Foreign Affairs: Obama losing altitude

Few expect Obama to jump into the bubbling Mideast and drain its lava, but Kerry is showing enthusiasm for peace deal.

May 25, 2013 08:36
Barack Obama signing a bill [file photo]

Barack Obama signing a bill 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Seen through the Oval Office’s handsome bow windows, the world that once unfurled as a celebration of cheer, flattery and hope has now become murky with recrimination, anxiety and disillusionment.

Beset by three unrelated scandals as his incumbency’s last trimester steadily approaches, chances that Barack Obama’s presidency will be recalled as fondly as it was originally welcomed are diminishing.

Obama’s embarrassments may not mushroom into Watergates, but they are denting the reputation and sapping the energies of a presidency that arrived improbably, evolved haphazardly, and may well end anti-climactically.

The three revelations, one involving the Justice Department, another the Internal Revenue Service, and a third the State Department, are feeding suspicions that the administration is at worst immoral, at best poorly controlled, and in either case directionless.

News that in its quest to expose the sources of leaks, the Justice Department obtained lists of phone records from 20 Associated Press reporters’ and editors’ phone lines, made not only Republicans, but also a leading Democrat like Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy concede that the revelations left him “very troubled.”

A subsequent revelation that the Justice Department examined Fox News Washington correspondent James Rosen’s email and whereabouts, following his 2009 leak of a CIA report concerning North Korea, won Obama reprimand from his staunchest backer, The New York Times. The investigation resulted not only in a State Department security adviser’s indictment, but also in a request for permission from a federal judge to peek into Rosen’s correspondences because he was possibly an “abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the document’s exposure.

“Accusing a reporter of being a “co-conspirator,” admonished the Times, “shows a heavy tilt toward secrecy and insufficient concern about a free press.”

Attorney-General Eric Holder’s earlier statement that he would stay away from the AP affair’s investigation was hardly any consolation to this intrusion’s victims; not only because it went without saying that Obama’s man in the allegedly derelict agency must be barred access to its probing, but also because the deeper suspicion, that freedom of the press was compromised because someone had something to hide – was not allayed.

At stake were counter-terror operations in Yemen.

Holder admitted this week in a letter to Congressional leaders that a US drone strike in 2011 in Yemen killed one US citizen deliberately, while three other Americans were killed unintentionally, two in Yemen and one in Pakistan. The targeted man, Anwar al-Awlaki, was described as an Islamist who planned attacks on a domestic flight to Detroit in 2005 and on cargo flights to the US in 2009.

Obama’s message in his scheduled speech at the National Defense University about American counter- terror policy is not known at this writing. Reports that that the administration has drastically reduced the amount of targeted killings suggest Obama is troubled by questions concerning that tactic’s legality.

If so, it may mean that the White House tracked journalists because it feared that evidence concerning its targeted killings in general, and the killings of Americans in particular, would become public.

Whatever its explanation, all now agree the phone-list affair is troubling, not only because – as AP itself protested – the Justice Department acted without notifying the news agency, but because Obama’s foreign activities increasingly seem like a series of shots from the hip that do not add up to a solid plan or a coherent policy.

MEANWHILE, IRS officials’ evaluation of applications using the search words “tea party” and “patriot” has generated suspicions that someone was employing foul play against conservative groups that were battling Obama politically.

Obama has pleaded ignorance and then demanded, and obtained, acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller’s resignation, saying that singling out conservative groups was “outrageous.” Besides Miller’s departure, this scandal’s result is, for now, four Congressional investigations and one criminal probe, as well as a reinvigorated Right’s political offensive.

Even if these revelations do not result in great legal drama, politically they tarnish Obama, if not as a cynical plotter then at least as a poor manager.

Still, in terms of Obama’s foreign policy, both scandals are dwarfed by the severity of the third mess, the murder in Libya last year of ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In that case, it has been alleged the administration claimed the Americans were killed by sudden rioting, thus knowingly concealing the truth – which is that they were murdered in a premeditated terror attack, one that could have been foretold, and according to some was indeed expected, yet ignored.

Legal questions aside, the emerging impression is of a pervasive amateurism in the White House’s geopolitical operation, a failure to understand the complexity and gravity of the challenges that history has thrust on Obama’s doorstep.

In the short term, Obama’s proliferating crises are clouding the Democrats’ prospects in next year’s midterm elections. In the longer term, they further reduce the already low prospects that once he departs, Obama will have left much of an imprint on the international system in general, and the Middle East in particular.

THE LIBYA FIASCO underscored Obama’s overconfident, inconsistent and shallow approach to the Middle East since his presidency’s early months.

What began with haughty rhetoric in Cairo about a Western-Muslim thaw only to be defied by new Islamist conquests, was followed by the abandonment of ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in the name of democracy, a demand that was never made to America’s autocratic allies in Riyadh. Similarly, the attack on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was justified as a response to his atrocities against his own people – but when it came to Syrian President Bashar Assad, that standard was dropped.

While at it, Obama introduced the concept of “leading from behind,” an oxymoron according to any book of management.

And finally, Obama’s televised vow to attack Assad if he gasses people remained unfulfilled once gas was uncorked. In a war-torn arena where Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, and Hezbollah all say little and do a lot, Obama’s America is the one actor that talks most and does the least.

American foreign policy has known many twists and turns over the centuries, from Thomas Jefferson’s neutrality during the Napoleonic wars and the Monroe Doctrine’s clutching of the western hemisphere to Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialism, Herbert Hoover’s isolationism, Richard Nixon’s détente and Ronald Reagan’s crusade on the “Evil Empire.” The common denominator among these and other foreign policies was they were coherent, consistent and public. Obama’s, by contrast, seems like a combination of unfocused improvisations and hollow pontifications which now become also beset by domestic scandals.

Set against this backdrop, few expect Obama to jump into the bubbling Middle East and somehow drain its lava.

Yes, Secretary of State John Kerry is showing enthusiasm for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Sadly, the bride and the groom know what the matchmaker insists on learning the hard way, namely that Kerry’s hope, to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign a paper in Ramallah as if he is speaking for Gaza, is a deal Abbas cannot deliver and Israel cannot accept.

In Syria, meanwhile, Russia is outmaneuvering the US. Obama’s hope to convince the conflict’s many protagonists to gather in Geneva for a peace conference has for now fired no one’s imagination except that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Not only is it impossible, for now, to bring to one table Assad and his targets, Russia is thumbing Obama by insisting that Iran also have a seat at the table, a demand that France has already rejected outright.

Moreover, while the US tried to persuade Russia to betray Assad, Russia has multiplied its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where it now has more vessels than it did at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Russia, in other words, like Syria, North Korea and China, does not fear Obama, who has convinced all these regimes he is a talker who occasionally barks but never bites. Add to these his growing problems at home, and you get a presidency that will be increasingly domestic, humble and unpretentious.

Then again, James Baker’s dictum, that forecasts are wrong to do especially with regard to the future and even more so with regard to the Middle East – has never been more relevant.

Chances are growing that one of the region’s many adventurers – Assad, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, or someone else – will make one gamble too many, assuming that Obama will handle him as ineffectively as he handled North Korea. Such a gambler may be vindicated but he may also be confounded, and fatally so. Increasingly wounded, Obama will eventually be left with nothing to lose politically, and plenty to gain historically, by leaving with a bang.

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