By Barry Rubin
James P. Rubin writes in the Wall Street Journal:
“Nothing Mr. Obama has done or not done in the last 18 months even remotely compares to the damage wrought by his predecessor to America’s international standing and deterrent power. On the contrary, the Obama administration has restored strained alliances and friendships around the world, while weakening the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.”
When they have to fall back on the argument that Obama is better than Bush, you know the current administration is in trouble. Let’s consider these two clauses. The damage done by Bush was immediate but reversed with relative ease.
While it is certainly possible to argue that Bush damaged America’s “international standing,” however, the current administration seems to interpret that as meaning the United States was less popular. The foreign media made fun of Bush and foreign leaders didn’t like him.
Yet how much did this translate into damaging America’s “deterrent power?” Arguably, the fact that the United States didn’t easily and clearly establish calm in Iraq had that effect. Yet by the end of the Bush Administration the surge had gone far in that direction. Bush’s huge mistake in that regard was not to announce the beginning of withdrawal in 2008 and let the Iraqis defend themselves.
The damage the Obama Administration is doing regarding “deterrent power” is far greater. Namely, by showing itself to be weak, quick to excuse enemies, and slow to support friends, it has sent the signal that the United States is not a reliable ally. There are literally dozens of countries where people are very much aware of this, even though their fears and discontent are only rarely covered in the American media.
And, of course, this leaks over into “international standing.” Let me put it this way: Bush was disliked because he was seen to be a unilateralist adventurist; Obama is disliked because he is seen to be someone refusing to show real leadership and too meek. Neither are good.
Can’t America have a reasonable president who is somewhere in between? Barack H. Obama might claim to be better than George W. Bush, but can he claim to be better than Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton? His supporters wouldn’t dare to make such a comparison.
Then we come to the dangerous claim that Obama “restored strained alliances and friendships around the world, while weakening the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.”
I’d love to see a list of countries where alliances and friendships have been restored. Certainly, relations have been eased with Western Europe but the change is far less than advertised. It is easy also to be more popular if you don’t ask people to do much. Yet, for example, French President Francois Sarkozy has said some startingly negative things about Obama in public and there are growing signs of British unease, too.
What other alliances and friendships have been restored? Most of South America is horrified by Washington’s cozying up to Venezuela (more on that in a moment); more moderate Arab states are trembling over U.S. engagement with Iran and Syria while claiming (as they always will) that Obama hasn’t done enough on Israel. China isn’t thrilled over the Obama Administration; India doesn’t like the pro-Pakistan policy. So who the hell are we talking about?
And then one wants to laugh at the idea that Obama has weakened Ahmadinejad and Chavez. In fact, the administration’s pro-Chavez policy has been so pronounced that it has encouraged Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil to move toward Chavez and–especially in Brazil’s case–to attack U.S. policies.
As for Ahmadinejad, aside from the very mild sanctions that passed the UN Security Council, the administration let the Iranian president get away with stealing the election and surpressing the opposition one year ago, and has done quite little to discomfit him. This is not to exclude a good behind the scenes effort, which continues that of the previous administration, to discourage companies and banks from doing business with Iran. Yet far more could be done.
The idea that Obama has Ahmadinejad and Chavez shaking with fear only makes me shake with laughter. Indeed, the whole line of argument by the administration’s defenders miss the point. It is true that the Obama Administration could not possibly have been more friendly to Brazil, Venezuela, Syria, Iran (up to January 2010), and Turkey. This friendliness, this courting of popularity made them act in a more confidentally anti-American way.
He has also done the same with other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, yet has received nothing in return. Meanwhile, Obama has bashed U.S. allies, most notably Israel but also countries ranging from Honduras to Georgia, Poland and the Czech Republic.
That’s precisely the point about what’s wrong with the administration’s policy of squandering America’s deterrence, making dictators feel more powerful, and straining alliances and friendships.
And isn’t the Guantanamo Bay detention facility still open even though the New York Times last September–that’s nine months ago–proclaimed closing it the Obama Administration’s number-one foreign policy achievement?
In fact, it is very hard for supporters of the administration to come up with any real pluses–except popularity polls–for the administration’s foreign policy. What is worrisome is its willingness to sacrifice substance–tougher sanctions, a conference on nuclear non-proliferation that achieved nothing in real terms, an arms’ treaty with Russia in which concessions were given without getting anything in return–for public relations’ shows.
The article also argues that Obama is systematically smashing al-Qaida better than Bush did. While the U.S. willingness to use targeted assassination against al-Qaida leaders is welcome and has had some successes, that is only a continuation of earlier policies. Despite all that the Obama Administration has done for Pakistan, there has been no big progress against al-Qaida, which has actually extended operations into Pakistan.
And Obama ended a program to target al-Qaida leaders who had been given safe haven in Iran and has not attacked Iran’s policy of supporting this terrorist group. The biggest defeats of al-Qaida came during the previous administration, including the successful strategy in Iraq. Regarding domestic terror attacks, the administration basically lucked out due to brave passengers over Detroit and an alert street vendor in New York. Its counterterrorist effort looked distinctly foolish.
Meanwhile, other revolutionary Islamist groups have made big gains in the Middle East and the administration seems set to accept and even finance–yes, they say they aren’t but that’s indeed the practical effect–the revolutionary Islamist, Iran-backed regime in the Gaza Strip. During his watch, though it began earlier, Iran and Syria recaptured Lebanon for their bloc.
And let’s not even get started regarding the Turkish regime’s defection to the other side or the administration’s policy toward Israel.
But why go on? All the above has happened in just eighteen months, with thirty to go. The fact that Obama, his advisors, and many of his supporters haven’t even noticed this loss of international standing and deterrent power just makes things worse.
The fact is that “W” and “H” are the two worst presidents in the last three decades. To boast that Obama is “only” the second worst (which may turn out not to be true) is hardly a ringing endorsement for the current U.S. government.
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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. Gloria depends on your contributions since the New York Times doesn’t pay for our research. Tax-deductible donation through PayPal or credit card: click Donate button, upper-right hand corner of this page. By check: “American Friends of IDC.” “For GLORIA Center” on memo line. Mail: American Friends of IDC, 116 East 16th St., 11th Floor, NY, NY 10003.