Barack Obama came into power carrying with him the aspirations of an expectant nation and the good will of the wider world. He was many things – handsome, articulate, intelligent and charismatic and above all else he was not George W Bush. Indeed not being Bush appeared to be such an achievement for the Chicago man that he was promptly awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize despite not having done anything of note to merit it at the time.
In the years that have followed since his historic win and inauguration in 2008, Obama has had his foreign policy successes that the world should not forget – he ended the war in Iraq, he brought to book Osama Bin Laden in the most dramatic of ways and he is on course to wind down US involvement in Afghanistan starting in 2014. However, history may record all of those achievements as mere footnotes in his presidency. All of them were issues he inherited from his predecessor – and highlighting the differences between himself and President GW Bush was the crux of his presidential campaign – he promised ‘change’ from the status quo as it then stood.
However, in dealing with issues that have either emerged or matured under his watch, it is a sad reality that Barack Obama has failed to live up to expectations. Few were more enthusiastic then I at the sight of Obama taking the Presidency – it embodied for me the progress America has made as a society, a man who would once not have been served in countless eateries, who would not have been allowed to use particular washrooms or who would have had to face countless daily humiliations of account of his colour had taken occupancy of the world’s most noteworthy and powerful position – he, a black man – the son of a Kenyan student- was President of the United States. Making history by becoming President is not however an achievement of his Presidency, it is a social and cultural landmark that has assured him a place in history for eternity, but we must not let the magnitude of his holding Office cloud our judgement of him as President as relates to foreign policy decisions.
For me, two things will define Obama’s Presidency as relates to foreign policy – Syria and Iran. The two are inextricably linked and weakness over one is sure to magnify the challenges posed by the other. In setting a red line over chemical weapons for the Assad regime Obama placed his credibility and the credibility of the US on the line. By not acting in a forceful and decisive manner, as now seems sure to be the case, Obama has sent a terrible signal to the world. The redlines of this US President mean nothing, free to be ignored by any dictator in the world without fear of ramifications. It seems if you have powerful friends you are free to flaunt Washington’s warnings at this time as the political will is lacking to back his words with actions. I was shamed and appalled when the British parliament decided not to hold Assad to account for his criminal actions – the UK failed in its obligations to the global community. If the great democracies of this world do not stand tall for human rights and human dignity, who will? I had hoped that the US would still act as the protective arm of the powerless, as a friend to the friendless – but under this President that now seems too much to ask. Being champions of freedom can never be about vocal support alone, it means much more then that – it means action to protect the sanctity of human life. Clinton showed the true meaning of the mantle when he brought Serbia’s genocidal war machine to a screeching halt in 1999 – and for all the opposition, President GW Bush also backed his verbal warnings to Saddam Hussein with the use of force. Obama’s indecisive nature and flip-flopping almost makes one yearn for the days of George W Bush! At least with the Texan you knew if he said it, he meant it. He bit his tongue for no one. Some called him evil or unbelievable, but rest assured had he issues the red line and saw it ignored; Assad would be hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere as pain rained down on his illegitimate regime.
Not only has Obama’s inaction let Syria off the hook – it sends a dangerous message to weakness globally. If Obama dares not strike Syria, where is the assurance that he will stop the theocratic, Shia expansionist regime in Tehran from acquiring even more dangerous arms? If his red line on Syria is a faint mark in sand, why should the world believe his statements on Iran? Iran has seen the inaction over Syria and become emboldened. It will push the nuclear envelope in the coming years and assume its cordial ties with Moscow will too prevent it from being stopped by force. Imagine the dangers of a nuclear Iran! Not only will regional states feel threatened, some like Saudi Arabia will surely seek to counter Iran’s arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons. In a blink, the entire Non-Proliferation Regime will collapse like a house of cards! Further threats to allied nations and energy supplies mean a nuclear and belligerent Iran is not an acceptable option for anyone – on this issue countries normally far removed from consensus are united. But I like many others and many allied nations, will not take the assurances of the current US President to be credible any more.
There is a fix – Obama should authorize the use of lethal force to break Assad’s war machine and bring down his regime. Further, Iran needs to know that any further disregard for global norms will mean war. Iran does not have great options in terms of retaliation – it cannot choose all out war as the power disparity is too great in favour of Allied nations. It will not block the Strait of Hormuz as that would force further punishment. It will utilize its proxies but this present only tactical nuisance and not any strategic threat owing to overwhelming power disparities in favour of any threatened nation states.
Ultimately, inaction only emboldens aggressors – history has taught us this – and Obama does not want to be the President who allowed his inaction to enable continued untold humanitarian horrors in Syria on his watch – or the nuclearization of Iran and the subsequent complete collapse of the Non-Proliferation Regime. The credibility of the man – and the Office of President of the United States – and by extension the free world at large – is at stake and that is too much to gamble.
Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University