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The vacuum in international leadership

Sadly and dangerously, the track record of Obama in international matters is terrible. It is only impressive for those who love his words but ignore the results. In short, he impresses those who don’t count. To the nasty regimes he is a buffoon.

Obama’s abysmal track record

Any doubts about this should be dispelled by a quick look at just a selection of his international activities:

  1. His first presidential visit overseas to Turkey was rapidly followed by Turkey making a series of very public and ostentatious demonstrations of support for enemies of the US (and Israel): Sudan, Syria, Iran and Hamas.
  2. On his first presidential visit to Europe, Obama asked for help from the Europeans to deal with economic crisis and to raise more troops for Afghanistan. Naturally, he was listened to in a friendly and polite fashion, with great photo ops, and super sound bites etc, but his requests were politely declined.
  3. He hit the ‘reset button’ for relations with Russia and withdrew the missile-cover plan for Poland and the Czech Republic and asked for Russian help over Iran. Putin and Medvedev told him to take a hike.
  4. He made his acclaimed speech in Cairo to appeal to the Islamic world and then asked Egypt for some gestures towards Israel for peace. Mubarak, absent from the Cairo super-speech, told him to take a hike.
  5. Following the Cairo super-speech he bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia and asked for a good-will peace gesture towards Israel. King told him to take running jump.
  6. Obama offered the hand of friendship and various goodwill goody-bags to Iran. And to avoid offending the Iranian leadership (in an unprincipled version of the real-politik he was supposedly rejecting), he was both slow and tardy in his reaction to the huge anti-Ahmadinejad movement following the rigged elections. All this did was to achieve an appearance of weakness. As a result, the Iranian leaders were so helpless with laughter they didn’t even bother to tell him to take a hike. They made no attempt to hide their scorn.
  7. He got ‘tough’ with Israel over settlements, apparently seeing them as a crucial problem to the creation of a Palestinian state – only to back down after a couple months when the Arabs strangely went ‘off-message’ (!) and Bibi made a couple of clever speeches. As a result, Obama’s man in the area, the esteemed ex-Senator Mitchell, doesn’t have the faintest notion of what he is doing, when, why or whether he’s coming or going. Nor does he get much help from Hillary Clinton who seems incapable of making a statement that she doesn’t qualify, modify or contradict within 48 hours.

The real reason for Obama’s ‘miss-steps’

What explains this series of failures – or ‘miss-steps’ as they might be politely termed? Insofar as the largely still swooning media have bothered to comment, there have been two observations. The first is that Obama has been keen to distance himself from the ‘cowboy’ image of his predecessor. Nice move. The second observation is that on assuming the presidency Obama was exceptionally inexperienced in international affairs. This is another way of saying he doesn’t have much of a clue. It’s not difficult to see elements of the truth in both explanations.

But the really substantial reason for his serial lack of success is quite different. Here it is. Obama is guided by a totally flawed understanding of international conflict and its resolution.

Obama’s formative political years were largely spent in communal, religious and labour circles involved with various leftish/liberal/radical activists in causes such as poverty, racism, injustice, lack of opportunities and so on. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that, of course. And in so far as he considers the blame for social ills to originate within the capitalist system and/or with US imperialism and its racism, inequalities, arrogance, or whatever, it goes a long way towards explaining both his radicalism and his associations in Chicago politics.

Yet at the same time, insofar as his analysis of the major causes of international injustice and conflict is also to be found in the same location – US capitalism and US domination – this goes a long way to explaining his weakness in international affairs.

Obama’s view of international conflict

In this view, the heart of international conflict is the legacy of colonialism, the Cold war, and US culture – all of which Obama highlighted in his Cairo super-speech. In common with many left-leaning liberals and radicals, this view sees the US as the major culprit in international affairs.

Consequently, Obama supports fighting the social evils of US capitalism by means of radical change at home (although whether he has the mandate for this is another matter) and by reducing the use of US power abroad. This is why he speaks so softly on international affairs – because he is reluctant to play the role of what he considers to be an ‘imperialist’ or US bully. In other words, his weakness internationally is not simply the product of inexperience. It is the deliberate product of a view of the world in which the power of US capitalism at home and abroad is a central problem. In short, his is a completely self-inflicted weakness.

As long as views such as these are confined to left/liberal/radical circles in local and regional affairs, the chief requirements on the international scene largely consist of a number of left/liberal/radical postures and the occasional solidarity campaign. Unfortunately, for the president of the US these are hopelessly inadequate. The reason is that everyone who counts – absolutely everyone – may agree how nice this new non-assertive approach is and may cheerily agree how refreshing it all is, at least for now, but nasty and dangerous regimes will simply ignore the soft-power requests to reciprocate with equal lovableness.

Weakness creates opportunities for enemies

Unfortunately and predictably, nasty regimes will not see the proclaimed openness and willingness to engage in dialogue as an opportunity for reciprocal behaviour. Nor will they see it as an opportunity to establish a relationship for reaching mutually advantageous agreements and stability. Instead they will see it as an unbelievable golden opportunity; an encouragement to press for more; to ratchet-up their claims and hostility with impunity. In short, it will make them bolder. At the same time, it will undercut any moderate elements.

In other words, Obama’s view of international affairs offers an incredibly favourable opportunity for nasty regimes to take advantage of a period in which they can think that they have a monopoly of the use of force. In this way, it encourages extreme claims and adventurous behaviour. Both will be even harder to deal with at a later date.
This is why Theodore Roosevelt, shortly before becoming the 26th president of the US, made one of the most famous declarations in politics, which became his ‘trade-mark’ in international affairs, “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

Without this approach, Obama makes Neville Chamberlain look like Al Capone. Speaking softly is a fine thing and often necessary. But having exuded charm, softness and lovebleness, what next?

The problem is that without a big stick in reserve and ready for use, it is impossible to get far with fanatical anti-democratic and anti-liberal regimes. They entirely lack Obama’s sensibilities; function in political and social environments which are highly resistant to those sensibilities; and are furiously trying to acquire all the hard power they can get while they can. Iran in particular can only be described as making hay while the sun shines.

Jon Dyson

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