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Le Monde, France

Barack Obama’s Sarajevo Moment


By Simon Serfaty

Translated By Micaela Bester

23 January 2013

Edited by Gillian Palmer


France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)

Barack Obama has been the most anticipated, and at the same time, the least prepared, president in recent U.S. history. With great expectation comes great disappointment. Even more in the rest of the world than in the United States, Obama remains loved for what he is, and sometimes in spite of what he does: a “European president” in Europe, where 75 percent of citizens would have voted for him, but also “the first president of the world,” the only one to have roots in Asia and the first to boast of his African ancestors. This is a source of confusion, as a vote for Obama and the image that he embodies is in reality a vote for America and the image that it represents.

It is not nothing, but even bearing in mind this distinction, it is not enough. Deep down, Obama sinned by omission: He said clearly what he wanted to do — Yes, I can — but he did not clearly do what he said — Yes, I must.

By his own admission, Barack Obama does not have for Europe the je ne sais quoi that would make him feel at home on this continent. Bogged down by institutional debates that the American president does not understand, the European Union does not seem to him to be a blue chip. For the moment, though, Obama’s newly-announced strategy, which foreshadows a sliding toward Asia, remains a long-term project. In a changing world, even an unequaled power such as that of the United States cannot play the game on its own.

Available, Capable, Relevant and Compatible Allies

He needs allies who are not only “available” but also capable, relevant and compatible. Where better than in Europe could he best satisfy all of these criteria? Libya 18 months ago, and Mali today, confirm this. No less so than his predecessors, Obama will therefore continue to accord a right of first refusal to the European states and their union. It is the message put forward by Philip Gordon, American assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, in London several days ago: To re-form the Alliance, Europe is needed.

The originality of this message is that the participation of Great Britain in this grand plan is preferable, but it is no longer an imperative: with or without you, Dear English. This conclusion is reinforced in Washington by the image of France, whose bilateral relations with the United States remain excellent.

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, future secretaries of state and defense respectively, were “formed” at the hard school of the Vietnam War: The image of an America that wanted to be everything at once — a cop, a midwife, a supervisor, a banker, a surgeon, a priest and more — is finished. But before confirming a post-American structure expanded to a greater number of countries of varying power and influence, there is yet a new mise-en-scéne, which the United States must establish in one region, the Middle East, whose pacification cannot be abandoned behind projects that are dragging along (like the European project), powers that are struggling (like Turkey) or powers that are slowing down (such as China and Russia). This echoes of the preceding century, when the geopolitical center of gravity was in the Balkans.

Making the Middle East the pivot region of these coming years is not a happy prospect. Between 1956 in Suez and 2006 in Iraq, it is there that the United States has been the most isolated, its leadership the most contested. The American intimacy with the Israeli state is an obstacle, but with almost three out of five Americans holding a favorable opinion in that regard, it is an obstacle that Obama cannot easily overcome.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not the most urgent priority for the region, though, now at the beginning of this term. More pressing still is the crisis with Iran, an issue that has been in slow motion until now but is on the point of unraveling. An Israeli military strike approaches, possible since spring and probable from now until autumn. Obama will have no time to take his time. The game is too important; no state will be able to escape its multiple shocks.

A Date with History

A conflict with Iran will be all the more dangerous because it is at the mercy of a particularly unstable region: nations in transition, like Egypt, which are rethinking their alliances; drifting states, like Syria, which are dreaming of a war as their safety-net; unstable countries, like Libya, which are exporting chaos among their neighbors; indeed, further afield, drifting governments, disarmed of all save nuclear weapons, like Pakistan, where the next elections foreshadow new dislocations.

In 2013, an American capacity to manage the crisis with Iran — first by delaying the Israeli strike (by multiplying the guarantees that focus on gaining time for the sanctions) but then, as needed, by limiting the consequences of these strikes (by dissuading the targets from excessive retaliation) — could facilitate the resolution of the other issues in the region. It is therefore a Sarajevo moment that Obama is destined to live.

A memory, again not very reassuring: 100 years ago, the incapacity to resolve one or other of the “small” conflicts that engulfed the Balkans launched a “big” war that would define the first half of the 20th century. What good could have happened if this futile war had been avoided or at least controlled? In the light of a second presidential term, Obama has a date with history: It is certainly time for him to justify the Nobel Prize that was prematurely awarded to him.



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