Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama's Dilemma in the Middle East: Trapped by a History of Failure

The President can be criticized for playing an overly cautious hand with regard to the Middle East. Unlike the prior President he "does not shoot from the lip"--does not see the world in the John Wayne cowboy style of his predecessor. On the campaign trail he was anything but cautious calling for Afghanistan conflict as the right one and undermining his rival Hillary Clinton's decision to support the unpopular Iraq war begun, as we all now know,using falsified and misleading information. Obama seemed as if he knew what he was doing in the Middle East and could be trusted to steer the region towards peace, particularly when he gave his historic speech in Cairo. While stopping short of promoting democracy in Egypt he picked his words carefully to encourage those dedicated to change, living under the ossified dictatorial systems in that region to count on the US support, he spoke unequivocally that, "governments needed to "reflect the will of the people... Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

That was June 2009 and now, less than two years after that occasion we have seen uprisings first in Tunisia, and brutally put down in Iraq, and a second set taking place in Egypt Libya and now Syria. Reading Ryan Lizza's excellent piece in this week's New Yorker we see how difficult Obama found it to commit to backing the rebellions--most painfully in Iraq for fear of discrediting them as being perceived as US backed, but you have to wonder why the hesitation with regard to Egypt, Libya and Syria, where unarmed people were being slaughtered. Obama seems to want it both ways, as Lizza argues,

"Obama’s reluctance to articulate a grand synthesis has alienated both realists and idealists. “On issues like whether to intervene in Libya there’s really not a compromise and consensus,” Slaughter said. “You can’t be a little bit realist and a little bit democratic when deciding whether or not to stop a massacre.”
Where was the support he voiced in Cairo for human rights to be supported "everywhere."? During the time when we needed the staunch visionary Obama retreated back to his role as constitutional law professor, “When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,” he said in a recent interview with NBC News. This troubling equivocation can be partly explained by Obama's not well concealed view that we are in danger of "imperial over stretch" as the Pentagon budget remains the only area of the budget to receive year on year increases as we continue to fight two wars. There was also concern that is best expressed by the phrase better the devil you know that the one you don't which had some play inside the corridors of power until the prime time news screens ran with the horror of unarmed people being mowed down in the streets by their own "people" dressed up as soldiers. It further needs to be pointed out that there is also a world weary recognition that the US public has been led down this road before and as health and educational budgets for all levels of government tighten and force many families to choose between between food and rent--there is a recognition that enough may well be enough in the area of foreign adventures. Obama trapped by his own soaring rhetoric is now tasked with figuring out the new role the US must play (even with trillions of dollars in deficit) in the world. The problem is that the rhetorical flourishes he does so well all are on the side of the grand not the cautious mode he prefers for day to day governing. Republicans in constant state of denial about anything except the need to cut government spending and no tax increases (especially for the wealthy) have a blind spot for military spending and for the US former glory. They will have no hesitation in trying to pick apart what they perceive as Obama's lack of 'gung ho' patriotic war like spirit even as we seek to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan on terms that might appear to the many who gave their lives for their country and the cause of peace, as "dignified."

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