U.S. President Barack Obama did not come up with a new vision for U.S. foreign policy and national security for the next two years that is different from the vision he had started his term in the Oval Office with. From the outset, the man made it clear that he would not engage in direct military adventures. Instead, his policy is to wage covert wars using drones, while outsourcing human combat operations to non-American "subcontractors." Barack Obama, from the beginning, understood that the American people did not want U.S. troops to set foot in the battlefields of other peoples' wars. He understood well that new American wars required that no more U.S. bodies would come home from the frontlines, so he made this a priority for him. But what President Obama has not been able to achieve in the past six years is to convince his people and the world that his foreign policy is sound, and that it serves U.S. interests and the cause of America's international leadership. Even during what he called the war on violent extremism - avoiding the term war on terror that his predecessor George W. Bush had used - Barack Obama came across as naïve when he assumed that taking out Osama bin Laden would be enough to guarantee him a historic legacy.
Syrian developments have proven the failure of Obama's doctrine based on self-restraint, self-dissociation, and self-distancing, as this policy radically contributed to prolonging the conflict, and spawned local, regional, and international terrorism, in a way that debunks all claims about eliminating or deterring terrorists from hitting U.S. soil. Obama's legacy is fragile and prone to setbacks.
The other legacy that the U.S. president insists on attaching to his name is in turn brittle, despite his determination and insistence on seeing it through: the rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Concerning the nuclear issue, the negotiations will continue because the parties involved are determined to stay at the table, each for its own reasons. Regionally, President Obama must stop hiding behind his finger, and to confront the Iranian ambitions and roles in the region vociferously, to decide whether he would support them or bargain over them. To be sure, everyone is questioning Obama's intentions, and this is damaging not only to his reputation, but also to U.S. national security in the long run. The time has come for Barack Obama to clarify who he is, what he wants, and what he's really doing while pretending not to be interfering and to be above adventurism. It is time for him to face the music and acknowledge that most of his policies have failed, even if he sees a mirage of success on the horizon.
Consider Egypt. This week, Obama outlined his policy on this country during a speech at the West Point military academy in New York. Obama said, "In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded."
However, the majority of the Egyptian people do not trust Barack Hussein Obama. Some believe that he purposefully backed the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, and that he is a main proponent of the Muslim Brotherhood's broader project in the Middle East. Regardless of the validity of these sentiments, Barack Obama is definitely no longer that beloved personality whose entry to the White House was inaugurated with his famous speech in Cairo. Barack Hussein Obama is a reviled, untrustworthy figure seen as having questionable intentions, in light of his actions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, where he either supported the Muslim Brotherhood's quest to take power under the pretext of having popular support, or sidelined moderates and secularists, whom Obama was quick to exclude from the political equation - in what was a historic mistake.
Today, Egypt is proud of having derailed the most dangerous scheme in the entire Arab region - i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood scheme. Even though the majority of Egypt's people are devout, they have proven that they have astounding sensibleness with their insistence on separating religion from the state. But the U.S. president has chosen either not to understand this, or he does not like it.
The popularity of Mona al-Bahri, an uneducated Egyptian womanm may have a folkloric side. Bahri is famous for saying in broken English, "Shut up your mouth, Obama," in the context of telling him not to intervene on the side of deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi against presidential candidate and former Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But this politically active woman has become an icon challenging the U.S. embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood. She was right on the mark when she recently compared her popularity in the Arab region, despite being an ordinary woman, to the popular panning of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-Muslim Brotherhood activist, the Yemeni Tawakkol Karman. Tawakkol from the beginning was not eligible for the prize, but the West propped her up as a mascot for moderate Islam ostensibly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. But all they brought is disappointment that she only exacerbated.
Egypt is standing up for itself today and telling the United States that, while it is a friend, the friendship it offers has different criteria. The U.S. president did not need to say, "We can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded." The Egyptian people reject this language and consider it degrading. The Egyptian people establish accountability in their own way and according to their own will, and are no longer hostage to U.S. aid that has been cut back to contain and manipulate them, pushing them to rebel. They are a people insisting on reform and a people that delivers their messages directly.
The Egyptian people have chosen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be their president. However, they have told him during the electoral process that he would not become a larger than life figure, and that he must not think of himself as a new pharaoh. The low turnout was a wakeup call highlighting the reality of the Egyptian people's attitudes and their determination to underscore that popularity should not be understood as a license for the new president to suppress freedoms, or a ticket for him to become an entity above the state. The low turnout was a message to Sisi that he remains subject to the will and expectations of the people, because he is the product of the will and expectations of the people.
These are radical changes in the Egyptian scene that the American leadership should be sensitive to, and that the American media and intellectual leaders should take into consideration. Egypt leads in the Arab region, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily, and their necessary financial assistance for Egyptian infrastructure. It would therefore be wise for Washington and its official, intellectual, and media elites to stop their fixation on Iranian leadership of the Middle East, because this line of thinking is imprudent.
The Islamic Republic of Iran will never be accepted as a leader of the Arab region, regardless of whether or not the United States seals a deal with Tehran on postponing the development of its nuclear capabilities in return for the gradual lifting of sanctions. Iran is unquestionably an important nation with a prominent position in the Middle East; however, this must not be interpreted by the United States as a rationale for Iran to lead the Middle East or dominate the Arab region, irrespective of the Iranian infiltration of Iraq or the perceived victory of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) in Syria.
President Obama has every right to seek to settle U.S.-Iranian differences. He has the right to say, "For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force" with Iran, though he had admitted in the same breath that "the odds of success are still long," saying that America reserved all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
President Obama deserves all success in his quest to persuade Tehran to fully implement its nuclear commitments, to be able to create that legacy, where history would remember him as the man who, first of all, pacified the Islamic Republic and prevented it from acquiring nuclear capabilities, and second, for forging a bilateral relationship of appeasement through which he committed the United States to supporting the clerical regime in Tehran, and pledged not to back the opposition or reformist movements there. In effect, these are two basic demands for Tehran: An American recognition of Iran's nuclear rights, and recognizing the legitimacy of the ruling regime in Iran as part of a strong bilateral relationship.
One key disagreement revolves around Tehran's third demand, namely, a U.S. endorsement of a regional role for Iran beyond its borders, meaning a U.S. green light for direct Iranian intervention and hegemony in the Arab countries. This is dangerous, not only in terms of the future of the relationship between the United States and the Arab countries, which categorically refuse to surrender to Iranian regional dominance, and see this as a threat to their and the Arab national security. It's dangerous because such American legitimization of Iranian regional ambitions and roles will inflame sectarian conflict and will also lead to terrorism and even radical Islamic retribution against the United States.
The claim or the policy of turning Syria into a graveyard for Sunni terrorism is a myth. Turning a blind eye to Iran's military involvement in Syria, whether direct or indirect through Tehran's proxies, is costly for U.S. national interests in the long run. In his speech, President Obama declared, "For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism," but added that this threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaeda but from a multitude of groups, saying that the U.S. response must change accordingly.
What Barack Obama proposes boils down to a strategy to draft others for American wars, and entrust the task of filling the vacuum left behind by American retreat to others. Obama talked about a new counter-terrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, focusing on countries like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, and the North Africa and the Middle East region. He also placed Syria at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, saying that part of the funds will be allocated to Syria.
But because Barack Obama is Barack Obama, he contradicted himself in the same breath. He said, "no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," but stressed that it was the "right decision" to not put American troops into the middle of "this...civil war." Obama then added, "That does not mean we shouldn't help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people." Obama also said tat he would ask Congress to support "those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators," in reference to President Bashar al-Assad. He spoke about partnership with allies and friends to avoid unilateral action to defend "core interests" and the security of allies.
What the U.S. president wants, then, is to take half-steps. In Syria, he wants to encourage and train the opposition to fight a war that is impossible for them to win, especially given the meager support they are receiving, on two fronts - the regime and terrorists. This implicates the opposition in suicidal missions, and does not constitute support. This is escaping forward and not a serious strategy to combat terrorism with a new American response. This is bowing down to a fait accompli, dictated by Iran in Syria in coordination with Russia and China, and is the farthest thing possible from having a healthy and necessary relationship between the United States and Iran on the one hand, and the United States and the Arab countries on the other.
So let President Obama kindly explain to us his decisions, and simplify for us his vision for the next two years, if he has indeed come up with a different vision based on the lessons learned from his mistakes in Syria and Egypt. Let President Obama explain what his strategy will be if he kowtows to Tehran's desire to have expanded regional roles, and if his blessing of the Iranian military role in Syria lead to terrorist reprisals not only through bloody sectarian conflicts in the Islamic arena, but also against the United States.
If only President Obama would formulate that new, necessary policy on Syria, after the failure of all sides without exception led to this sorry state. Half-steps between military non-solutions and political non-solutions only serve to further inflame the situation, and will definitely be costly to all players, whether fully involved or on a self-dissociating posture.
While the U.S. president works on his legacy or reputation to the Iranian rhythm, he should maybe remember that President Bill Clinton secured the Kyoto agreement, to be the cornerstone of his legacy, only for Congress to shut it down and leave him without a legacy.
Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi
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