Wednesday, November 25, 2009

End of the Honeymoon: The World Starts Blaming Obama, Some Justly, Others Unfairly

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“There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.”

--“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield

By Barry Rubin

And so it begins. One might call it the end of the honeymoon with President Barack Obama, whose term is almost 25 percent finished. Seemingly universally acclaimed, loved, admired, given the Nobel Peace Prize for good intentions, the U.S. president is now starting to face a growing, multi-headed hostility. Abroad, many are starting to blame the U.S. president for their own shortcomings, because they hate America generally, or due to the fact that they really are becoming scared about what his presidency means for their own interests, and even survival.

Some of it is coming from America’s enemies, who will naturally pile on the loathing of anyone who leads the United States. The message is that those who hate and want to destroy you, who view themselves as adversaries and as the inheritors of your wealth and power will not be won over by kind words, a desire to do good, and the renunciation of coercion.

Some of it is coming from America’s friends, worried that they will not be protected by their senior ally or patron. It is like the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” George W. Bush was too hard; Barack H. Obama is too soft. Does that mean that George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton were about just right?

Some of it is coming from the inevitable fact that any decision you take—or no decision at all—will make a sizeable portion of humanity angry at you. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can make some of the people happy all of the time, and all of the people happy some of the time, but you can’t make everybody happy all of the time.

And then there are those who want to blame their own mistakes and misdeeds on the United States.

Here are four examples but there will be many others.

First is Palestinian “president” Mahmoud Abbas. He complained in an interview that Obama is "doing nothing right now" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"I hope he'll take a more important role in the future," Abbas said. The Palestinians "are waiting for the United States to put pressure on Israel so it respects international law, so it takes up the road map….It can do two things: put pressure on the Israelis so they reject settlements, and put pressure so they accept withdrawing to the 1967 borders."

Can you see the humor in this? Here’s a president who campaigned and continues to say that his predecessor was “doing nothing” on the issue and that’s why it hadn’t been solved. Could Obama have possibly tried harder? He made it his most outspoken issue, talked about it constantly, met with leaders, put forward plans, pressured Israel, reached a deal with Israel that involved considerable Israeli concessions, and asked for—but didn’t receive—Arab help.

Could the lesson be more obvious? The problem isn’t Obama; it’s Abbas. He is the one refusing to negotiate and he is the one who betrayed promises he made to the president. And why? Because he wants Obama to get him everything he wants without him making any compromises or concessions.

It isn’t going to happen. And the Palestinians, Arabs in general, and lots of Muslims will blame Obama. This must be a shock to him since he tried so hard and leaned over backwards to make them happy. And this is coming from the leader of the group which Obama has tried hardest to help in the whole world.

[By the way, the terms of the U.S.-Israel deal have just been publicly announced. Israel will start no new apartments and grant no licenses for West Bank construction over the next ten months. East Jerusalem is not considered by Israel to be part of the West Bank. This is quite reasonable in terms of the Obama Administration's goal and a gain for the Palestinians. But of course Abbas has no intention of doing anything serious diplomatically in the next ten months so he just wants a permanent unconditional stoppage.]

The second example is not surprising but is very important. It comes from Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, considered a moderate. He argued that Obama is trying to “trick” Iran by offering a deal:

"One should not fall for U.S. smiles and tactics. Americans sometimes talk about peace and sometimes they smile at the Islamic republic's officials... but they have hidden daggers behind themselves….It is a big mistake if we think they will change their behavior just because there is a change in administration."

That’s a fancy way of saying that Obama is just like Bush. The problem is not this or that individual. The problem is America. No U.S. policy shift, kind words, or diplomatic engagement will reduce the Iranian regime’s unrelenting hostility or slow its nuclear weapons’ drive. And this is coming from a relative moderate.

Here’s the third one which is the most surprising. It isn’t just that British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth is angry at Obama; the point is that he’s so angry that he says so publicly. Here is a leading official of America’s closest ally criticizing that country’s most popular president.

Speaking to a House of Commons’ committee, Ainsworth complained that Obama’s inability to make up his mind about Afghanistan is undermining popular support for the war. Of course, he said it in a polite manner but he was clearly ticked off. And this is coming from a Labour Party minister

Finally, there is Hamad al-Majed, a Saudi human rights activist and expert on educational issues. He wrote an op-ed which mourns what he sees as America’s collapse, writing that Obama may soon be president of “United Collapse of America.”

He gives four examples of why this is supposedly true: Obama’s confusion about what to do in Afghanistan; Abbas’s “frustration” that Obama isn’t turning over all of the West Bank to him this week; the economic situation; and the defeat of what he sees as the American-backed president of Somalia at the hands of radical Islamists.

Behind the scenes there is much more thinking like this with a whole variety of examples being cited. Arabs are both unhappy that Obama doesn’t bully Israel into surrender, credibly defend them against Iran, and stoutly stand up against the radical Islamists who menace them. Central Europeans are scared that he won’t defend them against Russia. Western European governments feel that Obama is too soft and unreliable. East Asians worry that Obama isn’t going to manage the U.S. economy very well. Perhaps Latin American rulers fear that Obama isn’t going to stand up for them against the new radical regimes, Venezuela and Bolivia.

This is only the beginning. Almost everyone in a responsible position dealing with international affairs, outside the United States at least, knows that nice guys finish last. They are afraid that Obama is going to drag them with himself.

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). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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