BARACK OBAMA: THE WEAKEST PRESIDENT IN HISTORY?
Friday March 18, 2011
By Anna Pukas
INEFFECTUAL, invisible, unable to honour pledges and now blamed for letting Gaddafi off the hook. Why Obama’s gone from ‘Yes we can’ to ‘Er, maybe we shouldn’t’…
Let us cast our minds back to those remarkable days in November 2008 when the son of a Kenyan goatherd was elected to the White House. It was a bright new dawn – even brighter than the coming of the Kennedys and their new Camelot. JFK may be considered as being from an ethnic and religious minority – Irish and Catholic – but he was still very rich and very white. Barack Obama, by contrast, was a true breakthrough president. The world would change because obviously America had changed.
Obama’s campaign slogan was mesmerisingly simple and brimming with self-belief: “Yes we can.” His presidency, however, is turning out to be more about “no we won’t.” Even more worryingly, it seems to be very much about: “Maybe we can… do what, exactly?“ The world feels like a dangerous place when leaders are seen to lack certitude but the only thing President Obama seems decisive about is his indecision. What should the US do about Libya? What should the US do about the Middle East in general? What about the country’s crippling debts? What is the US going to do about Afghanistan, about Iran?
What is President Obama doing about anything? The most alarming answer – your guess is as good as mine – is also, frankly, the most accurate one. What the President is not doing is being clear, resolute and pro-active, which is surely a big part of his job description. This is what he has to say about the popular uprising in Libya: “Gaddafi must go.” At least, that was his position on March 3.
Since then, other countries – most notably Britain and France – have been calling for some kind of intervention. Even the Arab League, a notoriously conservative organisation, has declared support for sanctions. But from the White House has come only the blah-blah of bland statements filled with meaningless expressions and vague phrases. Of decisive action and leadership – even of clearly defined opinion – there is precious little sign.
What is the Obama administration’s position on the protests in the Gulf island state of Bahrain, which the authorities there are savagely suppressing with the help of troops shipped in from Saudi Arabia? What is the White House view on the alarming prospect of the unrest spreading to Saudi Arabia itself? Who knows? Certainly not the American people, nor the leaders of nations which would consider themselves allies of America.
The President has not really shared his views, which leads us to conclude that he either doesn’t know or chooses, for reasons best known to himself, not to say. The result is that a very real opportunity to remove an unpredictable despot from power may well have been lost. Who knows when or if such an opportunity will come along again?
Every day for almost the last two months our television screens, radio broadcasts and the pages of our newspapers have been filled with the pictures, sounds and words of the most tumultuous events any of us can remember in the Arab world. The outcome of these events, once the dust has settled, could literally change the world. Yet Obama seems content to sit this one out. He has barely engaged in the debate. Such ostrich-like behaviour is not untypical of the 49-year-old President who burst through America’s colour barrier to become the first African-American to occupy the White House.
Two days after taking office in January 2009, he pledged to close down the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, which has become notorious for holding detainees for years without trial. Obama promised to lose the prison within 12 months and to abolish the practice of military trials of terrorism suspects. It was an important promise. America’s reputation had been severely tarnished by revelations about the conditions at Guantanamo, by reports of water-boarding and extraordinary rendition (transporting prisoners to a third country for torture) and by the appalling treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Closing Guantanamo was a redemptive gesture. Two years on, not only is the prison still in use but its future is as assured as ever. Ten days ago, the President signed an executive order reinstating the military commissions at the island prison. Human rights organisations were outraged. “With the stroke of a pen, President Obama extinguished any lingering hope that his administration would return the United States to the rule of law,” said Amnesty International while Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, declared the President’s action to be “unlawful, unwise and un-American.”
White House spokesmen insisted the President was still committed to closing Guantanamo, which currently has 172 detainees in custody. It was Congress, they said, that had refused to sanction the transfer of the prisoners to the US mainland for trial, leaving no option but to keep the prison open in Cuba. Very little has been achieved in the quest to secure peace in the Middle East. Under Obama, US foreign policy is founded on extreme caution. At first this cool-headedness was a welcome change from the naked aggression of George W Bush and his henchmen Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
It is also true that the President is constantly stymied by a hostile, Republican-ruled Congress. But Obama’s apparent reluctance to engage with momentous events is starting to look like more than aloofness. Some tempering of America’s role as the world’s No1 busybody may be no bad thing but under Obama the US appears to be heading towards isolationism. He is hardly doing much better at home. Economically, the US is in big trouble but the national debt is not shrinking.
Ditto the country’s ecological health; the American love affair with the car and oil remains undiminished despite any alleged commitment. But the White House appears to shy away from any tough action. The energy with which Obama entered the White House seems to have all gone in the push to bring in health care reform, which many Americans didn’t want (or still don’t realise they want).
All of which means that it is starting to look as if Obama and the Democratic Party have but one aim in mind for the rest of this presidential term: to get elected for a second. That means not doing anything that might upset any number of special interest or niche groups, which in effect means not doing very much at all. So, not too many harsh but necessary measures to tackle the financial deficit; no clear direction on where America goes with Afghanistan, even though the war there is going nowhere except from bad to worse.
The Obama government can’t even give clear direction on whether the American people are in danger of exposure to nuclear fallout from Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin advised San Francisco residents to stock up on radiation antidotes, prompting a run on potassium iodide pills, while the President said experts had assured him that any harmful radiation would have receded long before reaching the Western shores of the US.
Yes we can was a noble and powerful mantra which secured for Barack Obama the leadership of the free world. Those than can, do. It is time he started doing.
As global crises mount, Obama has become the world’s master of ceremonies
By David J. Rothkopf, Friday, March 18, 8:52 PM
Crises redefine a presidency just as earthquakes remake the landscape. In the case of President Obama, his reaction to recent crises — those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Japan are but the most recent — has revealed a cautious man who is nonetheless upending many long-held notions about what the world should expect from the United States and its commander in chief.
Over the past two decades, however, presidents have carved out their own approaches. Buoyed by the Cold War victory and an economic boom, Bill Clinton eventually positioned himself as a sort of “President of the World,” using the nation’s uncontested superpower status to seek common ground and advance common goals. After Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush became “the decider,” the unilateralist, with-us-or-against-us president.
Now the world is witnessing an American president who appears less inclined or less able to assert his country — or himself — as the dominant player in global affairs. He seems more comfortable with the bully pulpit than the “big stick,” more at ease working within coalitions or even letting other nations take the lead where Washington once would have stood front and center.
Mayhem comes with the job, of course, but there is no doubt that Obama has faced an extraordinary array of challenges. Any notion that this president could set the global agenda was not just overtaken by events but overwhelmed by them. From the financial crisis to the strains in the Eurozone, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the stirrings of an Arab spring, from the bloodletting on the U.S.-Mexican border to the nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea, Obama has been buffeted every day in office.
The past week was a microcosm of his entire presidency. Even as Obama grappled with Japan’s crises, the debate over military force against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain and Israel’s decision to expand settlements following the killing of a family of settlers, the president had to prepare for a trip to Latin America, continue his budget battle on Capitol Hill, weigh in on education reform and make at least four media appearances concerning his March Madness picks.
Inaugurated in the baptism by fire of the mortgage catastrophe, the Obama White House has evolved beyond the “never let a crisis go to waste” hubris of its early days, when affairs were run by a handful of campaign consiglieri. Instead, we’re seeing a White House more adept at multitasking precisely because it is seems increasingly content to sidestep or delay addressing as many crises as possible — shifting the burden to allies overseas or on Capitol Hill, or limiting its responses to press releases, tweets and off-the-record briefings.
New Chief of Staff William Daley and new national security adviser Tom Donilon have systematically sought to reengage with and make better use of Obama’s Cabinet, which includes members who reportedly felt alienated and underused in the administration’s early days. The team approach has been on display in the past week, with Cabinet secretaries and the vice president prominently deployed worldwide to deal with the avalanche of competing and urgent demands.
Although such shared responsibility is an improvement over the days when Obama seemed like the administration’s only effective spokesperson, the flurry of activity doesn’t mean that the nation is playing the leading role it traditionally assumes in the world’s current crises.
Even with close presidential allies such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) calling for the United States to move quickly to impose a no-fly zone for Libya, Obama deferred to the United Nations and the European Union. They dithered on the issue until finally voting in favor of action on Thursday — thus granting Gaddafi time to consolidate his position against the rebels. Whether the no-fly zone proves to be too little, too late or just in time will go a long way toward determining whether Obama’s new foreign-policy approach is deemed deft and wise or feckless and indecisive.
The new approach has offered mixed results with other foreign-policy challenges that have emerged in recent days. The administration expressed muted public frustration with the Saudi intervention in Bahrain but did not back it up with any meaningful action to forestall the Saudis or to persuade any of the Persian Gulf monarchies to embrace long-overdue political reforms. On Japan, Obama expressed deep condolences and, unable to privately persuade the Japanese to be more candid about their nuclear crisis, was forced to go public with the “we said/they said” dispute between the two allies about radiation risks.
For those of us who have decried for years the image of a John Wayne America, a bully with an itchy trigger finger, the more temperate attitude is welcome. But defaulting to talk therapy makes sense only if the approach reduces risks while still advancing the nation’s interests. If, for political or economic or personality reasons, the United States and its leaders are perceived as less forceful in the world — if the “or else” is off the table— then the country’s initiatives are certain to be less effective. Ask those in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.
Words do matter: Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 could someday be considered a signature moment, perhaps even as an inspiration for changes sweeping the Middle East. But today reformers in Egypt have been alienated by U.S. actions that did not live up to the president’s rhetoric. Obama is fashioning a new leadership style for an era of greater limitations on the United States, but the trick with leadership is not just knowing where to go but getting others to follow, quickly and in a committed fashion.
The one major exception, the one place in which the president has put personal and national prestige on the line in a manner far exceeding a master of ceremonies, is in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, despite Gen. David H. Petraeus’s recent upbeat assessment of the conflict before Congress, the range of likely outcomes there is hardly encouraging. If, in the wake of the United States’ upcoming departure from Iraq, the administration finds a way to declare victory in Afghanistan and start withdrawing forces there as well, Obama will lead a nation seemingly less interested in projecting force overseas or acting unilaterally than it has been in the past several decades, not perhaps since Jimmy Carter in the post-Vietnam period.
Given the costs of the the United States’ recent overseas misadventures, many would welcome such a shift. And with the nation’s long-term domestic challenges, Obama may be but the first in a long line of presidents to embrace a less-is-more approach. But for those accustomed to turning to the United States for strong leadership or to provide the spine in unwilling international partnerships, it is likely to prove a frustrating change. The master of ceremonies, after all, may win applause and even seem to run the show, but such appearances are an illusion, and many of the leading roles will be left to nations and leaders unaccustomed to or uncomfortable with the limelight. Their performances may not appeal to U.S. audiences, and they may even suffer stage fright and leave the world’s stage unoccupied — save perhaps for the lone figure still holding the mic, commenting on whether the United States likes how things are going.
Mixed signals from Obama and the Middle East
By Richard Cohen, Monday, March 21, 8:09 PM
In the Oval Office, President Obama keeps busts of his heroes — Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. He should add one of Milton Berle, the so-called Mr. Television of the 1950s. Berle used to signal his studio audience to both continue and stop applauding by holding up one hand to wave them on and another to quiet them. This is the president’s Libya policy in a nutshell.
The Berle Doctrine, the closest thing this administration has to a coherent foreign policy, has almost certainly cost lives. It entailed a heroic amount of dithering as the Obama administration first went to war with itself — to intervene or not to intervene — with the so-called boys (Bob Gates, Tom Donilon) arguing with the girls (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power), a summer-camp metaphor unbecoming the seriousness of the situation. Clinton ultimately got her no-fly zone but claimed no credit. “We did not lead this ,” she said in Paris.
That’s for sure. The French did this, with President Nicolas Sarkozy saying “France has decided to assume its role, its role before history.” Oui! For all the galling Gallic-ness of that statement, Sarkozy was right — as was Sen. John Kerry, who called for international intervention in the Libyan civil war almost from the onset. Along with some others, Kerry and Sarkozy appreciated that Moammar Gaddafi is a sociopath, a killer of innocents, and that should he corner his foes in Benghazi, he would massacre them with utmost glee. He virtually promised as much, and when it comes to murder, he has usually been true to his word.
The Middle East is a mess and a muddle, all of it happening at pretty close to warp speed. The search for a Unified Theory of What Is Happening is futile. Bahrain is our pal; Libya is not. Saudi Arabia has all that oil; Egypt doesn’t. Iran is our enemy and its enemies must be our friends. The scorpion that lethally stings the frog that’s transporting it across the Suez Canal is not a metaphor for the Middle East but a virtual position paper. Look: The Arab League’s Amr Moussa — its departing secretary general — called for a no-fly zone and then, appalled at the violence of this military strike, expressed second thoughts. Moussa has the countenance of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, a rare manifestation of form following function.
Still, the Obama administration has applied incoherence to confusion. It is an odd, dangerous, mix. A day into the operation, the bedraggled chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, appeared everywhere but on Animal Planet to say that the operation he himself clearly did not favor might end with the man the president said he wanted gone — a certain Col. Gaddafi — still in power. “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome,” Mullen said on “Meet the Press.”
The change that Obama promised has settled on us all like an irritating drizzle. His ideas were untested by either age or experience. It is one thing to decry American unilateralism and quite another to await international action when time is of the essence. It is not necessary for America always to lead, but it is sometimes necessary for it to do so — and always necessary for the president to know when that moment has arrived. Obama seems not to know. He often solves problems by ignoring them.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know whether it was appropriate for Obama to go through with his South America, but it sure was symbolic. Here was his country entering yet another military operation, and there was the president in Brazil. The contrast was jarring — as if he was quite literally distancing himself from the consequences of his own policy. The man supposed to be the center of it all was on the periphery.
Obama has no stomach for the war in Afghanistan but fights it anyway. The same holds for what remains of our effort in Iraq. Now it is Libya. These missions lack clarity, and the first two were so botched by the previous administration they are beyond salvation. But Libya is — and ought to remain — a humanitarian mission, one that would have been better undertaken sooner rather than later by a unified administration that had a coherent message and was clear on its goals. It could have made an argument for staying out or it could have made a more forceful argument for going in. Instead it made both. Milton Berle now plays the White House.
President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions. The Republicans have just gone nuts.
If you listen to Obama, he eloquently describes our energy, climate and fiscal predicaments: how we have to end our addiction to oil and cut spending and raise revenues in an intelligent way that also invests in the future and doesn’t just slash and burn. But then the president won’t lead. When pressed on energy, he will say that he just doesn’t have the Republican votes for a serious clean energy policy. But the president has never gotten in the G.O.P.’s face on this issue. He has not put his own energy plan on the table and then gone out to the country and tried to sell it.
It is what a lot of Obama supporters find frustrating about him: They voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls.
Posted at 02:41 PM ET, 03/24/2011
Obama not leading in our hemisphere
By Jennifer Rubin
WEAKest President Ever