Je suis unavailable: Obama and the decline of U.S. soft power

It is hard to envision the kind of discussion that Obama’s aides undertook while deciding to miss the Paris rally

Joyce Karam
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“Showing up is 80 percent of life” remarked filmmaker and writer Woody Allen in 1977, a quote that if taken to heart could have saved the Barack Obama administration lot of woes and embarrassment in the way it approaches policy and politics across the globe. Obama’s failure to show up or send the vice or an ex-president to Paris’ massive rally on Sunday in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech, vividly illustrates the decline of U.S. soft power and absence of American leadership on the global stage.

In a world marred with human rights violations, battles against authoritarianism whether in the form of oppressive governments or terrorist groups, the Obama administration is seen as a spectator whose indifference is coming at expense of U.S. stature and influence. Today in the Middle East, Washington has turned a blind eye to grave human rights violations in almost every Arab country and Iran, limiting its role to no more than a negotiator, an arms provider, and a counterterrorism consultant. Even in Europe, where Obama declared to the people of Berlin in 2008 that “we are heirs to a struggle for freedom”, his words ring hollow against the surveillance activities of the administration and apathy to finding political solutions to conflicts endangering Europe’s security.


Cairo speech to ISIS

The irony in Obama’s no-show in Paris is it went unnoticed beyond Washington. Unfortunately, it has almost become a fait accompli around the world to expect very little from the Obama administration when it comes to addressing the defining challenges. From the Green movement in Iran to the Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to Syria, Egypt, Libya and almost every struggle in the Middle East, the Obama administration has turned its back when push came to shove. Hitting ISIS by F-16s stationed on giant aircraft carriers in the region is the new definition of American power and influence.

It is hard to envision the kind of discussion that Obama’s aides undertook while deciding to miss the Paris rally

Joyce Karam

It is a mind-boggling flip for a President who was celebrated in 2009 in his Cairo speech as a transformational figure to usher a new chapter for America across the Middle East. He was seen a someone who can bring a just peace to the Middle East, embrace democratic values without dictating or bombing them like his predecessor George W Bush. These hopes are all but dashed five years later, because the Obama administration backed down when Israel expanded settlements, when Assad used Chemical Weapons, and when transitions were disrupted in Egypt and Yemen.

The diplomatic void across the Middle East is being filled by nascent and sometimes destructive regional powers or terrorist organizations, while the expectations from Washington have hit a new low. In Syria, despite repeated warnings from many regional allies about the risk of radicalization, Obama chose to ignore the conflict until the rise of ISIS and al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The Peace Process is six feet under, and the new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is nonchalant about Washington’s requests. Arab dignitaries who visit the U.S. capital and meet with the administration describe their meetings as “very business like,” they mostly involve arm sales and intelligence sharing. The inspiring and charismatic Obama that many regional leaders adored in 2009 has evolved into a cold calculated negotiator.

Insular circle

It is hard to envision the kind of discussion that Obama’s aides undertook while deciding to miss the Paris rally. Seeing the king and queen of Jordan, the chancellor of Germany and the French president locked in arms, while the U.S. president and vice president were enjoying a sunny day in Washington is shocking and embarrassing for the U.S. public image. CNN noted that French President Jacques Chirac was the first to visit the United States after the September 9/11 attacks.

We might not know -until another Bob Woodward book- who inside the White House made the decision to stay out of Paris, but the list of detached and insular advisers around Obama runs very long. Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations has called on Obama to reshuffle his White House team following the Paris fiasco including the president’s close confidante Valerie Jarrett. But such requests have fallen on deaf ears since the midterms in November. The U.S. president, instead of stepping out of his comfort box and bringing in more experienced policymaking advisers, is hunkering down and insulating himself amongst his closed circle.

Missing the rally in Paris will remain a lasting stain on Obama’s legacy that cannot be undone or disowned. But in his last two years, Obama could change the trajectory of his ambivalent leadership and reassert what he said in Cairo in 2009 “to make the world we seek...where extremists no longer threaten our people...where governments serve their citizens.”


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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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