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A Miscellany of Failures: the Short List

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Saudi Arabia: In 2009 President Obama chose to not hear the pleas of Iranian students protesting their repressive regime, ignored even as they were assaulted by regime goon squads and student blood was spilled Teheran’s streets. Two years later Egyptian students took to the streets of Cairo protesting lack of jobs. This time the president acted, took up the cause of the students and ousted America’s long-time friend and ally President Mubarak. In the words of the Saudi foreign minister, “We are astonished at what we see as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt by some countries." Both the Saudi king and prime minister of Israel appealed to Obama not to depose Mubarak who had, previous to the riots, already announced his intention to step down. And then, in apparent ignorance of the Muslim Brothers involvement in the assassination of former president and peacemaker Anwar Sadat; unaware or uncaring that al-Quaeda is also an offshoot of the Brothers Obama backed the anti-secular Islamist party in the election for president of Egypt. Until its overthrow by the military one year later the Brothers introduced Sharia law and opened dialogue with Iran, a radical departure of previous Egyptian policy.

America’s allies in the Arab world were incredulous. If the US president could so easily dispose of a close ally and defender of American regional interests, how firmly lays the crown on any allied heads? As if to reinforce such doubts Obama immediately supported the Iran-backed Shiite uprising against the Saudi-backed king of Bahrain just a causeway-drive off shore from Saudi Arabia!

Bahrain: As if not content with offending the Saudi king, within days of deposing the Egyptian Obama “responded to the cries” of Shiite protesters in the streets of tiny Bahrain. Just how far ideology can substitute for Realpolitik and common sense, Bahrain happens also to be the home port of the US Fifth Fleet tasked with protecting shipping from Iran! Did the president have illusions that Iran would share those naval facilities with the Great Satan? Was the US, in the year or so before Syria imploded seeking a graceful exit from the chaos it helped create in the region, prepared to build an alternative naval base in the Gulf? And who, other than his advisers sharing his vision, would believe that the Saudis would allow for a US-gifted Iranian base less that forty miles from the Saudi shore? To counter the threat the Saudis formed a force consisting of themselves and Gulf emirates and drove their tanks across the causeway to reestablish calm; and save America’s Fifth Fleet port from Obama’s folly.

Egypt: Having deposed President Mubarak Obama’s choice to replace him Mohamed Morsi was arrested and the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization, returned to its underground lair. President Obama declared the election of General a-Sisi “illegitimate” and refused to deal with America’s most important ally in the Arab world. Aid was suspended and military cooperation frozen. Into which gap stepped the Saudis who visited Putin in Moscow and paved the way for a Russia arms deal with Egypt. "The only way there could be a new Russia-Egypt defense relationship,” according to Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “is by Saudi and Gulf financing." The arms purchase, she said, represents a Saudi "finger in the eye" of the United States.

Only after the Russians entered the picture did Obama relent and recognize the new Egyptian government.

Suez: On February 17, 2011 “the US deployed an armada of naval vessels to block their (Iranian warships en route to Syria) entrance to the Suez Canal… opposite the Kharg cruiser and Alvand missile destroyer of the Iranian Navy’s 12th Flotilla.” But the Iranian vessels ignored the challenge and entered the Canal. Upon arriving in Syria it was learned that not only had Iran defied American power, but it did so with a crew of young cadets!

Syria: On December 5, 2012 President Obama ordered an aircraft carrier task force to Syria to put teeth in his “red line” threat to take action against Assad for using gas on civilians. According to an unnamed defense department official, “The United States now stands ready for direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict when the weather permits…” Putin countered by dispatching a Russian armada to Syria. Days later, “the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and its 2,500 marines were recalled” to Virginia.

Whatever the reasons provided, at the end of the day the president and the United States appeared weak and irresolute, an invitation to defiance and, in the end, aggression.

With the above as backdrop it would be easy to dismiss President Obama for well-deserved serial failures. But are these examples so far outside the mainstream of America’s view of its place in the world? I have for years described US foreign policy as ideologically activist, a “Gospel of Democracy.” Bush, for example, in part justified invading Iraq as creating “democracy” in that country, a “model” for the region. Removing Mubarak in favor of US-style democracy for Egypt followed Bush in the “gospel” tradition. As all new presidents entering the White House Barak Obama arrived ambitious to outdo his predecessors. He would finally produce the breakthrough to peace between Israel and the Palestinians; he would "break the 30-year downward spiral in U.S.-Iranian relations." Nearing the end of his presidency his initiatives have only pushed Israel and the Palestinians further apart. And his "agreement" with Iran is uniformly mistrusted by Israel and the Arabs, and by a large majority of Congress and the American public.

In return Iran publicly challenges the White House interpretation of key "understandings" between the two countries and Khameini insists the United States remains Iran’s number one enemy; continues to describe the US as "the Great Satan."

Conflicted over his commitment to his "red lines" Obama asked Putin, patron and protector of Assad and Iran, to dictate terms of a “peaceful” settlement. Having thereby empowered America’s former opponent for power in the Middle East the Russian was positioned to take the next step in replacing the American hegemon, its arms deal with Egypt and the Saudis. And most recently Putin dispatched what is described the largest submarine in the world, the Dmitri Donskoy armed with twenty ICBMs and 200 nuclear warheads to Syria; reportedly sent six of its most advanced fighters to Syria and is building housing for hundreds more “advisers.” And just to make certain the message is received it was reported this week that one thousand IRGC marines had arrived in Syria and will join up with the expanded force of Russians defending the Assad regime.

All would agree that the use of force should only be used as the final option should diplomacy fail. But diplomatic success itself hinges on a credible threat to, as a final recourse, use force to protect national interests. This principle was clearly described by von Clausewitz in 1873: “War is regarded as nothing but the continuation of state policy with other means.” But in order for it to be the option of last resort the threat of force must exist and be believable. When Iran unilaterally approached Bush in 2003 it was in response to concern that the Islamic Republic was in America’s crosshairs following Iraq!

It is precisely this, a believable threat that was missing in later Bush efforts at accommodation, that has been absent in Obama’s approach to “diplomacy.” It is precisely this absence of credibility that fanned the flames of the “Islamic Spring,” encouraged the extremism feeding the rise of Islamic State. It is this lack of will that provides invitation for Russia's ascendency in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, underbelly of Europe.

It is this failing in American diplomacy that provided Iran the time necessary to become a nuclear threshold state, to dictate terms to the “agreement,” the tail by which the mouse wagged the dog.
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