No one should claim that Barack Obama is a foreign policy sophisticate. His Nobel Peace Prize will keep historians busy speculating for generations. We might forgive his pledges to close Guantanamo and focus the American commitment in Afghanistan as electoral fluff, but Guantanamo is still active as his campaign for a second term gets underway. He sent several times as many troops to Afghanistan as he indicated during the campaign, but the White House and generals seem without a plan to end involvement and declare victory.

Not so much fluff as irresponsibility would appear to be the label for his dumping the West''s most important Arab ally in Hosni Mubarak, and joining the Libyan civil war. In both cases, no one should claim the foggiest ideas as what would come next. Preaching civil rights to Bashar al-Assad and doing no more than saying "shame on you" when tanks fire on unarmed civilians raises at least a small question about Obama''s priorities. A larger question concerns his timidity against what is arguably the greatest threat to the region and the world in Iran''s nuclear activities.

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Now there is some substance to the claim that the American president encouraged, and then bailed on the Palestinians. According to Mahmoud Abbas,
 
"It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze . . . I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump."

The American envoy, George Mitchell, does not get any greater praise from the Palestinian leader,
 
“Every visit by Mitchell, we talked to him and gave him some ideas. At the end we discovered that he didn’t convey any of these ideas to the Israelis. What does it mean?”

This is not the first time Americans have been accused of leading a people down a garden path, and then changing the message. Hungarian rebels paid a higher price in 1956 than the Palestinians are paying now. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower spoke repeatedly about the "liberation of captive peoples." When Hungarians moved against the Soviets, and died before their tanks, the Americans expressed their sympathy.

A great power always has an excuse. With so many irons always in so many fires, it cannot give all its weight to any expression that people anxious for help view as a commitment. In international politics, there is no such thing as a firm undertaking. America''s self interest weighed against risking war with the Soviet Union on behalf of Hungarians. There was also the simultaneous embarrassment of Suez that entered the calculus, and led Eisenhower to insist on the immediate withdrawal of his ostensible allies.

One can doubt that Barack Obama won the election on the strength of his comments about Guantanamo or Afghanistan. John McCain''s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate may have been more important. And if the Republicans nominate someone like Palin next year, Obama can extend his lease on the White House despite his clumsiness overseas.

It is a separate question as to whether American bumbling is important in changing the international scene. Hungarians had their own reasons for turning against the Soviets, aside from what Dulles and Eisenhower said. Obama may have confounded Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with his push for a West Bank and Jerusalem settlement freeze, but those negotiations hardly seemed to be going anyplace without Obama''s input. Palestinians had hoisted themselves even higher on the deal breaker of refugee rights long before the American president gave them another non-negotiable demand.

None of which excuses the American fillip, or refurbishes the President''s standing in the Middle East.

The Cairo speech of 2009 received wide praise, especially in the United States. Its demands on Israelis and Arabs made both nervous. His criticism of Egypt from a Cairo platform may have contributed to the unrest that some may see as a sign of Arab awakening, but may just as well be the onset of instability that adds to the region''s problems. Allies of the American government in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have expressed despair about Obama''s push against Mubarak that came two years after his Cairo speech.  

Everything we know about American politics indicates that the voters will be thinking about other things in 2012. Obama is claiming more than a fair share of the credit for economic recovery, but George W. Bush has not been inclined to leave retirement and challenge those claims. There are promising elements in health reform, but the courts may not allow those to be delivered any time soon.  Otherworldly Republicans seem to be Obama''s best bet, but God help us if one of them wins the presidency.

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