Rarely has an administration looked as inconsequential as that of U.S. President Barack Obama’s did this week.
A year after Obama warned the Syrian regime that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line”, rebel forces said Wednesday that the army of President Bashar Assad had used poison gas to attack civilians near Damascus, killing potentially hundreds.
The rebels’ allegations have been verified by videos showing victims convulsing and choking, as well as photos of children wrapped in clean white shrouds, lined shoulder to shoulder with their dead faces visible.
Yet, despite the growing body of evidence of chemical weapons attacks, the Obama administration continues to assess, reassess, hem and haw.
And don’t expect a shift in U.S. policy even if the White House should at last conclude that the Syrian military is using chemical weapons. The lack of a clear, coherent U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria isn’t a mere foreign policy slip.
Indeed, the lethargy that has to date characterized the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is deep, broad and systemic.
From his famous 2009 ‘Cairo Speech’ to the Muslim world to the latest round of peace talks aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama’s policy in the Middle East can be summed as follows: “speak loudly and throw away your stick”.
Behind the soaring rhetoric and lofty ambitions, Obama’s is a remarkably cold-blooded administration, which bases decisions on how foreign policy issues will play at home. As a result, there has long been a proclivity in Obama’s White House towards a foreign policy punctuated by swift, dynamic action that is utterly lacking in continuity or consistency.
However, there is a method to this madness. To understand Obama’s guiding principles with regards to the Middle East, one need only recall the legacy of one of his political mentors, Henry Kissinger. As President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Kissinger’s realpolitik outlook viewed unrest as more dangerous than injustice and a functioning balance of power as more important than human rights.
Realpolitik refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.
This realism without moral scruples explains the current administration’s approach to Syria, which is to help keep the Syrian opposition fighting but with the implicit understanding that any assistance be limited for fear that the rebels might actually win.
This obsession with stability is a hallmark of an Obama White House that aims to significantly reduce the U.S. influence in world affairs, justifying such a retreat by a greater focus of time and treasure on domestic issues.
While the idea of an incredible shrinking United States holds a superficial appeal, it’s neither new nor has it ever proven successful. Lyndon Johnson sought to concentrate on domestic American affairs after 1964, with his Great Society program, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W Bush in 2000. All three were blindsided by reality.
Barack Obama’s value-free foreign policy isn’t responsible for the massacre in Syria. However, the President of the United States must be held accountable for the policies he creates and the messages those policies send. Not only has Obama’s disengaged attitude not served American values, they are allowing Middle East autocrats to take full advantage of a feckless U.S. foreign policy, wreaking death and destruction across the region.
For the President of the United States, aloofness isn’t a luxury.