Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Obama's Lost Leverage on the Global Stage

The NYT's Thomas Friedman pens what's on the whole a reasonably well-argued essay on how Mr. Obama has done much better on achieving the Bush/Cheney "war on terror" objectives than Bush/Cheney did (and let's not forgotten Condi, America's then embattled brainiac/Barbie doll secretary of state); has bungled Afghanistan/Pakistan; and has little leverage to use, owing to American economic decline and reliance on Middle Eastern oil (a very big drum that TF bravely keeps banging - and God bless him for it.)

But his myopia kicked in when he then wrote:

Obama’s frustrations in bagging a big, nonmilitary foreign policy achievement are rooted in a much broader structural problem — one that also explains why we have not produced a history-changing secretary of state since the cold war titans Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.

The reason: the world has gotten messier and America has lost leverage. When Kissinger was negotiating in the Middle East in the 1970s, he had to persuade just three people to make a deal: an all-powerful Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad; an Egyptian pharaoh, Anwar Sadat; and an Israeli prime minister with an overwhelming majority, Golda Meir.

To make history, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by contrast, need to extract a deal from a crumbling Syrian regime, a crumbled Egyptian regime, a fractious and weak Israeli coalition and a Palestinian movement broken into two parts.

Actually, even if Kissinger et al. were "cold war titans" at a time when US-Soviet relations called the tune for global geopolitics, Kissinger's lopsidedly pro-Israel intervention in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war was part of a long history of such pro-Israel decisions on the part of the US.  Those decisions relentlessly undercut the US's leverage in the eyes of the people who - in this era of the "Arab spring" - are now beginning to count perhaps the most in the Middle East: the once disdained (and, as far as the US was concerned, largely ignored) "Arab street" (and add to that now the Turkish and Iranian streets).

 Of the three presidents whose tenures those three Secs of State reflect, only George H. W. Bush (with Baker as his Sec State) dared take a stand (in 1991) against Israeli colonization of the Occupied Territories.  (And it cost him on the American "street": that the victor of the 1991 Desert Storm war against Saddam went down to defeat vs. Bill Clinton in Nov. 1992 was due in no small part to Bush's threat to retract loan guarantees if Israel did not curb its colonization of the West Bank.)  Throughout that time, the US was content to make protecting Israel's interests one of the lynchpins of its Middle East policy.  And it played ball with dictators of the ilk of Hafez al-Assad and Anwar al-Sadat in order to achieve that goal.  The vaunted 1979 Camp David Accords that Jimmy Carter spearheaded (and for which Sadat became a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) got Israel a treaty with Egypt and got the Sinai back into Egyptian hands, but it essentially hung the Palestinians out to dry.  In the years to follow, the US played ball with Sadat's successor, the president/dictator Hosni Mubarak, and with Syria's president/dictators Assad (pere et fils) whenever it furthered Israeli interests.

So now, those dictators are gone or (probably) going.  And as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi have found out, the Arab street, previously discounted as all "bark," turns out to have a nasty "bite."  Its denizens have long, deeply seared memories - of US support for dictators who ruined and tortured them, and for an Israel that has killed thousands of them (on the streets of Beirut as well as Ramallah).  Since 2001, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed tens of thousands of them on the streets of Baghdad and Basra, Kabul and Kandahar.  And in the process, a largely Islamophobic American public that let itself be whipped into a frenzy of misguided revenge in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 have reveled like triumphant crusaders in the gore of thousands of Muslims its military - with the blessing of its Congress - has killed worldwide.

Slowly, but  inexorably, the dictators are passing from the Middle Eastern scene, to be replaced (one fervently hopes) with representative democracies.  As reports pouring in from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria have made abundantly clear, the new democracies and their parliaments will be brimming with political Islamists of various stripes; and (at least relative to the regimes they will replace) they will be much more attuned, and responsive, to the "street," with its charnel-house memories.

On that street, the USA will have little leverage indeed.  And Mr. Friedman ought to chalk up that lost leverage, in significant part, to those State Department "titans" of the Cold War yesteryear.

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