Obama’s Disaster

A pacifist who becomes the president of a superpower sooner or later has to fall ill with diplomatic schizophrenia.

A few days ago, the Belgian newspaper De Morgen featured a cover photo of Vladimir Putin. He had a focused face, the eyes of a hypnotist and was exuding majesty combined with terror. The caption read: “Super-strategist.”

The conflict in Syria has lifted Putin to the role of a main player in the global politics. Now, it is the Russian president who makes the most important decisions, whose proposals other heads of state listen to, who focuses the media attention from Beijing to Washington. However paradoxical it may sound, Putin has suddenly become the principal guarantor of peace in the Middle East, a defender of common sense, an outstanding negotiator and a “super-strategist.” Imagine that only in August the same Putin was a sinister stalker of gays and lesbians, a monster that the West would jointly condemn and boycott for his homophobic crusade.

The Art of Bluffing

Of course, the Kremlin’s plan to disarm the regime of Bashar Assad is only a smoke screen and an attempt to gain more time. Does anyone really believe that the Syrian dictator will turn over his entire chemical arsenal to the “international community” and sit down for peace talks? Does anyone still believe that Putin’s actions stem from his concerns over the maintenance of peace in the region?

Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the history of the Cold War and Russia’s policy after 1991 knows that former KGB officers have mastered the art of pulling the wool over the opponents’ eyes. Many Western leaders — from Jimmy Carter to Helmut Schmidt to Jacques Chirac — did fall for the same old trick. Some, like Gerhard Schröder, actively and cynically participated in these games. And the Kremlin rulers, seeing the boundless naiveté of their adversaries, only rubbed their hands.

Now, however, Putin has a unique opportunity. He is dealing with the hilarious duo of the U.S. President Barack Obama and his aide, Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Syria and relations with Moscow are behaving like a pair of blind kittens. If De Morgen had published a photo of Obama on its cover, the caption probably would have said “Super-loser.”

Time Bomb

Obama’s policy toward Russia has come full circle. It began with the famous “reset” and reduction of the number of nuclear warheads under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). This was followed by a series of glitches and misunderstandings, endless disputes over the missile defense shield, Congress’ retaliation measures connected with the murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and a ban on adoptions of Russian children by American families. Russians did not care about the “reset” renewal because they saw that the U.S. had already been seriously weakened by the crisis, and thus its presence in the world was not so prominent. Americans, in turn, devoted far less attention to Russia and China, and instead concentrated on what was happening in the Pacific Basin.

When Obama canceled his Moscow meeting with Putin, American press announced the death of the “reset” policy and the beginning of a new era of cold relations between the two countries. Obama’s firm reaction, even if expected, brought him clear benefits. After all, it was the American president who slammed his fist on the table in anti-Kremlin protests against the persecution of the opposition for the banning of so-called “homosexual propaganda,” (less officially) granting Edward Snowden asylum and the Russian support for Assad. The U.S. president proved to be a true leader of the free world — on the one hand, heroically fighting for the rights of the oppressed, on the other hand, protecting the interests of his own country.

Such an attitude was greeted with applause from most of the Western public. Soon, however, it turned out that under this nice blanket of propaganda there is a time bomb that is just about to blow up the whole U.S. diplomacy.

Anger for Show

In his approach to Syria, Obama made a colossal mistake. It should not have happened to any head of state, much less to the president of a superpower like the U.S. First, he issued an ultimatum declaring that if Assad used chemical weapons, America would take firm action. When the Aug. 21 massacre occurred in Ghouta, Obama had no choice. He had to threaten military strikes against Syria as punishment.

It seemed that Obama crossed the Rubicon and American planes would inevitably bomb the barracks and ammunition dumps of the Syrian army. Yet surprisingly, the president did something that even Jimmy Carter would not have done. He retreated. Although it was not a must, he decided to seek congressional authorization for the operation, knowing that the Congress would not grant it. In all of his speeches one could almost hear him begging: “Take this burden off my shoulder, let the problem solve itself.”

The last act of this tragicomedy was a statement by John Kerry, who said that any attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small.”

In this way, America joined the club of countries like Iran and North Korea that promise to launch “massive strikes” and “annihilate the enemy” at least a few times a year and then do nothing. Still, there is a difference between Kim Jong Un and Barack Obama: The first one would never say that he will fire an “unbelievably small” number of missiles at New York.

Needless to say how such statements are being perceived by, for example, Beijing. The Chinese Communists can be certain that if one day they feel like invading Taiwan or the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, over which they argue with Japan, the U.S. president will not react too quickly, if at all.

George W. Bush, the previous U.S. president, had many faults. Nevertheless, during his two terms as president, enemies of the U.S. rightly feared his wrath and the world felt respect for the American power. Obama is angry just for show and in consequence, America’s credibility is melting at a terrifying pace.

Helplessness and Chaos

When it comes to Washington’s foreign policy, last week was a period of helplessness and confusion. William Dobson, a well-known commentator on international affairs, wrote in Slate to “give President Barack Obama credit: He has done such a good job of acting unpredictably in the lead-up to his proposed military strikes on Syria that no one knows what he will do next. He has successfully confused ally and enemy alike. Sun Tzu would be proud.”

Obama looks like a lost and scared man, and still worse — surrounded by people who are not able to define American interests in a rapidly changing world.

Not surprisingly, the downfall of U.S. diplomacy accelerated sharply after Hillary Clinton resigned from her post as U.S. secretary of state. She can be criticized for many things, but definitely not for a lack of competence and courage. I have the feeling that if she were the president, a hail of Tomahawks would have already fallen on Assad’s head. John Kerry — from the very beginning — has been putting all his energy into the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. He decided to walk the path trodden by many predecessors that invariably leads to nowhere. Kerry failed to recognize the growing importance of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the declining American influence in the Middle East. Susan Rice — until recently the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and now the national security adviser — in September last year became the infamous heroine of a scandal that erupted after the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed. Although she had previously been informed by intelligence that the action was carried out deliberately by Islamists linked to al-Qaida, Rice assured the public that it was a “spontaneous” reaction of the crowd. Another important figure, Samantha Power, took the place of Rice at the U.N. in August. Known for her anti-Israel views, Power is an author of books and essays about how powers should behave in the face of genocide and is a supporter of “humanitarian” military intervention. It was she who persuaded Obama to join the war against Moammar Gadhafi.

Free Driver’s Seat

A team of people with different views, temperaments and social backgrounds, they even represent different generations (Vice President Joe Biden is 70, Kerry 69, Obama 52, and Power 43). None of them can outline a coherent doctrine of U.S. foreign policy — what role the United States should play in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Does America have to be a “hard hegemon,” “soft hegemon” or maybe it should separate itself from the problems of the rest of the world and immerse itself in isolationist utopia? The Obama administration has increasing difficulty articulating what is in the U.S. interest and what is not.

The president himself sends mixed signals. Deep down, he is a pacifist who would rid the world of nuclear weapons and reach out to Muslim countries. But he did give the order to kill Osama bin Laden, increased the number of drone strikes on the Afghan-Pakistani border and still holds suspected terrorists at prison in Guantanamo — which, by the way, he promised to close.

Walking with glory as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Obama has created his anti-Bush image and renounced Bush’s “imperialist” policies. Unfortunately for him, from time to time, circumstances have forced him to take steps that he prefers to avoid. This has finally led to a kind of diplomatic schizophrenia.

Obama wants to influence the fate of the world. It seems, however, that he’s following his own advice to Republicans two years ago and is leading by sitting in the back seat. There would be nothing wrong with that, if not for the fact that the driver’s seat is occupied by Vladimir Putin.

The author is a columnist of a weekly Do Rzeczy.

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