DURING his eight year tenure at the White House president Barack Obama, entered into grueling duels with a variety of domestic and foreign opponents. Despite his occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Obama never relished the clanging of swords. Sometimes he could not avoid the fight; after all when the gauntlet is thrown in your face you have to unsheathe the blade. But in all of these contests, Obama was unable or unwilling to go for the jugular, and his opponents knew that before they entered the fray. Unfortunately for Obama, his adversaries and enemies played for the kill.
For eight years Obama continuously fought his major Republican opponent in Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell; but the wily Kentuckian, who mastered the art of rearguard battles got the best of him. Early in his first term Obama wanted to test the resolve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regarding a settlement freeze in the Palestinian occupied territories, but the veteran brawler who knew how to exploit America’s complex domestic politics, outmaneuvered Obama who could not mobilize his party for a fight. Obama tried a variety of means in dealing with his most cunning and bloody foreign foe, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, from cajoling, to “resetting” relations, to dueling. But after each round of fighting the Russian opponent, even when damaged, would emerge more brazen than before. The American president reacted timidly to Russia’s swift kill in the Ukraine in 2014 which resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine.
Assad was so dismissive of Obama’s hollow threats that he defiantly crossed the president’s red line against the use of chemical weapons killing thousands of Syrian civilians
That infamous timidity of Obama encouraged Putin to commit more war crimes in Syria after he dispatched his air force and special forces to do what they do well; raze cities and reducing them to wastelands. Aleppo in 2016 met the fate of Grozny, Chechnya in the 1990’s. In August 2011, president Obama called for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to resign, after months of brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. Typically the American president who issued his demand hours before leaving the White House on a 10-day vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, conveniently forgot to add: or else. What occurred in the months and years that followed was a classic case of gradual escalation in the degree of savagery on the part of the Syrian regime to test the seriousness of President Obama and his European allies. Assad moved from the use of medium weapons, against mostly civilian protesters, then heavy artillery and tanks against the lightly armed rebels controlling towns and hamlets, then bombers and attack helicopters laden with primitive but very lethal barrel bombs. Assad even used Scud missiles against rebel held cities and towns. And with each military escalation, the Obama administration reacted by upping the ante of its moral denouncement of the Assad regime. (President Obama and US Ambassador at the United Nations, Samantha Power, are accomplished wordsmiths.)
Assad was so dismissive of Obama’s hollow threats that he defiantly crossed the president’s red line against the use of chemical weapons killing thousands of Syrian civilians.
Good riddance: On Friday January 20, at high noon, Obama’s era will be over, and the strange, raucous times of his successor Donald J. Trump will begin. It must be especially painful for Obama to spend his last days at the White House watching his nemesis on Capitol Hill senator McConnell, who is now stronger than ever, leading and relishing every moment of the beginning of the slow dismantlement of the Affordable Care Act better known as Obamacare, his single most important domestic achievement. Soon, a smug Netanyahu will visit Washington to celebrate and bask in Trump’s victory which he considers his final victory against Obama. During the Obama years, more than 100 thousand Israeli settlers moved to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, raising the overall number of settlers to more than 600 thousand, hence the claim of Naftali Bennett leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party that “the era of a Palestinian state is over”.
Even after the President-Elect Trump, grudgingly admitted after months of suspicious denials, that Russia did indeed hack the Democratic National Committee, he is still eager for President Putin’s affection, to the point where he is discussing now with the Russians before he enters the White House ways and means of talking and meeting. The Russian president hacked his way into the heart of America’s democracy, wreaked havoc and sowed divisions within its institutions, and exposed the fragility of a political order that was supposed to be eminently solid. And all of that happened on Obama’s watch. Once again, Putin has proved that he can rampage his way militarily in the Ukraine and Syria, and wage a cyber war against the United States with impunity, unless you consider evicting some Russian intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats from the US a serious punishment.
Most people never thought that Syria’s lisping psychopath would survive Obama, but Assad who is presiding over a patchwork of destroyed cities did, and one could see him with his Iranian and Russian masters sending off Obama and saying good riddance. It is a damning testimony to Obama’s weak leadership, and his abject failure to use America’s considerable leverage in the world to check Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, or to severely punish Assad and his regime, his Iranian allies and their Shiite militias for their war crimes. Obama who provided Israel with unprecedented military and economic support beyond any provided by a previous US president, could not prevail in his confrontation with an Israeli prime minister whose policies are detrimental to America’s moral and political standing in the region, and who repeatedly lectured and humiliated him.
It is ironic that the man from Chicago, who once extolled the virtue of fighting the Chicago way: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun” never delivered. Obama never instilled fear in the hearts of his enemies, and potential detractors, a clear violation of one of Machiavelli’s important dictums, for a good Prince “must endeavor only to avoid being hated”, but not feared.
The rise of the autocrats It is an axiom of American politics that a president through his actions and inactions contribute to the election of his successor. President George W. Bush through his imperial overreach and ambitious invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and his reckless tax policies that plunged the country into a disastrous recession, played an important role in electing Barack Obama as the Bush antidote. President Obama, a man with considerable talents and a cool temperament that helped him achieve economic recovery from the worst recession since WWII, never managed to be a transformational leader. The slow economic recovery, and more importantly the widening gap in income inequality, the inability of both the Obama administration and the Republican controlled congress to address the devastating economic impact of automation and globalization on American workers, convinced many Americans that the country is in perpetual decline. Obama’s failure to exercise decisive leadership in the world, to assure allies and friends of their safety and well-being particularly those living in the menacing shadows of a revanchist Russia and a more belligerent China and Iran, created the impression in the US and the world that Obama no longer believes that America is truly the indispensable power, still capable of doing great things in the world, alone if she has to.
In the Middle East, President Obama inherited a weak and dysfunctional region, mostly the Arab states, from his predecessor George W. Bush, who contributed to the chaos there by invading Iraq in 2003, will bequeath to his successor Donald J. Trump a disintegrating Levant, and a fraying Libya and Yemen, with other weak Arab states on the verge of collapse. Obama’s early and very rushed and unnecessary withdrawal from Iraq, just to prove that he could put George W. Bush’s “dumb” war behind him, was disastrous, and that irresponsible decision forced him – when he again misjudged the growing threat of the so-called Islamic State ISIS- to return militarily to Iraq by dribs and drabs. Obama’ contributed militarily to the demise of Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, but when the deed was done, he went home. He broke it, but refused to own it. So much for the honorable word of the great power.
But Obama’s tarnished legacy in the Middle East has one name: Syria. Almost everything Obama did in Syria was not either fully honest or was purely tactical designed to buy time, and postpone hard decisions. His almost obsessive drive to reach a nuclear deal with Iran made him sacrifice the Syrian uprising even when it was peaceful, and when it was possible for the US early in the conflict to tip the balance, with limited use of military force in favor of the nationalist opposition, before the rise of monstrous groups like ISIS and al-Nusra, and long before Russia or even Iran could interfere decisively on the side of the despot in Damascus.
[Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem]