Judging by recent statements and actions, President Barack Obama might be concerned by the unparalleled proliferation of al-Qaeda. However, he is hardly alarmed that it has become a rallying cry for Jihadi movements, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean affiliates, controlling larger territories, with more fighters and with greater appeal. And he’s unruffled by the fact that his administration’s prediction of its demise proved imprudent, if not naive.
Nor is the US president terribly alarmed by the fact that three years after the withdrawal of American forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has occupied towns and cities in Iraq and Syria. Nor does he seem overly concerned about the terrible violence and suffering in Syria with its far-reaching repercussions on the instability in the Middle East region.
Obama looked the other way as the political system that Washington left behind in Iraq collapsed and led to almost 10,000 deaths last year. And he wouldn’t get the US militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, which is spreading to neighbouring countries, despite the domestic and international pressure to do so.
And if you expected the White House to react to Iran and Hezbollah’s military involvement in favour of the Assad regime, think again. Although he’s gotten a Congressional approval to strike the Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons against its people, Obama backed off at the last minute in favour of a diplomatic initiative to disarm Assad of his chemical arsenal. Now, he wants to work through, not against, Assad’s backers to arrive at a solution in the devastated country.
And where Egypt is concerned, Obama also decided to remain hands-off. After he took his time to decide whether the forced ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last July was a coup, Obama refrained from exerting any serious pressure on General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to back down.
So what explains Obama’s detachment or even apathy towards the instability and violence engulfing the region? And why is the second term president so restrained in the absence of reelection worries?
Obama’s cheerleaders look at him and all they see is sobriety and sophistication. He’s a deliberative and patient leader, who maintains his cool when confronted with geopolitical challenges; he’s the opposite of his reckless predecessor.
His detractors see a failure to exercise and assert the leadership of the “world’s only superpower” in such dire and challenging times for US’ interests, allies and clients.
And as is all too often the case, the cheerleaders of power who see no wrongdoing and the critics who see no right-doing, are two sides of the same ideological myopia.
By his own retrospection, Obama recognises that the choices he faces aren’t simple and is mostly annoyed by those who don’t recognise the new geopolitical complexity the US is facing today. He doesn’t see himself as an ideological president, but rather one that upholds certain values and wants to get certain things done.
Obama… is mostly annoyed by those who don’t recognise the new geopolitical complexity US is facing today. He doesn’t see himself as an ideological president, but rather one that upholds certain values and wants to get certain things done.
Between idealism and realism, Obama is seen to embrace “particularism” – an approach that avoids the generalisation of threats or sweeping strategies in response.
According to his former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the commander-in-chief has shown no passion or conviction for the war in Afghanistan even after committing thousands more troops there.
But since taking office, and contrary to his 2009 pledge in Cairo that “America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law,” President Obama has pursued the fight against al-Qaeda and violent extremism – no longer framed as the “war on terror” – by using drones in the air instead of boots on the ground.
This weapon of choice, drones, has the tendency to breach international law, violate national sovereignties, and lead to civilian deaths, all in the name of a global war against the US’ enemies.
Mindful of the complexity of the choices that he makes, the US president recognises the costly and controversial aspects of his “targeted killings” or assassinations strategy, but is adamant that it’s a better response to national security threats than the one embraced by his predecessor: war.
An Obama-esque perspective
Since his election in 2008, President Obama has remained sceptical of the unilateral use of the US military power to resolve conflicts or end humanitarian disasters around the world. He is a commander-in-chief who understands the limits of the US’ military power to resolve political conflicts and insists on Washington’s need to work with others wherever possible, and act alone, only if it must.
But he’s also been inconsistent regarding his original plan to extricate the US from direct involvement in the conflicts of the greater Middle East.
He completed the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. And after the ill-fated surge of forces in Afghanistan, he committed to withdraw all troops from the country by the end of this year, with the exception of a “residual force” of 10,000 soldiers for perhaps another two years or longer.
In the same spirit, Obama has remained committed to his earlier diplomatic overture to Iran along the lines of: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
And soon after hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left office, Obama reached an interim six-month agreement with his successor Hassan Rouhani, which could usher in a new era of detente between Iran and the US for the first time since 1979.
The pragmatic Obama became uncharacteristically excited about the Arab Spring and called on Hosni Mubarak, Muamar Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Bashar al-Assad to step down, seeing no role for them in the future of their countries.
But like a man for all seasons, Obama cooled down when the situation heated up. As soon as the counter-revolution got under way in Syria and Egypt, Obama backed off to a familiar cautiousness before the dust would even settle in the Arab region.
In no time, all his speeches and appeals for freedom and justice remained just that, talk.
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And so, in his September 2013 cornerstone speech at the United Nations, Obama focused primarily on the Middle East region, and for all practical purposes sidelined the issue of democratisation in the Arab world in favour of continued counter-terrorism and three diplomatic processes: resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, mitigating the Syrian crisis, and re-launching the stalled “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians.
In real life, Obama reckons he has less of a chance to achieve a final deal on any of these three fronts, but hopes to “create the space” for progress in the future.
At home abroad
In reality, Obama’s record shows a consummate politician who’s more interested in working on domestic priorities than confronting foreign improprieties.
He realises that the US has spent an estimated $5 trillion on the “war on terror” over the dozen years since 9/11, and continues to run a larger military budget than the combined military expenditures of the nations of the world. The intelligence industry is also growing exponentially, with no end in sight, in tandem with the so-called “military-industrial complex”.
Such costs hardly have been beneficial for the economy, which suffered from the worst financial crisis in decades including high budget deficits and skyrocketing national debt.
It also reflects a terrible deficit in Washington’s security balance sheet considering the proliferation of al-Qaeda in and beyond those countries invaded and occupied by the US.
In “Going the Distance”, David Remnick’s recent profile of Obama in The New Yorker, the president assesses the threat of al-Qaeda’s ascendance – just two years after he claimed it was “decimated” – in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. He wrote:
“I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian. …And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
It’s basically OK when al-Qaeda kills Arabs and Muslims; it’s tolerable and perhaps in some twisted way not so awful, but only so long as these extremists don’t approach Americans.
Slam dunk realism
Old habits die hard in Washington. And the US’ strategic habits die hard in the Middle East.
Nuanced, professorial and well-intentioned as he may be, Barack Hussein Obama is conducting a realist American foreign policy, where national interests trump costly values and ideals.
His lofty speeches have long promised far more than he could deliver. Perhaps because he believed in the power of words to heal rifts and seal deals.
But if you listened carefully, you could distinguish the politician from the campaigner.
To have Sunni extremists battling with Shia extremists in a fight to the death in a way that consumes their energy so that they are not focused on other potential enemies or targets, in a very practical, real politics sort of way is probably not the worst of all possible worlds. ... Except that, what I've just described for you, as a policy goal is a morally unacceptable outcome.
Obama is not a reckless warmonger, but nor is he a benevolent leader.
Obama continues to salvage the US’ superpower status from its potential demise under his predecessor. By downsizing the empire, he is helping rebuild the American republic to recover economically and strategically.
This meant first and foremost a return to outsourcing US influence to regional powers and local clients.
For example, to confront the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Obama has provided President Nouri al-Maliki – widely seen as a sectarian leader – with military and other assistance to combat Sunni extremists. A recipe for disaster.
His administration has also decided to work with Congress to change the law that bans aid to a military-backed regime that overthrew an elected government in order to allow for another $1.5bn of aid for General Sisi and his appointed government.
Such moves are hardly consistent with Obama’s earlier statements: “Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset – in war and peace.” (President Barack Obama, National Archives, May 21, 2009)
Even in Syria, where Obama sees little American capacity or interest to interject in what he calls a sectarian conflict, secular opposition leaders have told me in person recently that the administration provides them with enough assistance to survive the onslaught from Assad and Hezbollah, but not enough to bring about the regime’s downfall or retreat.
But when I probed General Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA about the benefits for US policy, he replied:
“To have Sunni extremists battling with Shia extremists in a fight to the death in a way that consumes their energy so that they are not focused on other potential enemies or targets, in a very practical, real politics sort of way is probably not the worst of all possible worlds. …Except that, what I’ve just described for you, as a policy goal is a morally unacceptable outcome.”
Yes, it is morally repugnant in light of over 100,000 dead and millions of refugees. Syria is yet more proof that “never again” will happen again and again when the custodian of international law and leaders of the “international community” continue to exploit human tragedies for cynical geopolitical calculus.
But with US aircrafts, army bases, and military assistance throughout the region, the question for the self-declared “world’s only superpower”, is not whether to intervene or not to intervene, but rather how it intervenes constructively in the fatalistic environment Washington helped nurture over the last decade.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
This article was edited on January 28, correcting a quote made by President Obama from May 21, 2009.