by Richard Baehr
As the United Nations Security Council met to debate the situation in Syria, amid charges that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons and killed hundreds, if not more than a thousand civilians in recent days, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power was nowhere in sight, and State Department officials would not reveal her whereabouts.
Although there may be a legitimate explanation for her absence, avoiding embarrassment might have been a political reason to avoid the debate. The self-described "genocide chick" was a key part of the push for U.S. involvement in Libya, aiming to avoid the possibility of massive civilian casualties in that conflict. Power was believed to be the proponent within the administration of the doctrine known as "responsibility to protect," or R2P. But she has been unusually quiet about the goings on in Syria the last two years, where more than 100,000 have been slaughtered in exactly the kind of conflict Power hoped to avoid in Libya.
President Barack Obama, of course, has his own embarrassments to handle over Syria. After establishing a "red line" on the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, the red line appears to have been violated at least twice, with zero consequence so far for the Assad regime. It is a very bad sign when a humorous newspaper popular with younger Americans, such as The Onion, begins to treat the Obama pronouncements with ridicule. The Onion's headline was: "Obama Deeply Concerned After Syrians Gassed To Death On White House Lawn."
Of course, Syria is not the only Middle East hot spot spinning out of control, or more significantly from the Obama perspective, away from any American role or influence. In Egypt, the nation that Obama chose for his long-promised outreach to Islam speech in 2009, we have witnessed all of the following within two years: The government of long-time American ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, an interim government was installed, elections were held which may have resulted in a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (the results are disputed), the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi pushed for a new Islamist constitution which was approved by voters, unhappiness with the Morsi regime on many fronts led to huge demonstrations demanding he leave office, the army forced Morsi from power, and then cracked down on pro-Morsi demonstrators. And while all of this was going on, Morsi supporters, both when he was in power and since he was deposed, have gone after Egypt's sizable Coptic Christian community, most recently with dozens of church burnings.
Today in Egypt, it is hard to find anyone with any respect or admiration for the role played by Obama in all this. Secularists and supporters of the military taking power from Morsi believed Obama always sided with the Muslim Brotherhood. They point to Obama demanding that Brotherhood leaders attend his Cairo talk in 2009, which contradicted the official policy of the Mubarak government to exclude them from political events, a reason why Mubarak did not personally attend the talk. Obama's ambassador to Egypt appeared to side with the Morsi regime and against its millions of opponents when they took to the street. There was certainly the appearance that Obama was a supporter of the popular will expressed in huge crowds demanding the end of Mubarak's government, but held no such regard for the even larger crowds demanding that Morsi step down.
But supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood are also unhappy with Obama and his actions, or lack thereof. They believe that the Americans did not use the leverage they had with the military and the new military-led government to prevent the "coup" that ousted Morsi, and the crackdown which occurred soon after when Brotherhood supporters took to the street. Obama has been relegated to offering the kind of bromides that no one takes seriously in Egypt or the Middle East -- calling for pluralism, for inclusiveness, for nonviolence, for democratic rule, for a role by all major political parties and constituencies.
These would all be nice, but it is not how things are getting done these days in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and pretty much every other "Arab Spring" address you can list. There is respect for the strong horse, and the government that produces for the people, not for the better sounding political message.
There are other problems for Obama in the region. This week the administration found itself denouncing the latest in a string of ever more strident remarks emanating from Turkish leader Recep Erdogan.
After pointing to Erdogan for years as a model for the kind of Islamist government that the administration could work with and find common cause, this week the Turkish leader went too far, with a predictable anti-Semitic rant about Israel and the Jews being responsible for the collapse of the Morsi government, a government with which Erdogan had bonded. With the Turkish "economic miracle" in full stall, continuing problems with the Kurdish minority and complaints about press censorship and cavalier jailings of political opponents, the bloom is off the rose for another of Obama's favorites.
Just months ago, on his first visit to Israel as president, Obama's going away gift for his Israeli hosts was an arranged three-way discussion with Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an attempt to finally get the two former allies beyond the problems in their relationship associated largely with the Mavi Marmara incident during the Turkish flotilla's attempt to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010. Once Obama got off the phone, the Israelis followed through with their promises, and Turkey, naturally, did not choose to reciprocate.
It is hard to disguise the shocking transformation that has occurred with regard to respect for American power or will in the region.
The Obama team has been comfortable picking off al-Qaida leaders with drone strikes, but has signaled at every turn that it wants no more deployments (or wars) involving U.S. ground forces. While Iran is spinning near 20,000 centrifuges and moving closer to becoming a member of the nuclear weapons club, the Obama team has slowed the approval of sanctions by Congress and welcomed the new Iranian government, as if it really is a fresh start, and can bargain with the U.S. This naïveté suggests that the Obama team believes President Hasan Rouhani's government can act independently of the ruling mullahs who have been toying with the West for over a decade on their nuclear program, always offering the lure of negotiations, when this serves only to delay any serious action by the U.S. and has also led to American pressure on Israel not to act unilaterally.
The message that Iran takes home from American dithering in Syria and Egypt, and our eagerness to talk some more, is that this administration will not use military force to stop their nuclear effort.
President George W. Bush had a very different reputation and image in this part of the world. He was certainly not loved, but our enemies never suspected that we would run from a fight. We still have enemies, but now we seem unable even to take sides. This will only lead to more testing of our resolve by those who have lost respect for our willingness to project the power we have.
And where is the president during all this, now that he is back from golfing at Martha's Vineyard? He has been on a bus tour of college campuses (where some true believers still reside) bashing Rush Limbaugh. We have an unserious man for a serious time.
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