Michael Young

Barack Obama: real, unreal, for real?

 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes US President Barack Obama at the start of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. (AFP PHOTO / YURI KADOBNOV)

Turn to your manual of realpolitik, dear reader, and contrast two very different forms of political behavior.


The United States decides to cut military assistance to Egypt because it is displeased with the slow pace of democratization after the coup against President Mohamed Morsi. But then, off the record, officials characterize this as “temporary,” and say they hope assistance will resume as democratic practices are adopted.


Then look at what is happening in Syria. A psychopathic regime has carried the country into a civil war that has quickly become a regional and international free-for-all. It uses chemical weapons against its own citizens, but somehow manages to make it sound relative by killing not far from 100,000 people, most of them civilians, in other ways. Despite all this its Russian ally continues to supply weapons, defend the Syrian leadership, and look the other way on its most monstrous crimes, all the while retaining its influence.


Morally, the United States is right and Russia wrong. But politically, Washington is ensuring that it becomes less relevant in a country that had been a cornerstone of its regional policy until not so long ago. Russia, in contrast, has used stubbornness over Syria as a trampoline back into regional relevance after a long period of marginalization.


But are things as clear as that? The zeal with which American officials sought to play down the measures against Egypt was reminiscent of Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that an attack against Syria would be “unbelievably small.” The effective consequence was to negate the very policy Washington was implementing--without, however, tempering Egyptian annoyance, since nothing is more annoying than to be penalized by a country unconvinced by the penalty.


The Obama administration is still not clear about what it wants in Egypt. That’s partly because Egypt presents such a litany of contradictory reactions and impulses. In 2011 the Americans called on their old ally President Hosni Mubarak to step down, fearing that by not doing so the US would be overtaken by events and fall on the wrong side of the revolution. They then supported the democratic process, which brought in an Islamist majority to parliament and Morsi as president. When he was overthrown by the army, the US found itself again caught up in a dilemma of either supporting a legitimate president or backing the army with whom it had close ties.


Barack Obama’s choice satisfied nobody. The president tried to play the middle ground--neither calling the military intervention a coup, so as not to be legally bound to cut funding to Egypt (a charade that convinced nobody), nor endorsing the actions the military took against the Muslim Brotherhood--even as it warned against the consequences of repression. For this ambiguity it was accused of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, a ridiculous charge, but one which the cutoff in military aid will not help to discredit.


Russian behavior has been less angst-ridden. President Vladimir Putin opted to go all the way with a barbaric Syrian regime, whatever the consequences. That meant aiding and abetting mass murder, but apparently with no lingering consequences to date, since Putin has been hailed around the world as a master tactician while Obama is routinely (and justifiably) dismissed as a tiresome ditherer.


How strange it is to hear that. Recall that political realists welcomed the president’s election as a refreshing contrast to George W. Bush, whose alleged neoconservatism and taste for democratization jarred with the practical and calculating realist mindset. But it very quickly became apparent that Obama’s desire to disengage from the Middle East did not really qualify as “realism,” because as the region dissolved into violence, American interests were seriously harmed. 


The Arab Spring provided both challenges and opportunities for Washington. In retrospect the US failed on both counts. While Obama managed the initial revolution in Egypt well, he has since lost much ground. Ironically, this happened once Morsi was overthrown, which should have been a moment the Americans would welcome. Instead they waffled, allowing Saudi Arabia to intervene with a generous cash injection that bolstered the military’s credibility.


Now the Egyptian Army is far more concerned with Saudi approval than with American disapproval. And many Egyptians agree.  


In Syria, a true realist would have exploited the opportunity in 2011 to help get rid of the Assad regime, and in that way undermine Iranian power in the Levant. Obama opted to do nothing, neither arming the rebels with weapons that could have threatened the regime nor using its influence to impose unity on the fragmented Syrian opposition groups and the divided countries bolstering them.


The delay (for Obama, typically, would later reconsider and start arming the rebels) gave Iran and Russia the time they needed to send weapons and reorganize Bashar Assad’s army, allowing him to regain his footing. While Washington was emptily calling on Assad to step down, the Iranians and Russians were making sure he wouldn’t do so.


So what are the lessons of the story? There are several. That being morally right but politically indecisive is worse than being morally wrong yet clear-minded about one’s objectives. That Barack Obama is a realist only in the imagination of his admirers. That America in two years has lost in Egypt much of what it spent more than three decades building up. And that nothing is more wretched than a president who wants to be a moral paragon and a cool calculator at the same time.


Above all, that a successful leader is the one who seizes the moment, not the one who has the hubris to believe that the world will somehow bend itself around his priorities and hesitations.


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling. 

While Russia smoothly secures its interest in the Middle East, the US is losing leverage.

"Being morally right but politically indecisive is worse than being morally wrong yet clear-minded about one’s objectives."

  • koukijack

    Hanibaal-Atheos : seems that u are ignoring the role of US in the region , i should remind u that no lebanese president came without a comon approval of syrian regim and US . extra ,, and not to forget the main concern of US in the region ...

    October 13, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    What is your point? You want the US to continue playing this role that has gotten us nowhere in 50 years but to wars, dictatorships, and further backwards than where the Ottomans left us? Gee... thanks. Koukijacka--.

    October 13, 2013

  • dorothy.palmer.98

    This Kenyan mulatto was born out of wedlock of a Jewish prostitute. This is historical fact. You do the math.

    October 13, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Dorothy: You are a racist, anti-semite white supremacist born to inbred hillbillies from the Southern United States. I do the maths and you still live in the boonies of Georgia or Mississipi of the late 16th century when your ancestors came as ignorant, backwoods, also inbred peasants of England. You have done well to preserve the line intact. Keep it up and you will continue to rule for a few more decades. You can count on my maths.

    October 13, 2013

  • shari.hyder.1

    Good writing, with articulated reasoning. I learned much, thank you.

    October 13, 2013

  • SteveJames

    "Obama opted to do nothing, neither arming the rebels with weapons that could have threatened the regime nor using its influence to impose unity on the fragmented Syrian opposition groups" Impose unity on the Syrian opposition groups? Political consolidation, (let alone religious and ethnic consolidation) in a tribal area takes centuries. So does constituional devloment and constitutional breathroughs (as opposed to democracy) after such consolidation takes place. That is what realists understand.

    October 12, 2013

  • kot.oti

    You, journalist everywhere were so giddy having a "minority" candidate, become the new face of diversity in the USA, you lost your mind, enabling, promoting, encouraging who ever you could to vote for him, that he turned out to be the real Putney Swope, is your problem, the egg on your face is all yours, being court reporters, eunuchs of the 21 century! Now eat what you cooked! No return policy on this defective item!

    October 12, 2013

  • Egypt Steve

    Yeah, why doesn't Obama use his influence to impose unity on the Syrian opposition? And while he's at it, why not use it to impose unity on the U.S. Congress, or the American people? Seems simple enough ... I wonder why they hadn't thought of that before?

    October 12, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Obama is a procrastinator. Though he has pretty good political timing instincts, when it comes to governance and policy, his deliberations border on indecision and have the same effect. Not to act is a decision. Non-action is an option and one to which Obama resorts way too often. The US is on a glide path away from intensive MENA engagement mainly because the US has recently become energy self-sufficient with recent oil and gas finds in the US through hydraulic fracking methods. With security for the regions resources and security for Israel being the twin national security interests that have driven US regional policy for decades, one-half of that equation is passe and the Israelis more and more can fend for themselves. So the US interest in investing more blood and treasure to save a people who seem bent on spilling their blood and spending our treasure is not as clear in Washington as it is to the people of Damascus. The issue is clear when facing down the barrel end of an AK47. Not so clear from the bleachers. Obama is for real alright. Just ask the Republicans who he is slowly and methodically dismantling. When he sees a clear US interest, he's on it. When he does not, then you get a lot of what we have seen in Syria.

    October 12, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Koukijack---: On the other hand, the "region" and its states, dictators, governments, monarchies, sheikhdoms, and insipid morons like you all have a very clear vision of "the region", and of yourselves, your present, and your future. That vision is chartered by the hundreds of enlightened Arab thinkers and intellectuals who have laid down its objective far-reaching principles and by the farsighted rulers of the region who are implementing this vision to their adoring peoples. It's just Obama who doesn't get it. I wonder who is he, this American ten thousand miles away, to pry into our affairs and try to have a vision of "our region"?. I think he should stick to his bickerings with Congress and leave us and our region alone, especially since he doesn't have a clear vision. Maybe he needs glasses!

    October 12, 2013

  • koukijack

    Great piece , chapeau bas .. once more we see that US administration has no clear vision of the region .

    October 12, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    What are these mythical "interests" that Obama is squandering with his much maligned posture vis-a-vis the Middle East? Can anyone from the intelligentsia once and for all explain to us, plebean readers, what is it exactly that America is losing in the Middle East as a result of Obama's much maligned policies that was not already missing or lost simply because Arabs and Muslims HATE America? What interests are these that must be bought and that must be panderings to dictators and monarchs bent on eliminating another dictator? America was never ever trusted in the Middle East, long before Bush and long before Obama. I remember when America supported the Assad regime (under Reagan, Bush senior, and Clinton) to the delight of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all the other Suuni Arabs who then loved Assad for his testicular grandstanding against the enemy Israel, and for his occupation and destruction of Lebanon. Why, after 40 years of adoring Assad despite all the harm he has done to the Middle East, they suddenly see him today as the enemy? Why is the killing by Assad of 100,000 Syrian Sunnis such an unacceptable catastrophe, but the killing of 200,000 Lebanese by Assad in collusion with all the Sunni Arabs, including the Lebanese Sunnis, \ and the destruction of Lebanon nothing to ponder about? President Obama is doing the smart thing. "Interests" (as I suppose Michael Young defines them) can quickly be purchased back from future Arab and Muslim dictators, as they are purchased today from extant dictators and monarchs. There was never love to be lost here. For now, Americans should be jubilant - and with them many of us Middle Easterners - to watch America's enemies - Sunnis and Shiites - killing one another. I wish Obama continues to do nothing, and for the killing fields of Syria to last forever.

    October 11, 2013