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Obama in the Middle East: What we’ve got here is failure… of leadership

It was a week of embarrassments that highlighted the abject failure of the Obama administration in the Middle East

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The scene was surreal. The burly General was clearly uncomfortable; his body language and words betrayed his embarrassment. He was about to unintentionally indict the overall policy of his Commander-in-Chief regarding the war in Syria. Those interrogating him were incredulous.

Last Wednesday, Army General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the air campaign in Iraq and Syria, told the stunned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the 10-month, $500 million U.S. program to train and equip 5400 moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria had yielded a ‘small number’ of fighters, acknowledging a ‘slow start’ to an effort that was dubbed by its many critics as quixotic.

If these allegations are proven to be true, they will elevate the Obama administration’s deceptive tactics to almost ‘Nixonian’ proportions.

Hisham Melhem

How many fighters were trained? The General shifted and hesitated before he blurted a sentence he will surely live to regret: “the ones that are in the fight, we are talking four or five”.

One Senator called the program “a total failure”, while another said it is a “joke”. Senator John McCain, the chairman of the committee, may have expressed the views of most members when he said “I’ve been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years and I’ve never heard testimony like this. Never.”

But the General stuck to his talking points, claiming that the campaign by a coalition of sixty countries led by the United States against ISIS has been “extraordinarily effective” against the terrorists, ignoring the fact that at best the results have been mixed, in the ebb and flow of fighting with ISIS retreating from some areas, while advancing on other fronts including the occupation of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra.

Nixonian proportions

General Austin’s testimony came after a group of intelligence analysts complained officially that their assessments of the war on ISIS have been manipulated by senior officers at Centcom – the military command that oversees the effort against the jihadist group – in order to paint a positive picture of the war that is in sync with the public assessments of the Obama administration.

General Austin said he will take “appropriate action” after the Inspector General of the Department of Defense concludes his investigation. He denied “absolutely” ordering such manipulation or distortion of intelligence assessments. If these allegations are proven to be true, they – along with the doublespeak of the administration regarding who ultimately should be held responsible for the program to train and equip Syrian rebels – will elevate the Obama administration’s deceptive tactics to almost ‘Nixonian’ proportions.

That surreal scene was only one act in a week of embarrassments that highlighted the abject failure of the Obama administration in the Middle East and its pathetic attempts at avoiding responsibility for its actions.

But instead of being chastened by General Austin’s revelations, and own the failure, the White House doubled down and circled the wagons to shield the President from criticism. In an act of shameless audacity, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest repeatedly said that President Obama was initially skeptical of the program and reluctantly agreed to it, and accused those whom convinced the President to adopt the program – including cabinet members and the CIA director in his first term – of being responsible for its utter failure.

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. Then came the “devil made me do it” defense: “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

It is as if the President of the United States lacks human agency. If the President did not believe in the merit of the program why did he approve it? He had the option of rejecting it, or proposing an alternative. And now he is abdicating his responsibility. But this should not be surprising since it is part of his modus operandi; this is the flipside of “leading from behind” that the doomed military intervention in Libya gave us. There too, Obama was the reluctant leader, unwilling to be in the front responsible for the military campaign and its aftermath. But just as he abandoned Libya in the post-Qaddafi phase, he abandoned Syria repeatedly and shamelessly while pretending to be caring and engaging.

Checkmate

The week began with Secretary of State John Kerry making his third phone call to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in 10 days, expressing concerns about stepped up military support for the Assad regime, and complaining about the deployment of Russian forces and new weapons at an air base in the coastal city of Latakia, in western Syria.

Once again the Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised President Obama by his military buildup in Syria, just as he surprised him with his takeover of Crimea from the Ukraine. The administration sought initially, but probably halfheartedly, to deny Russia the air corridors to deploy men and materiel in Syria through European air space, but Russia outmaneuvered and embarrassed the Obama administration by using the airspace of both Iran and Iraq to reach Syria.

Once again Putin acts, and Obama reacts. Putin plays chess, and Obama plays checkers. Sources say that Putin considers Obama ‘weak’ and that Obama sees Putin as a ‘thug’. Both presidents are correct.

Hisham Melhem

One would like to listen to the conversations between American officials, and their supposed Iraqi allies about these activities. In the beginning of the week the Obama administration criticized Russia’s moves as provocative and with the possibility of leading to confrontations. Then it sought clarifications of Russia’s intentions, while expressing the usual “deep concerns”, one of its trademark expressions when facing overseas problems. And when Moscow proposed military-to-military talks about Syria, the administration said it will review the request, then by the end of the week it accepted it.

In few days, Putin gave Obama an offer on Syria he could not refuse, and succeeded in ending America’s suspension of military-to-military contacts with Russia imposed following the occupation of Crimea, and forced Washington to engage Russia on its terms.

If Obama agrees to a summit with Putin later this month at the United Nations, this will significantly lessen Russia’s isolation, and enhances Putin’s stature. Once again Putin acts, and Obama reacts. Putin plays chess, and Obama plays checkers. It has been said that sources close to both Putin and Obama say that Putin considers Obama ‘weak’ and that Obama sees Putin as a ‘thug’. Both presidents are correct.

In recent years Obama-administration officials would point to Russia’s economic woes, due to a sharp decline in energy prices and because of the Western sanctions imposed following the Crimea takeover, and then conclude that Putin lacks a strategic mind. Regardless of whether this is true or false, it looks like Putin this week may have checkmated Obama in Syria and elsewhere.

A legacy of terror and errors…

It may be a bit early to write about President Obama’s international legacy; but since all the crises that have faced Obama will remain with us until the end of next year – from the Ukraine, to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan – one can render some judgments with some certainty.

With the war in Syria in its fifth year Obama still does not have anything approaching a policy, let alone a strategy towards the war in Syria.

Hisham Melhem

The President’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba is clearly a positive achievement. The killing of Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders will be part of Obama’s legacy in confronting terrorism. But Obama’s war on ISIS has been marred by dithering, confusion and indecisiveness. A year ago Obama admitted “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat ISIS. With the war in Syria in its fifth year Obama still does not have anything approaching a policy, let alone a strategy towards the war in Syria. The air campaign against ISIS is settling into a stalemate, in part because the U.S. is not conducting the war as part of a comprehensive strategy that would include more U.S. and allied military muscle, deeper political engagement, soft power, counter messaging, and economic incentives. Obama’s reluctance to criticize human rights violations in the Middle East was clearly demonstrated during the “Green Revolution” in Iran in 2009. Later on there were shy and pro forma criticisms against violations of human rights in Arab states, Turkey and Iran.

… And abandonment

The nuclear agreement with Iran will be seen by Obama and his supporters as his most important prize. But many in the region will see the agreement with Iran as a contributing factor to the catastrophic chaos engulfing the region, since Iran is involved directly or indirectly in most of these conflicts.

Syria is no longer a conflict pulling its neighbors into its maelstrom; Syria today is a European problem too. And that too will be part of Obama’s legacy.

Hisham Melhem

Obama cannot escape partial responsibility for the tragedies in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The human toll in these countries has been staggering. Almost 15 million people have been displaced by the wars in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian refugees, numbering four million people in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, with hundreds of thousands in Europe or on the move. And seven million have been displaced inside Syria, and three million inside Iraq, in part as a result of intentional campaigns of sectarian and ethnic cleansing. Political approaches that might have worked in Syria and Iraq a few years ago are no longer achievable. The current chaos is in part the result of Obama’s inaction and dithering. Syria is no longer a conflict pulling its neighbors into its maelstrom; Syria today is a European problem too. And that too will be part of Obama’s legacy.

There are proposals and ideas that could at least slow the fragmentation of Syria and maybe Iraq, and alleviate the agonies of the civilians. These could include no-fly or safe zones that the U.S. – along with Turkey, Jordan and others – could set up and protect; there could also be serious efforts to work with certain non-Jihadi groups and minorities. But it is very unlikely that the Obama administration will seize any of them. From the beginning of the conflict, and despite his protestations to the contrary, Obama was never serious in trying to effectively help the Syrian people beyond providing much needed humanitarian aid. His half-baked attempt at helping the armed opposition was too little too late, because he never intended to help them overthrow their tormentor – the Assad regime. Just as Obama abandoned the Libyan people after the overthrow of Qaddafi, he abandoned the Syrian people to the depredation and savagery of the Assad regime. From the beginning of the conflict, Assad’s friends – the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah – were committed to his survival; unlike the friends of Syria, who met regularly, talked and then talked more, but were never committed to their victory against tyranny.

There is an iconic scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967) in which the prison warden played by Strother Martin, after striking Luke the main protagonist, played by Paul Newman, says: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”. One could say that one of America’s failures in the Middle East, historically, was communicating clearly its policies and strategies, assuming that they do exist. However, in the case of President Obama we would be more accurate if we paraphrase the warden’s sentence as: “What we’ve got here is failure of leadership.”

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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 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.