Monday, November 24, 2014

Overcautious Obama

PRINCETON – In this election season in the United States, President Barack Obama is two men in one. The Obama of the Cairo speech of 2009, when he called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, has been increasingly eclipsed by Obama the terrorist-slayer, the commander-in-chief who has launched hundreds of drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Commander-in-chief Obama is doing what he thinks is necessary to keep Americans safe, but he is ignoring the deeper roots of US security that the Cairo Obama understood so well. It may well be necessary for other Muslim countries to hold him to account.

Consider Syria. Everything happening there was both predictable and predicted: a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, increasing sectarianism and ethnic segregation, the polarization of extremes and the silencing of moderates, de-stabilization of neighboring countries, infiltration by terrorist groups, and a bloodbath from which the country could take decades to recover. Syrian opposition groups beg for the kinds of weapons needed to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s planes, defend hard-won territory, provide safety for civilians, and signal to Assad that the world will not stand by as he does whatever it takes to subdue his own people.

Every morning, Obama receives a briefing from men who warn him of every plot and conspiracy to kill Americans. He knows that any weapon capable of shooting down a Syrian warplane could also be used by a terrorist against a US airliner. He believes that he is doing the right thing and following the prudent course in waiting for the Syrian conflict to burn itself out in some way while minimizing the long-term risk to American lives.

Other advisers warn him that any possible action – a safe zone on the Turkish border, for example, that could expand outward – requires taking out anti-aircraft defenses all over Syria. That would mean bombing Damascus, which could harden Syrian support for Assad. And perhaps it would do no good; it might save a few lives, they argue, but, with so many different countries fighting a proxy war via so many different groups of opposition fighters, it would not change the overall dynamic of the conflict.

Moreover, other countries in the region will not use offensive force without approval by the United Nations Security Council, which the Russians and Chinese continue to block. And let’s not forget that US voters have no appetite for more military action in the Middle East, even if the price is years of civil war and the implosion and fragmentation of a country bordering Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.

These arguments are advanced in good faith and deserve serious consideration. But the art of leading rests on calculating costs and benefits and exercising judgment when the balance is unclear. No one speaks for the Syrian people in the Oval Office every morning. No one adds up the costs of betraying, yet again, what America claims to stand for, even while witnessing people willing to march – in the face of bullets – for precisely those universal values: dignity, freedom, democracy, and equality. The cost is yet another generation of Middle Eastern youth who will believe the worst about the US, no matter how far-fetched the rumor or extreme the claim.

No one points out the huge opportunity cost of what could have been and what could still be – albeit barely – if the US took decisive action to save tens of thousands of Syrian lives and possibly tip the balance of the conflict. Consider the contrast with Libya, where one of the outcomes of US intervention was tens of thousands of Libyans marching in the streets with placards declaring their support of the US and their outrage and sorrow at the murder of the US ambassador. And, on the world stage, Russia and China have been encouraged to believe that America will never push past a veto, effectively giving them the final word.

It may well be impossible to get the US to act before its presidential election in November. The only chance, in my view, is if countries in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – call openly for US leadership. They should remind Obama of what foreign-policy experts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr have recently called “the responsibility doctrine”: great powers have an active responsibility to uphold global norms and solve global problems.

The Arab League should publicly charge the Security Council with abdicating its responsibility for preserving international peace and security and call on countries with important interests in the region to join with them in taking action. They should specifically call on the US to assume the mantle of global responsibility and, in the phrase that Obama used to describe the intervention in Libya, “create the conditions and coalitions for others to step up.” The League would be asking the US to live up to its values and pursue its interests, while at the same time fulfilling its own responsibility as a regional organization.

The devastating and widening conflict in Syria does not present any good choices, only choices between bad and worse. But a leader must choose, and Obama is making the wrong choice – for Syria, for the region, and for the US.

Read more from our "The World According to Obama" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedKir Komrik

      Thanks for the comments,

      I think we agree here.

      "They should remind Obama of what foreign-policy experts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr have recently called “the responsibility doctrine”: great powers have an active responsibility to uphold global norms and solve global problems."

      Had USG taken the lead in establishing a transparent, studied and deliberated federation of states decades ago we would have sufficient rule of law and enforcement in the area to resolve this. Instead, we spent several decades trying to work in shadows and thence thrashing the public good will needed to support it, imo.

      I agree with the premise here, that USG must take a lead and it does indeed have a responsibility in the global neighborhood. Under the circumstances, I'd vote for use of the Israeli and U.S. clandestine forces ... as long as it remains clandestine.

      - kk

    2. CommentedSankar Kumar Das

      It is true that Obama has not been able to fulfill many of the assurance that he offerred during his first term of Presidentship. but peoples agree that he had rode to the post of U.S. President at a time when countries economic position was in the dwindled shape. So, nobody expected that he will have 100% success to keep his promises. But then, it is to be noted that, while George W.Bush had devasted Afganistan so as to catch or kill Bin Laden, but could not do so despite killing thousands of Afgan People, Obama's intelligency force successfully could locate the shelter of Bin Laden, and killed him by using Drone, without causing any unnecessary bloodshed. He is following pursuasive lines towards Iran and North Korea, so that these countries do not manufacture Nuclear Bombs though they have full capabilities. In fact, instead of shouting towards those countries, if USA assure them that the existence of those countries will not be at a stake, these countries will not manufacture Nuclear Boms, since these bombs are actually not necessary at all for existence of their countries unless any other forces of the world threaten them. There is no logic to keep economic sanctions on Cuba by USA, and mass people of USA is not appreciating it. Perhaps Obama would have done much better by withdrawing sanctions on Cuba, since existence of Cuba is not at all a danger for USA. Obama has restricted Isreal on overacting on Palestane issue against Iran, is a good thing, though Romney is vehemently criticising Obama on this issue. In the economic front of USA, Obama's views on reducing unemployment problems at USA can be clearly understood and everybody understands that its progress will be a bit slow. But if the wealthiest Peoples of USA spend their money to build up /improve the infrastructures of their own country, which will admittedly give them profitable return in the long term, the unemployments in USA will be greatly reduced. Romney is crying hard on the failure of Obama in solving the Unemployment problems, but hehas failed to clearly spell his plan as to how he is going to solve unemployment problems at USA. Obama's campaign showing the positive aspects of his rule whereas Romney is trying to get only the negative votes of Obama. So these negative votes will never be able to touch the magic number to win the election. However, the US voters will ultimately say what they want in the November's presidential election.

    3. CommentedSartaj Hans

      There is no moral obligation for the U.S to assume the role of Superman and respond to the matters of a sovereign nation.

      " The cost is yet another generation of Middle Eastern youth who will believe the worst about the US, no matter how far-fetched the rumor or extreme the claim"

      Has any grown up ever resented the fact that the U.S. did NOT step in to invade his country ?

    4. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      Given the mess created by his Republican predecessors, Obama had carried out a rescue of Americas interests in the Middle East that is breathtaking.

      The great question is now commentators such as Prof Slaughter can write this nonsense without laughing. She has nowhere mentioned the salient issues in the region.

    5. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      Another democracy peddler. Why can't they be like us and why do they hate us?

      You may also wish to remind Obama and the foreign-policy experts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr that “the responsibility doctrine”: of the great powers involves an active responsibility to uphold global norms and solve global problems while not slipping down the primrose path to bankrupty. Did, I hear recently that the "great World powers's" crdit rating was recently downgraded and folks are already talking about the "post America World"?

      Look, there is a time to be the world policeman and meddle into every affair calling it agreat human tragedy and then there is time to do a bit of housekeeping. US, right about now needs a lot of housekeeping so that it would then have the potential to stand up to China and spread the wonderful democracy around the globe. Ain't that just peachy!

    6. CommentedVivek S

      Why doesn't the Arab league step up and take responsibility? Are the UN/NATO/US supposed to be hired guns, contract killers?