Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama’s State of the Union Message Tells Us Far More About the State of Obama

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By Barry Rubin

Significantly, President Barack Obama’s discussion of foreign policy came only at the end of his State of the Union message. Obviously, domestic matters and especially the economy come first. Yet international affairs are not only vital but often have been the issues on which administrations are judged, no matter how unlikely that seemed at the time.

It is apparently considered impolite to point out that Obama has no previous experience and little knowledge of international affairs. And yet that fact affects the fate of the globe every day. The really interesting question is whether the State of the Union message showed any growth in his ability after one year in office.

Sadly, the answer is “no.”

Here are the themes he expressed.

First, he implies that it is all George W. Bush’s fault, having left him with two wars. Yet there is a strange point here that no one has noticed. These wars, except for Obama's long hesitation about making a decision on Afghanistan, have caused him little trouble or criticism in relative terms. On a list of administration failures during its first year, a long list of other items prevail which cannot be blamed on Bush: embarrassing gaffes, messing up on Iran and the “peace process,” subverting allies in Central Europe, apologizing and undermining U.S. credibility with dictators, mishandling the Islamist terrorist prisoners, and so on.

Second, he insists that he’s been doing a great job on security. Indeed, Obama suggests—in terms that would have brought a withering criticism of previous presidents—that no one should criticize him.

There is one sentence in this discussion that embodies much of what is wrong with Obama’s concept of international affairs. On the surface it is banal but it is really of the greatest importance: “So let’s put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough.”

This is part of Obama’s confusion between personal or social life and international politics that is so common to the amateur in foreign policy. During recess, boys act macho, ranking each other in a pecking order, challenging each other to fight or back down.

Obama genuinely views the way that international politics works as equally silly, meaningless, unnecessary. He wants to cut through all that and show that everyone is in the same boat, he has no macho feelings about power, and he’s ready to apologize and be part of the gang without leading the gang. It is a way to say: Why can't everyone just get along and be friends. I'll dispense with all these petty quarrels and start by renouncing all my own power.

This is sort of like the wimpy nerd coming up to a motorcycle gang and explaining his philosophy to them. Ok, that’s a very exaggerated image but it gets the point across. At first, Obama's listeners are puzzled. Why would the leader of the world’s greatest superpower talk like this? Perhaps it is a trick.

But then the reactions among foreign leaders and countries to Obama's policy can be divided into three groups:

Foes are not won over. On the contrary, the world's dictators and radical ideologies which are America's enenies conclude that some strange compulsion has paralyzed America so why not take advantage of it?

Dependents are frightened. If this man refuses to be strong or act tough who will protect me? I must give my lunch money to the bullies or somehow ingratiate myself with them or just defend myself as best I can.

Lazy friends are pleased. We love this man because either he won't demand that we do anything or if he does we can ignore him without consequences. But even some of them are starting to become concerned, like Britain, France, and Germany who want more action regarding Iran's nuclear program.

What Obama calls “schoolyard taunts” are what diplomatists for centuries have called power politics, leverage, containment, credibility, and so on.

Regarding security against terrorism, Obama speaks of “substantial investments,” “disrupted plots,” and filling “unacceptable gaps.” Never being able to resist some schoolyard taunts at Bush, he adds that he has captured more al-Qaida fighters than his predecessor. No problem, he says, everything is under control and don't worry about it.

Yet people still are worried—and with good reason. After all, Obama was also saying everything was fine before the "underpants" bomber came along. His bomb didn't destroy the aircraft but it did blow up confidence in Obama's counterterrorist strategy. There is no mention of his treating terrorism as a criminal problem, nor of his very narrow focus on al-Qaida as the only terrorist group of concern, nor of his plan to try captured terrorists at courts in the United States, nor of how terrorists he has released have returned to the battle. If he ignores all the concerns people have, no wonder he can say there is no problem.

Obama continues, “We have prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula.” Has Obama strengthened partnerships? Well, if he means alliances that is truly doubtful. Leaving aside the question of his personal popularity in polls I cannot think of a single country whose material relations are stronger. Nominally, of course, Western Europe greatly prefers Obama to Bush. But has this led to any actual results in practical terms? Again, no.

He claims success in Afghanistan, preparing the army there so he can bring the troops home starting in July 2011. Curiously, there’s no mention of his own smaller version of a surge. U.S. combat troops in Iraq will all be out in August of this year. These are good steps and probably will be very popular at home.

Yet there is also that flash of utopian naiveté, a refusal to face up to the cost of doing so which bodes ill for the future: “We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike. “ Yeah, sure. And as with the misleading claim about his successes against al-Qaida, there is that fascinating Obama inability to resist the temptation to tell easily exposed lies, claiming that other countries have increased their commitments in Afghanistan when in fact they refused his request to do so.

One of the most remarkable elements is something not in the speech. The word “Israel” is not even mentioned. There is no commitment to its security expressed and nothing about the peace process. This is revealing in two ways.

First, Obama has admitted that he made a mistake on the issue, the only foreign policy mistake he has ever mentioned. His response now is to ignore the issue altogether, not in his government's daily activities but in terms of his main commitments. Remember that type of response for it might come to characterize other issues. For example, suppose Obama fails—as he clearly will—to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Will he then turn away from that problem as well, banishing it from his agenda?

Second, everyone knows that Obama’s commitment to Israel has been widely questioned. A good politician would go out of his way to say something to show—truly or falsely—how much he does care about it. That isn’t how Obama works. He is not the kind of president to whom other countries can turn to for a feeling of security and support. And that sense of worry is applying now to many other countries in Latin America, Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and elsewhere who know that they cannot rely on the president of the United States to protect them against their enemies. By the way, in his statement thanking countries which had aided Haiti, he also left out Israel though it provided the largest contingent next to that of the United States and rescued several victims from the wreckage.

If Obama were to be honest--and effective--he would admit that Israel did almost completely what he asked while the Palestinian Authority (PA) defied him. Israel froze all the construction on the West Bank (it has never defined east Jerusalem in that way) and expressed willingness to go to talks with the PA. The PA has refused to negotiate for five months after Obama asked it to do so. Yet for Obama to pressure the PA to go to the table--the normal route in such situations--is unthinkable for him. So he has no way out of his failure. And Israel's "reward" for its major concession? Not even to be acknowledged in Obama's main annual speech for the first time, in twelve years in presidential State of the Union speeches.

In contrast, what Obama is fond of, and spends more time—practically twice as much--on then any other foreign policy issue at all, is his vision of world nuclear disarmament. Even his treatment of the Iran issue comes in this context. Obama—and this is another weakness of his—gets lost when he thinks of something he feels is terribly clever. In this case, believing he can best deter Iran and North Korea by saying the United States should also give up its nuclear weapons.

Does anyone in the world take this seriously?

To hear him say it, America’s enemies are trembling:

“These diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions – sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences.”

In a sense, all he had to offer was a schoolyard taunt: You'll be sorry! After so many previous such statements, this comes across as a very empty threat indeed. A different kind of president would have used the State of the Union speech--the timing of it would have been perfect--as a platform to announce that America was switching gears from failed engagement to tough sanctions. The members in both parties would have roared approval. He would have a mandate and the  message would have been clearly heard in Tehran. But such an approach would never have occurred to Obama.

And that's why America's enemies aren’t trembling but laughing and sneering.

This is the speech of a man who is arrogantly convinced of his own brilliance and who basically believes that no one has a right to criticize him. He thinks that he can ignore or rewrite the rules of international affairs. It reveals both a temperament and a set of ideas totally unsuited for dealing with the world as it is.

What I find most fascinating of all about Obama is that despite all the externals—his early personal history and skin color most obviously—used by himself and others to boast that he understands other peoples, Obama is altogether incapable of grasping that others in the world think and act differently from himself.

That’s partly due to his ideology but also to his mistaken belief—ignoring the fact that he is a Hawaii-raised, Harvard-educated member of a very insulated elite whose life has been largely one of uninterrupted rewards mostly showered onto him as gifts--that they are just like he is.

May he, and we all, be very lucky in the next few years.

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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