Why Is Obama Keeping US Out Of  Startup Democracies?

by Shitanshu Shekhar Shukla - Apr 19, 2016 11:56 AM +05:30 IST
Why Is  Obama Keeping  US  Out Of   Startup Democracies?Barack Obama has defined priorities in the Middle East region.
  • Obama’s stance forecloses the US’s real priorities towards the Middle East. Assaulted by this predicament, will he play for keeps of Tunisia and Kurdistan?

U.S. President Barack Obama has made known his disappointment with the Middle East’s leaders including those of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Iran and the Palestine. Few will disagree with the causes of his condescending views about the leaders in this region. In spite of a long and historically fruitful relationship with Saudi Arabia, Obama described US-Saudi relationship as complicated. Although his opinion about the Middle East’s leaders was the spark that set off a debate, he appears to be underestimating the dangers of passivity. A leader is one who acts as a leader. Obama, however, appeared more keen in omissions than in commissions.

For example, Obama’s hands off approach on Syria has driven the refugees into destabilising the European Union, a natural partner of the US in almost every conceivable sense. The EU is almost the same centre of democratic capitalism as the US. So everything that has a bearing on the EU is actually a bearing on the US. The Syrian refugees have made EU citizens wonder about the US policy of absenteesim. History might not be kind to Obama if he just turns his back.

Refugees Seeking Asylum
Refugees Seeking Asylum

Obsessed with not becoming another George W. Bush in the Middle East, he runs the risk of forgetting how to be Barack Obama. More so when Tunisia and Iraqi Kurdistan are self-ignited experiments of democracy, waiting for Obama’s legacy sans invasion. Obama has his priority wrong in this part of world. He wants to leave the office with less American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Hands off Syria and Libya was a conscious decision to tell the Americans the limits of their ability to fix things they don’t understand, in countries whose leaders they don’t trust, whose fates do not impact them as much as they once did,” writes The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But that is only a half truth.

Obama had resisted demands to act in part because of an assumption, based on the analysis of US intelligence that Assad would collapse without his help. “He thought Assad would go the way Mubarak went,” Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, said referring to the quick departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, a moment that unlocked the fury of repressed energy into the Arab Spring.

But as Assad clung to power, Obama’s resistance to direct intervention grew stronger. After several months of deliberation, he authorized the CIA to train and fund Syrian rebels, but he did not seem to have completely overlooked his former defense secretary, Robert Gates, who had asked, “Shouldn’t we finish up the two wars we have before we look for another?”

US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, an interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers, had vehemently argued very early for arming Syria’s rebels. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk and in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.

If the media reports are to be believed, Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where he could no longer conceal his frustration. “Samantha, enough, I have already read your book,” he once snapped, according to a report published in The Atlantic.

However, the least Obama could have done or can still do is not to miss an opportunity that no US president ever had before. Two fledgling democracies are struggling for future in the Middle East. One is in Tunisia and another is Kurdistan. The civil society leaders in Tunisia earned themselves the Nobel Peace Prize, after writing the most democratic constitution ever in the region.

But today the gunshots in broad daylight on the streets, the long unending stream of refugees and Islamist terrorists coming from Libya, are undoing the Tunisian experiment. “Tunisia is a start-up democracy,” its former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said once. He also added, “It may be small, but its leverage for the future of the region is enormous. I can’t imagine any stability in the region if Tunisia doesn’t succeed.”

Kurdistan and Tunisia are just start-up democracies, home gown democracies that could be a model for others in the region to emulate. But they want the US to help secure a foothold for democracy without invading. The Middle East, according to Obama, is a hopeless case, full of “malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”

Moreover, it is a distraction to the US from other regions where “young people yearn for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth”. It explains how Obama has his own priority though the world might want him to shake the priority up and down. The “Washington playbook”, as Obama refers to it, is not always a necessary evil.

He is leaving behind a message for his successors not to abide by that book, to perhaps re-write it, warning them that, “The conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do,” can sometimes become traps.

Obama would privately say that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush International arena was, “Don’t do stupid shit.” It is another matter that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton thought aloud her assessment that, “Great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff,’ is not an organising principle.”

The author is a senior journalist and columnist.
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