and the Republican Congress because of the radical difference in attitudes over the Palestinian - Israeli conflict. On the other hand, regarding the positions of the Republican Congress on Syria, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, the Gulf states welcome them as they converge with their own attitudes in more than one area.

In the Middle East, like in the United States, Barack Obama entered the White House and in parallel, people’s hearts, minds, hopes, and aspirations. Today, those who celebrated him at the time, share the same assessment that the American voters had of Barack Obama’s performance. They believe that this man, with his charming persona and promises, has disappointed, and is unreliable and has no popularity, all things of his own doing.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on November 7, 2014, 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.

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