Saturday, November 29, 2014

Jimmy Carter Obama

PARIS – “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin famously quipped when told to be mindful of the Vatican. In an updated lesson in realpolitik, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently was happy to count Pope Francis as an ally in opposing American military intervention in Syria. Presenting himself as the last pillar of respect for international law, Putin offered ethics lessons to the United States – and specifically to President Barack Obama.

With the US-Russian agreement, signed in Geneva on September 14, to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Russia has returned to the global scene – and not only because of its nuisance value. Could Putin one day receive, like Obama before him, a Nobel Peace Prize? Has not Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who proposed the deal, already entered the pantheon of great Russian diplomats, as the successor of Karl Nesselrode, the Russian envoy to the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna and to the Congress of Paris in 1856?

Of course, Russian diplomacy has performed extremely well recently, but it does not stand on its own merits alone. Russia’s diplomats would have gained little without America’s foreign-policy malaise – a victim of Obama’s vacillation and of Americans’ hostility to any new military adventure, however limited its scope – and Europe’s deep internal divisions.

Yes, Russia is emerging from its humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Heir to an imperial tradition that has shaped its national identity, Russia is resuming in the Middle East a role and status more in tune with the one it had from the Czarist era to Soviet times.

But Russia is no match for the US militarily and no match for China economically, and its soft power is virtually non-existent. If Russia can provoke America – whether by granting political asylum to the “traitor” Edward Snowden, for example, or by resisting Western diplomacy in the Middle East – it is not because it has become a great power once again, but simply because America is no longer the great power that it once was.

The Syrian crisis has made that plain. Recent US diplomacy has seemed amateurish and naive. Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis increasingly evokes Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis 33 years ago, particularly the failed operation in 1980 to rescue the Americans abducted following the takeover of the US embassy in November 1979. Then, too, hesitation seemed to prevail over determination, contributing to the failure of the mission.

Carter was a somewhat bland engineer, whereas Obama is a charismatic lawyer. Yet they seem to share a fundamental indecisiveness in their approach to world affairs. Carter had difficulty choosing between the muscular line of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the more moderate approach of his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance.

By contrast, there are no fundamental disagreements among Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers – Susan Rice, the national security adviser, Samantha Power, who succeeded Rice as US Ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of State John Kerry. Instead, it is Obama himself who seems to be constantly hesitating. The divisions are not among his advisers, but within his own mind.

As a good lawyer, Obama weighs the pros and cons, aware that it is impossible to do nothing in the Syrian crisis but remaining viscerally disinclined to leap into any foreign entanglement that would distract attention from his agenda of domestic reform. More important, he seems to lack a coherent long-term strategic vision of America’s role in the world. Neither the currently fashionable “Asian pivot” nor the “Russian reset” four years ago constitute the beginning of a grand plan.

In such a context, the return of global realpolitik can only benefit Russia and harm the US, despite America’s many advantages in terms of hard and soft power. The agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons struck by Russia and the US could one day be remembered as a spectacular breakthrough in the field of arms control. But it is more likely to be perceived as a grand deception – remembered not for helping Syria’s people, but mainly as a sign of America’s growing international weakness.

In that case, the agreement will not only damage America’s reputation, but will also undermine global stability. Weakness is weakness, whether one is in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, or Pyongyang.

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    1. CommentedEugene Devany

      My opinion is that Mr. Obama has never taken a course in economics and he has admitted that his math skills are modest. He may be a genius in many areas, but this type of shortcoming is not uncommon with attorneys - even a "charismatic lawyer". The reference to, "distract attention from his agenda of domestic reform" seems to be polite is the assumption that there is something apart from a failed national insurance plan. "The divisions are not among his advisers, but within his own mind," is Jimmy Carter all over again.

    2. CommentedStamatis Kavvadias

      "...[Russia] resisting Western diplomacy in the Middle East". Which diplomacy? What does the west have to demonstrate? Threat of war? The current situation, with Obama's retreat to a more peace-friendly approach, can loose its advantage of demonstrating prudence in global issues, if thinking like that of Mr. Moisi prevails. No sober country leadership would perceive US adopting a deal on chemical weapons, as undermining US military supremacy, not even as undermining US president's ability or resoluteness for military action, if really provoked. The only thing demonstrated is that challenging the US is not merely a game of words, but the US and Obama would support a chance for reasonable and peaceful resolution of global issues. Regarding strategic vision, building on such a profile will become very useful, for the US and the whole world, in the not too distant future, when the US will no longer be the world's leading economic power, and "war games" should again learn from tic tac toe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A mindless bully does not know his own power, and a weak dog barks to scare its opponent. They would champion more their reputation than their identity. The self-centered, arrogant hegemon seeks "greatness" (as in "the great power that it once was"). US has the political structure and the military and economic power to take immediate action, if its interests are challenged in any way. But will it persist in a hegemonic trajectory, exploiting geopolitical playgrounds for domestic consumption and manipulation, until history repeats itself, or will it invest in evolution of human destiny?

    3. CommentedFemi Awoyinfa

      Perception is reality… especially in politics, locally, nationally or globally. The US has displayed more vacillation than determination on the Syria crisis and rightly so.. with recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. I agree with Dominique that the agreement has dented America’s global power reputation because it looks (unfortunately) more like a face-saving compromise for US. Tehran and Pyongyang are watching. In the final analysis, this is the real issue to be considered

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      In a global, integral system there are no winners or losers.
      There are only cogwheels.
      There are larger and smaller cogwheels but nevertheless they need to assemble into a single functioning machine.
      At the moment the cogwheels started touching as the "clutch" is lifted by our evolution into the global world, making sparks flying, screeching, but still getting closer and adjusting.
      If we start to resist this process of equalization, global interconnection, that is when the machine will blow up, break.
      On the other hand if we pro-actively facilitate the process then we find the solution for the global crisis and all other conflict situations around the world.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        In this context--the natural context of all natural system evolution--the analysis must of success of failure of the multi-pole joining is did the gears try to click in, or grind. That is, not did Obama fail to be the prime factor, or Putin succeed--because their individual "success" is a further damage, chaos to the system as a whole. Rather as a collaboration group did they--not "him" or "him," but "THEY" succeed in sensing the sub-tasks that time, place, circumstance, and natural talents directed them to, and properly link these together in a general concert of these specifics. Were the proper parts taken, and joined into a successful whole?

        As Mr. Hermann wisely points out, it is not a matter of winners or losers, but win-win and lose-lose. The attituded prevalent in the formulation of Dominique Moisi's question itself is, unfortunately, a guarantor for lose-lose. Hopefully we will not need too much more beatings from global system realities to direct us to the right question.

    5. CommentedTerry Turner

      "As a good lawyer, Obama weighs the pros and cons..."

      The man is a community organizer, it is said, of some skill and aptitude. He was supposed to be a Constitutional law lecturer at some point in time, but there are no public records of it. He's a pretty fair public speaker, as long as he can get his I'm-watching-a-tennis-match-from-the-sidelines TelePromPter rhythm. He's a no-holds-barred Chicago-style politician who never EVER leaves the campaign trail, and has demonstrated an ability and willingness to say literally anything and break privacy and election laws to get elected.

      But why do you say he's a good lawyer?

      I can see where you might think he'd make a good lawyer. But as far as I know, he's never tried a case in a court of law, and never actually worked as a practicing attorney. For anyone. Ever.

      Just curious...

    6. Commentedyancey simon

      Lets be clear on what is going on in the Middle East. The Syrian "rebels" are fortified by Saudi and Israeli covert supply operations that have delivered weaponry and mercenaries from the start. Israel has flown several bombing missions into Syrian airspace. The Saudis have supplied capital, weapons, and manpower to the rebels. All of this has gone on with the full knowledge and direction of the US. Russia and China are well aware of this dynamic at play. So too are the multitudes of Middle Easterners. After a series of aggressive and overt US intrusions into Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has played the covert approach in Syria---assisted by Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    7. CommentedNAVITA SRIKANT

      Brilliant piece, Reminds me of Mandela's 8 tactics of Leadership. 4th rule says "Know your enemy - and learn about his favorite sport". World's leading surveillance programmers failed to safeguard their own footsteps. Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt...failed interventions with lack of decisiveness..All Russia did was prompted next.

    8. CommentedJoshua Soffer

      Why is it a sign of American 'weakness' that it assesses the current world situation and decides against the use of brute force? Is beligerance backed by threat of bombs the only way in which the U.S. can be understood to be exercising power abroad?

    9. Commentedshanmugham anand

      When the US Congress itself is not in favour of bombing syria, why should the President go for it? But it was Obama's maximalist position that paved the way for removing chemical weapons from Syria's soil without a single shot fired by US, that too, with Israel still in possession of nuclear weapons! And let us not forget, US has not made assurances discounting future attacks.

    10. CommentedFaruk Timuroglu

      Recent chemical attack in Syria was the latest attempt to coerce President Obama to play George W. Bush. The players who have been pouring oil in the fire in Syria for so long, were so sure that Obama could not refuse the bait this time. However, agile Russian President Putin land a hand to him, which frustrates many.

    11. CommentedRichard Foosion

      We are against chemical weapons. Assad has agreed to the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, without a US shot being fired. Unless you like blowing things up, this seems like a splendid outcome.