'Peace President' Obama paradoxically made the world more dangerous
DateJune 20, 2014
People blame the new horrors in Iraq on the American-led invasion in 2003. But the exact reason the country is in civil war today is because the Americans are not there. If US troops were still present, the fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) would not have swept through the north of the country and now be threatening Baghdad.
The US constitution forbids presidents from having more than two terms in office. This may be a valuable restraint on power, but it also means any two-term president stops governing soon after his re-election. Instead he tries to secure his ‘‘legacy’’. The more he thinks about this, the more it trickles away.
Barack Obama had a legacy earlier than any other US president. He was the first black President before he was even inaugurated. Soon after that, he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. From the start, he was supposed to go down in history as ‘‘the Peace President’’. This has all turned into a tremendous disadvantage.
Obama was right about the need to change tone after the presidency of George W. Bush. Some of the fierce antagonisms of the Bush era dissolved in his rhetoric. Europeans, in particular, felt what it said on the poster – ‘‘Hope’’. But in the Muslim world, the people who were bitterly anti-American for reasons way beyond the invasion of Iraq were not converted or even appeased. Nor did anti-Western wolves such as Vladimir Putin want to lie down with the new American lamb. They watched and waited to see what Obama would do.
He made lots of speeches, mostly good ones, but each slightly less interesting than the last. He held out the hand of friendship, but many people refused to take it and it began to hang a bit limp. America had no quarrel with Islam, he told audiences in Cairo and Istanbul, but this had no effect on those extreme Muslims who believe that Islam itself is, and always will be, a quarrel with the West.
The new American foreign stance was to be chilly towards friends and nicer towards enemies. Out went the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office, and the Obama administration sent no high representative to Lady Thatcher’s funeral. Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s most important allies in the Middle East, felt disrespected. There was a sharp contrast between Obama’s dropping of his country’s old friend Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in the face of the Arab Spring, and Putin’s staunch and successful defence of his ally, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria. In Iran, the country where pro-Western feeling is strongest among the population, Obama did nothing to fertilise the shoots of the ‘‘green revolution’’, and effectively let the Islamist regime develop its nuclear program unmolested.
And, of course, he did not like anything military. He withdrew from Iraq, leaving it without US troops and without proper intelligence, and began to do the same from Afghanistan. By a paradox that often afflicts leaders who shun military affairs, he ordered quite a number of deaths. He had Osama bin Laden killed and became the master of the drone strike. When he finally came round to the idea of doing something about Assad’s chemical weapons, he sought (and failed to get) what one critic in the Congress called ‘‘legislative authority for a drive-by shooting’’.
Obama is not a pacifist. He sees the utility of force in individual tricky situations. It would not be at all surprising if he uses a bit of it soon, in drone or aerial form, in Iraq. What he does not see is its strategic value. He does not grasp, apparently, that the Pax Americana, under whose protection we have lived since 1945, has existed because it has always been backed by the credible threat of force. Weakness is provocative to bad actors, and some of the world’s worst have now been provoked. This seems to have come as an almost complete surprise to the Obama White House. The Peace President is starting to leave a legacy of war.
In the case of Ukraine, the White House seemed to accept the false analysis that the place is a ‘‘failed state’’, riven by ethnic divisions, although far-right racist parties in its recent elections got far smaller percentages than they did in the Euro-elections in Greece or Hungary. And the great majority of those polled say they want to stay in Ukraine. America is not doing enough to shore up the country whose independence it accomplished. Putin’s changing of national boundaries by the threat of force (as happened in Crimea) and his attempts to incite civil war in eastern Ukraine are a serious attack on the agreed post-Cold War order of Europe. Yet Obama’s strongly worded protests have not produced much action. One can almost sympathise with Putin when he exclaimed: ‘‘I won’t take any more calls from that man.’’
In the case of Iraq, so great has been the White House preoccupation with not being Bush-like that it has no other policy. Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, famously invoked the ‘‘Pottery Barn rule’’ – ‘‘You break it, you own it’’. Obama thought he did not break it himself (which was true), and drew the mistaken conclusion that therefore he did not own it. He did own it, simply because he is President of the United States. When he disowned it, in 2011, he ensured it would break once more. No doubt his administration is right in all the hard things it lays at the door of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But that is no self-exculpation. America left the country to him, declaring it stable. Last week, Obama described the current situation as a ‘‘regional problem’’, which wrongly implies that it’s not much to do with him.
It could be that Obama truly believes American power can no longer be sustained in the world, though this is not what he says. It could even be that he is right. Certainly China is rising and the US is not, and he is wise to ‘‘pivot’’ to Asia with this in mind. But he does not have a scheme of orderly withdrawal from global responsibilities, or of better burden-sharing. Rather than reshaping existing institutions such as NATO for new circumstances, he tends to let them decay.
One suspects that his mental model for political change in the world comes from the civil rights movement in the US. In that history (or, at least, the myth of that history), peaceful moral suasion by the oppressed acted upon the consciences of the powerful. This is an important story for a great, free, self-improving country like America. But it is a fat lot of good as the basis of foreign policy. Indeed a fat lot of Obama’s rather self-regarding goodness is a problem for the rest of us.
All my life, many people, by no means all of them on the left, have complained about the extent of American power. They have seen it as bungling, bullying, crude, even oppressive. Sometimes, particularly in regard to the Middle East, they have been right. Europhiles have sought to counter American power by building up the EU’s strength. Nationalists have sought to expel it and be ‘‘ourselves alone’’. But they have said these things and made these gestures in the knowledge that US power has been real. Will they be pleased if what they thought they wished for is actually happening?
It feels as if the world is in for a more dangerous time than any since the Carter/Brezhnev era of the late-70s – or worse, because things today are more unpredictable.
Charles Moore is a former editor of The Spectator and The Telegraph, London.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/peace-president-obama-paradoxically-made-the-world-more-dangerous-20140620-zsgd4.html#ixzz362EjlBCv