by Jonathan S. Tobin
There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.
As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.
While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:
The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.
Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.
Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.
What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.
Jonathan S. Tobin
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