Friday, September 25, 2009

Obama's "Enormous Progress"? Why Can't You Think of Any?

By Barry Rubin

You know someone isn’t doing a great job when his main cheerleader tries to come up with a list of accomplishments and can’t do so. In fact, everything they mention is more a minus than a plus.

You also know that when somebody’s arguments are so obviously empty, contradicting, and even self-damning, they've stopped listening to the opposite viewpoint, even if only to improve or balance their own.

That’s what has just happened with the New York Times and President Barack Obama. The editorial of what was once a great newspaper and now isn’t, explains:

“President Obama, in his first visit to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, made progress… wringing a concession from Russia to consider tough new sanctions against Iran….”

Get it? They are considering sanctions. Well, they’ve been considering sanctions for years. The question is whether they will ever support tougher sanctions!

Meanwhile China is making it clearer that it won’t support stronger sanctions. It will be at least one year after taking office—and maybe not even then—when Obama will get around to actually doing something material to pressure Iran. This is the man who says, regarding domestic legislation, that everything must be done instantly.

Any other foreign policy accomplishments? Well here's the best the Times can do:

“Let’s be clear: Mr. Obama has made enormous progress in the short eight months since he took office. He has overturned some of the most odious Bush-era policies: banning torture and pledging to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He has persuaded the world once again to hear, and to listen to, what America has to say, but he is still figuring out how to fully capitalize on that good will and credibility.”

See what I mean? Does this qualify as “enormous progress?” Obama has pledged to close a prison—what else is to be done with the prisoners? Well he hasn’t gotten that far yet—but it is still only a pledge and doesn’t seem like it’s going to be fulfilled any time soon. And he’s persuaded the world to listen to America, not to do what it wants, mind you, but they’re listening.

But even on Guantanamo, the Times is, as they used to say, "whistling Dixie" or "whistling in the dark," which means trying to put a good face on a bad situation. Here's what the September 25 Washington Post has to say about this great "success":

"With four months left ot meet its self-imposed deadline for closing the [prison], the Obama administration is working to recover from missteps that have put officials behind schedule and left them struggling to win the cooperation of Congress.

"President Obama's top advisers settled on a course of action they were counseled against: announcing that they would close the facility within one year. Today, officials are acknowledging that they will be hard-pressed to meet that goal."

Are you laughing yet? This is what is happening on the same day the Times is announcing the closing as a success!

This is starting to remind me of a joke based on something President Dwight Eisenhower once said about Vice-President Richard Nixon. Asked what he thought of Nixon having claimed great achievements as vice-president, Eisenhower supposedly replied: "Give me a week and I'll try to think of one."

Keep trying:

“With his speech to the United Nations General Assembly…President Obama took another step toward repairing America’s battered image. There was no bombast and bullying, but he still managed to challenge other countries to take more responsibility and this country to ask more of itself.”

Ah, the image! That’s what this is all about. But if this is repairing America’s battered image, Obama’s approach rests on two principles.

The first is, regarding America’s detractors and enemies: If you can’t beat them join them. Show you are on their side. Go after Israel, at least rhetorically, that’s always good for applause.

The second is: The easiest way to become popular is to agree with everyone else. Unfortunately, in this case the “everyone else” consists largely of dictatorships, on one hand, and, on the other hand, those afraid of confronting them without leadership or due to reluctance to take risks.
Every word Obama uttered at the UN—and much of the rest of the time--is an attempt to say he’s just one of the gang.

“Mean old” George W. Bush had more than his share of faults but he tried—like Bill Clinton and George Bush and Ronald Reagan, among others—to show leadership in the world. Nowadays, American leadership is equated with arrogance.

Acting as a leader and combating enemies makes you unpopular. Obama’s international popularity is often a sign of failure on his part. Those previous presidents defined enemies and tried to foil them. That is now equated with a counterproductive confrontational approach.

As for bombast, Obama has a very high quotient of it. While I find his voice a nice combination of the silky and certain (he always reminds me, strangely enough, of the staccato-speaking actor Jack Webb), I, apparently alone in the world, have never been impressed by his speaking style, which strikes me as nothing but bombast.

As for bullying, that’s the least of our problems. Only with Israel (and a bit with the Palestinians for balance) does he portray such a mode, and even then it isn’t backed up with anything.
Here are the lines of the speech which have generally received the most praise, as presented by the Times:

“Mr. Obama was right when he said `those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.’ After eight years of President Bush’s unilateralism, that is a particular relief. The world is also looking for clear American leadership.”

Lots of countries are still chastising America. And what about those afraid that the United States
won't protect them from bad guys?

But the Times has become so intoxicated with ideology that it doesn’t even notice the contradiction in what it’s saying.

On one hand, it says, they can’t stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.

Translation: No decisive American leadership. Washington will wait for consensus, will be constrained by dissonant and timid allies, and be paralyzed without agreement

On the other hand, it says, they are looking for clear American leadership.

Clear American leadership? That’s precisely what they’re not getting from Obama.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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