Sunday, December 6, 2009

Arab Writer Finds Obama Scary for the Moderates, Reassuring for the Radicals

By Barry Rubin

Here’s a remarkable article from Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star that tells you more about what’s happening in the world than anything you’ll read in the Western media. To give you a clear sense of the contents the title is, “Barack and Hassan concur, the US is waning.”

It begins:

“It’s not often that Barack Obama and Hassan Nasrallah [the leader of Lebanese Hizballah, a Lebanese Islamist group backed by Iran and Syria] agree, but both made important speeches this week, and both appeared to concur that American power was on the decline.”

The reference is to the president’s speech at West Point, which Young sees as gloomy and pessimistic, highlighting American problems and disunity; economic weaknesses; and eagerness to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan (though he is sending some more soldiers there temporarily).

Young continues:

“Listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the U.S .president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.”

Young adds:

“The president might also want to consider how America is viewed overseas….Expect America’s foes in the Middle East to take more advantage of this situation. The Iranian regime, rather visibly, does not believe the Obama administration will attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability. And Obama’s haste to get out of Iraq, or Afghanistan as soon as he can, like his bellyaches about the economic difficulties facing the republic, exhibit far too little American nerve to frighten Tehran.

“In Lebanon, Iraq, and on the Palestinian front, to name only these, the US has also had little to show for itself. The `peace process,’ which Obama had described as the centerpiece of his regional considerations, remains hopelessly stalled; the Obama administration is so keen to pull out of Iraq that it has looked the other way while Iran has continued to increase its influence in Baghdad, and while Syria has allowed more Al-Qaeda militants through its borders to murder Iraqi civilians.”

The administration doesn’t even seem to notice that the Saudis have basically accepted Syrian-Iranian hegemony in Lebanon because they got no support from Washington, “and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut has sometimes seemed more preoccupied with development projects than with Lebanon’s role in the regional rivalry between the U.S. and Iran.”

Young concludes:

“The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.”

In the Middle East and lots of other places in the world, people are still playing hardball realpolitik, while in Western Europe and North America the name of the game is musical chairs without anyone ever losing. When these two styles clash, unquestionably practitioners of the first one will win, unless the second group gets wise.

What Young is saying in public, Arab leaders (and those in Central Europe and lots of other places in the world) are saying in private. Obama doesn’t delight them, he scares them. The administration seems not to have a clue as to what’s happening, while the American media is just starting to catch on.

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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