The timing could hardly be more proverbial.
With but five weekends left for Barack Obama in the White House, and with biographers beginning to outline his presidency’s achievements, failures and turning points, the bottom line of his Middle Eastern legacy emerged in all its horror, bequeathing to his successor a biblical-scale foreign policy fiasco.
What was dressed in spring 2009’s Cairo Speech as an informed, idealistic and resolute quest to reinvent the Middle East has emerged as a confusion of ignorance, arrogance, naivety and dereliction that resulted in multiple bloodbaths and strategic setbacks that now culminated in Aleppo’s downfall.
The speech that was ironically titled “A new beginning,” in which Obama bandied quotes from the Koran, apologized for American involvement in a 1953 coup in Iran, reprimanded France for banning Muslim head scarves, and shouted in the ears of his delirious Arab audience “the settlements must stop!” soon proved to have had no programmatic attachment.
Reports that Obama had obtained Saudi approval for Israeli planes to cross the Arabian Desert in turn for a settlement freeze quickly proved unfounded. Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick,” it turned out, had been replaced with Obama’s “speak loudly and carry no stick.” It was at that early stage that the world began losing its 70-year-old fear of Uncle Sam.
The extent to which Middle Eastern regimes were impressed with Obama’s preaching became clear the following week, when Iran’s ayatollahs stole an election, molested pro-democracy demonstrators and jailed thousands – while Obama remained mum.
A year-and-a-half later Obama remembered his bravadoes, but in the wrong place and at the wrong time, as he threw under the bus America’s oldest and most dependable Arab friend, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Obama’s canting that the will of Egyptian demonstrators must be respected was inconsistent with his apathy toward Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators and his lack of similar demands from the much more authoritarian Saudi Arabia. Worse, Obama was unaware of the Islamist genie he was unleashing.
Then came the Libyan civil war, where Obama coined the unforgettable term “leadership from behind,” an oxymoron that would soon be overshadowed by his hollow vow to attack the Syrian Army should it use chemical weapons.
In summer 2013, when John Kerry called Assad’s chemical attacks “a moral obscenity” for which there will have to be “accountability,” Egypt’s Islamists had already been removed by a popularly backed coup, and the Russians would soon return to the Nile as arms suppliers for the first time since the 1970s.
Moscow next maneuvered Washington into a funny chemical-arms disarmament deal with Syria whose bottom line was that Assad was never punished for using them and his air force lost not one wheel while effectively – as Assad saw it – given a license to accelerate its genocide.
Russia, meanwhile, after having concluded Obama is a paper tiger, annexed Crimea seven months after feeding him the chemical- arms deal. Russia then proceeded to treble its military presence in Syria and, after having tested and established Washington’s strategic passivity, it actively joined Assad’s war and quickly turned its tide.
Meanwhile, China also took stock of Obama’s weakness, arriving with a drilling rig in the Paracel Islands two months after the Crimean annexation. Consequent collisions with Vietnamese boats were soon followed by Chinese provocations of Japanese, Korean and Philippine vessels as well.
Overarching this entire scene of geopolitical lawlessness, the Middle East that Obama thought he would pacify with a few well-phrased sentences was spewing out migratory lava that began melting the European Union and rocking the entire international system.
This, in brief, is the strategic dereliction that now culminates in Bashar Assad’s triumphant return to a smoldering Aleppo, while the same US that failed to ground Assad’s air force back when that was still practical now watches helplessly as Syria’s former commercial heartbeat drowns in its dwellers’ blood.
The Sages’ insight that he who is merciful toward the merciless will ultimately be merciless toward the merciful has never seemed more vindicated.
Now, as the curtain comes down on the era that was announced with the Cairo Speech, one might expect three separate Aleppo speeches: one by Obama, a second by Assad, and a third by President-elect Donald Trump.
THE FIRST Aleppo speech should be an Obama oration in which he would apologize to his Middle Eastern years’ victims: to the American people, whose hard-earned domination of the region was squandered with no plan, insight or reward; to Arab allies who lost confidence in America’s reliability; and above all to the Arab masses whose massacring, displacement and dispossession Obama at best failed to prevent, at worst helped touch off.
This speech will of course never be delivered, but the second Aleppo speech, Assad’s, is surely upon us, and will sound like Satan’s celebration of the apocalypse.
Speaking from behind Vladimir Putin’s apron and repeating his mantras about his war being not with his citizenry but with “terrorists,” Assad will try to convince his people that he is a military genius on par with Caesar, a statesman as visionary as Churchill, and a father figure à la Ataturk.
Assad’s immediate circle of sycophants will be of little help in distancing him from such impressions. That is why he is opposing Russian and Turkish efforts to shape a postwar Syria that will be smaller and weaker than the one that half a decade ago rebelled against Assad’s iron fist.
Yet despite his renewed grip on Aleppo, Assad remains one of his war’s strategic losers.
Unlike his father’s shelling of Hama in 1982, where at least 10,000 Syrians were massacred, the younger Assad’s war has been neither brief nor local, and its atrocities and casualties have been on entirely different scales. Moreover, in 1982 the world did not see one photo of the bloodshed in Hama, nor did most Syrians. The current war, by contrast, is a universal experience, besides of course some half a million fatalities’ families, millions of other casualties, and some 10 million who lost their homes.
Assad – whose soldiers were this week reportedly looting their co-citizens’ houses in Aleppo, executing passersby, and forcibly conscripting young men – apparently thinks he can return to lead the people he has shelled, gassed and displaced. He can’t.
His Kurdish north will be lost to some kind of Turkish tutelage, and the Turks are out to produce a Sunni proxy somewhere to the east of the Alawite west.
The idea of a restructured Syria is believed to be shared by the Saudis, and Russia is also open to it, as its interests in this regard are different from Assad’s.
Russia’s interest was to restore its imperial sway, an aim it has now accomplished.
Syria’s integrity is not part of this agenda, especially considering that it might prolong the war and thus risk Russia’s gains.
That is what will likely be discussed in two weeks in Moscow, where Russian, Turkish and Iranian officials will convene to discuss Syria’s future.
Assad’s expected bravadoes on the ruins of Aleppo should therefore not distract anyone from what he has become – namely, the single man who killed more Arabs than anyone else, and while at it lost his people’s following and his country’s integrity.
This, then, is how the second Aleppo speech should be seen. The third speech, Trump’s, has already been effectively delivered.
TRUMP’S stated intention to shy away from Syria’s internal affairs, as long as it fights Islamism, and his general refusal to call Assad to task about his atrocities indicate that the new administration will revert not to George W. Bush’s, but to Richard Nixon’s foreign policy.
The difference is that Bush, in the spirit of the post-Cold War era’s optimism, embraced the Wilsonian quest to spread America’s ideals worldwide. That is why he set out to democratize Iraq.
Obama merely took that legacy to an extreme, in Egypt, the way Jimmy Carter did in Iran, when he demanded Western human-rights standards from the shah, a disastrous move without which the Khomeini revolution might have been prevented.
Nixon’s attitude, and also Reagan’s, focused on a regime’s attitude not to its people but to the US. That is why they befriended Latin American despots like Augusto Pinochet. As those presidents saw the world, the West had one enemy – the USSR – and all things diplomatic were judged through that prism.
In the Middle East, Trump has a similar prism, only instead of communism it focuses on Islamism. That is the enemy, his Aleppo speech effectively says, and all else is subservient to it. It isn’t pretty, and it also isn’t nearly as humanistic as one would like geopolitics to be, but it is as unambiguous, practical and sober as the Cairo Speech so fatefully was not.