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By Barry Rubin

It is not such a big deal to disagree with a president and his policies. But it is shocking to realize that the leader of the world’s most powerful country doesn’t appear to understand the most basic principles of international relations.

This isn’t surprising since Barrack Obama has no—zero, nada—previous experience in this area. It shows. There are two distinct ways other countries respond to this combination of his ignorance at realpolitik, urgent desire to be liked, and pride in projecting U.S. weakness:

  • Friends, especially in Europe, are pleased, applaud, but then add that they don’t have to give this guy anything because he is all apologies and no toughness. They like the fact that he is all carrots and not sticks. If, however, they are states more at risk—Israel, relatively moderate Arab states, perhaps Asian and Latin American allies–worry that they cannot rely on the United States to help and defend them.
  • Enemies or potential rivals, a category including Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, Venezuela, and many—mostly Islamist—revolutionary movements, say that this guy is weak and defeated. He apologizes, offers unconditional engagements, and promises concessions because all previous U.S. policies have failed. Obama says so himself. They’ll eat the carrots and, of possible, their neighbors as well.

Obama, the supposed liberal, also offers some considerable, bizarre reversals in the meaning of that word. A couple of years ago when a brilliant conservative Middle East analyst asked me if I, too, was a conservative now, I said that I remained a liberal. In my view, the problem is not liberalism itself but the way that the far left has taken over liberalism, as Communism tried—but failed—to do in the 1930s.

For me, though, a liberal president is one who is harshly critical of dictatorships. He has been the kind of person who understands the importance of ideas and the value of America’s good side throughout history. He didn’t spend his time denouncing U.S. mistakes so much as urging others to follow the American system of democracy and reasonably regulated free enterprise.

Such a president hates totalitarianism because he extolled the liberty embodied by the United States. A liberal president wasn’t someone eager to suck up to repressive dictatorships but someone who could unite democratic and moderate states.

Will some presidential successor of Obama have to apologize some day to all those people who were crushed by the dictatorships he is coddling?

In this sense, Obama is a very conservative president.

A sophisticated president, for me, is not just someone with university degree credentials and slick delivery, even if unenhanced by teleprompter, but someone who knows how the world works. This includes knowing not everyone thinks the same way and that ideas matter.

In this sense, Obama is a very uneducated president.

These thoughts were inspired most immediately by something said by Dan Restrepo, Obama’s Latin American expert on the National Security Council, for that region’s summit. Regarding Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, he said:

“Let’s not have tired ideological arguments. Let’s get down to figuring out how we can advance things that are in our national interest: things that matter to the United States that should matter to Venezuela.”

Clearly, Obama read Restrepo’s briefing paper. Rather than defend America, after a long anti-American rant by the demagogic and repressive Chavez, Obama responded:

Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. We’ve all heard these arguments.”

In effect, he was saying: I refuse to believe you mean anything you say. I reject the idea that you are a threat. I will pretend we can get along just fine.

Implied here is the idea that Chavez can be persuaded by pure pragmatism to cooperate on solving problems. This is nonsense. The basic issue here is not that Chavez is “evil” but that his interests are based on bashing America, obstructing cooperation, repressing his people, and allying with other radical forces. He will never change because he has such a huge interest in continuing to do the same things.

The same applies for the rulers of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and probably for the Putin regime in Russia as well. You don’t persuade them because their behavior is based not on misunderstanding or grievance but their own very sound material interests and ambitions.

In addition, they also believe America is declining and they’re winning. Why change if no force or pressure requires it? Why moderate when you’re doing great being radical and aggressive?

If you follow what is said in these dictatorships, it’s crystal clear that Obama’s positions are encouraging future violence, conflict, instability, and the spread of repressive doctrines. Here’s the best single example from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s April 15 speech in Kerman:

“We welcome [the call by the West for dialogue with Iran], but we put forth several proposals to them: We say to you that you yourselves know that you are today in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty, and you can no longer promote your affairs from a position of strength.” (MEMRI translation)

Could it be any clearer? Should it come as a surprise when the level of terrorism, extremism, subversion, and intransigence rises sharply?

“And the Cuban embargo has failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and it has squeezed the innocents in Cuba and utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro, who’s now been there since I was born. So, it’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.”

Even from a short-term tactical point of view this is ridiculous. Fidel Castro is being carried out of office by natural causes. At a minimum, U.S. policy should say: We will wait and see what the next leader does and judge accordingly. If he moderates, we will respond. Instead, the Obama administration is giving away its leverage for nothing.

Thus, Ahmadinejad and those behind him naturally conclude that if they merely don’t concede, Americans power will recede. Obama’s message in practice is: hang tough, punish criticize the United States, and the Americans will conclude their policy has failed and ask you for surrender terms.

Obama’s statement also shows a misunderstanding about the purposes of sanctions so extreme as to be terrifying. The goal of U.S. sanctions was to weaken Cuba so that it could not extend its influence throughout Latin America—as it was trying to do energetically. It sought to make a negative example of Cuba so that other countries would not emulate it. And it intended to show that the United States was on the side of freedom.

How absurd that Obama would apologize for a policy that reflected America’s greatness. After all, it was a historic Republican and conservative tolerance for dictatorships—at least in the time of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations—that stirred liberal wrath. What Obama has done, in effect, is to oppose American action against any repressive dictatorial regime, at least if it doesn’t work real fast.

It never ceases to amaze me that people who should know better don’t understand what sanctions are about. They think that the only purpose of sanctions is to get the other side to change its behavior. Obviously, that’s preferable but it is also hard.

When Iran, Syria, North Korea, or Cuba don’t transform themselves, legions of–how can I put this politely–not very wise people proclaim that the sanctions have failed and thus should be abandoned.
No, that misses the point. There are at least three other major purposes that sanctions serve.

First, and most important, is to deny the enemy resources that it can use in being stronger and thus more threatening. By denying the above-mentioned countries military equipment, money, and other things it makes it harder for them to attack and slows down their development of weapons and forces.

Thus, for example, while Iran still sponsors terrorism, tries to subvert other countries, and so on, its ability to do so is reduced.

Second, the goal is to discourage others from helping and being allies of that country by showing it to be a risky and more unprofitable enterprise. This does not mean total success but it does, for example, discourage business deals, investments, and diplomatic or political support among those who can be dissuaded.

Third, it encourages dissident forces within the country who decide that the regime’s (or a faction controlling the regime) is following policies that are too dangerous or unprofitable. Obviously, this can take many years to bear fruit.

Fourth,: removing sanctions convinces an enemy that it’s winning, making it more arrogant and aggressive.

After all, it won a victory without making concessions. Why shouldn’t it–and observers–conclude this is due to its own strength and adversary’s weakness? If the president of the United States apologizes, why shouldn’t this seem proof that America was wrong all along, has been beaten, and now must negotiate surrender terms.

Whether or not that’s how pundits in London, Paris, and Washington think, that is sure how they view the world in Tehran, Damascus, and Pyongyang.

A democratic nation must ask whether enemies can be changed into friends by talks, compromises, and concessions. In the 1970s, for example, Egypt was ready to change from the Soviet to the Western camp. Similarly, China had good reason to split with the USSR and respond to the President Richard Nixon’s and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy.

But when a state is dominated by a strongly ideological regime, whose interests are served by an aggressive policy, and which feels it’s winning, these aren’t times when it’s likely to be moved by concessions and engagement.

When George F. Kennan formulated the U.S. policy of sanctions toward the Soviet Union in 1946, he also stated that the time would come when this very pressure would bring about change in the USSR. He was right–but it took forty years to work.

Syria, Iran, and North Korea are not ripe for change. It makes sense to continue sanctions, even if they don’t produce total success in a short period of time.

To argue that if Iran’s regime is still pursuing nuclear weapons, supporting terrorism, sabotaging Arab-Israeli peace, attacking U.S. interests, and subverting neighbors this proves that sanctions haven’t worked misses the point. Without sanctions, Tehran would only be doing all these things far more effectively.

In short, Obama doesn’t get the connection between policy and impact; or the nature of ideology; or the basis of aggressive dictatorships. It is as if an American president met Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and apologized for America’s role in the slave trade, or the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and asked forgiveness for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, or you-know-who and put the blame on the victorious allies mistreatment of Germany after World War One.

A highly effective slogan against President George W. Bush went like this: “Bush lied; people died.” One day, it may well be said of his successor: “Obama retreated, America was defeated.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to

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