Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How Has President Obama Been Weak and Lost Credibility Over Iran: Answering a Reader’s Question

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By Barry Rubin

A reader asks [my summary]: Why do you and so many people in the Arabic-speaking world view President Barack Obama as weak regarding Iran. After all, he doesn’t want to go to war with Iran or support an Israeli attack. And isn’t the fault due mainly to the Europeans, Russia and China?

My response: There are a number of reasons for this but let me focus on three, which makes one think that the president is doing a Titanic job (not titanic, Titanic, see note below).

First, Obama’s total failure to implement increased sanctions on Iran--whether or not they were effective—after 15 months in office is a huge failure. If the media would be treating Obama as a normal president he would be criticized and ridiculed for this on a daily basis.

Remember, the president first said he would increase sanctions last September and failed to do so. He then set a December deadline and again did not act. Now in April 2010 the prospects for sanctions still seem poor.

Indeed, the administration has not even announced its plan. What we do know is that the administration has announced in advance that it will not propose sanctions that might hurt Iran’s economy which means they—that is, targeted sanctions on a small number of rulers and regime institutions--will be a joke.

Aside from this, congressional proposals for reasonable sanctions on Iranian energy imports were ignored by the administration. The White House discouraged Congress from acting, too.

True, traditionally the Europeans have been very wimpy about such actions. But in this particular case, Britain, France, and Germany are ahead of the United States. Obama is holding them back rather than vice-versa. The EU as a whole is a problem since a country like Sweden can paralyze action. But it was Obama’s choice to seek backing from the entire EU rather than take the lead along with the three main European allies.

This problem arises partly from Obama’s philosophy of refusing to be a world leader but just “one of the guys” going along with a sanction. While the world doesn’t want the United States to be too unilateral—their criticism of George W. Bush—Obama has gone too far in the opposite direction, which is equally bad.

As for Russia and China, Obama is responsible for misleading the country and making a serious error by continuing to insist that he will win them over when it was clear a year ago that they are never going to support serious sanctions. Having seen that, U.S. policy should have adjusted either to create a coalition of the willing or to ram through the UN a reasonable plan.

Another reader just send me two headlines, one of which says China won't support sanctions and the other saying it will. He asks: These articles can't both be right? Actually, the texts of the articles are both right. They simply say this: The Obama Administration has won a big victory because China now agrees to discuss sanctions. They just won't support or implement them. As of today, Russian leaders are still openly stating that they won't support sanctions.

Second, Obama has openly preferred engagement and concessions to America’s enemies—notably Iran and Syria in this case—rather than to support its friends. The Middle East is often presented as if this only applies to Israel, but when Arabs complain about Obama’s weakness and unreliability they are talking about a lack of backing for Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the liberal forces in Lebanon, and others.

To cite only one example, when Iraq wanted U.S. help in pressing Syria to stop supporting terrorists who are killing hundreds of Iraqis, as well as U.S. troops, the Obama Administration refused. This is genuinely shocking. Many other cases could be cited.

Third, when the regime in Iran stole the election, the administration’s refusal to speak out and support the opposition was disgraceful, particularly from a government, which describes itself as liberal and claims to support human rights.

No one serious is advocating that the United States go to war with Iran or attack Iran. As for Israel, there has never been any intention of attacking Iran in 2010 at all. Israeli policy has been to urge the world to try sanctions and to wait until Iran was on the verge of actually getting nuclear weapons to decide what to do.

Whether or not sanctions would work is another question but the failure to show leadership effectively and try has two implications. It is a test that the administration has failed, which indicates how it would probably perform in a future crisis. In addition, this failure has left the United States less well situated to manage this problem in the future.

Failing to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons through diplomatic means, and instead eroding U.S. credibility, actually makes a war more possible in future. And I’m not referring here to an Israeli attack but to a conflict arising from Iranian support for revolutionary Islamist subversion of Arabic-speaking countries. If Iran gets too confident and aggressive, it might miscalculate and set off a U.S.-Iran war over some incident in the Persian Gulf with U.S. ships or oil tankers; a terrorist incident in which Iran's regime was too obviously involved in killing Ameircans; or friction over unrest in an Arabic-speaking state.

When we look back at the present day from a decade or two hence, the issues pointed out in this article may be the most important and fateful events in contemporary history.

Note: If I had said titanic (with a small "t") that would have implied a really big job. In contrast, the Titanic was a luxury liner which hit an iceberg in 1912. To show how far back I go, my father introduced me to a friend of his when I was a boy who had survived the shipwreck. Incidentally, you will have to make up your own melting iceberg jokes since I am going to avoid getting involved in this issue.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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