By Simon Tisdall
Bin Laden's killing aside, his foreign policy has all been waffle, dithering and drift.
Candidates run on hope. Incumbents run on their record. But Barack Obama, lining up for a second term at the White House next year, has little to offer on either score. The heady optimism of 2008 has dissipated. At home, Mr. Obama is primarily associated with hard times: only 34 per cent of voters approve of his handling of the economy, according to a recent poll. Abroad, his presidency has come to stand for impotence and incompetence. He promised new beginnings; what he has delivered, for the most part, is waffle, dither and drift.
If this verdict seems harsh, take a quick tour round the globe. Everywhere the pillars of American superpower are crumbling. The old habit of hegemony, formed in the post-war decades and confirmed in 1989 as Soviet power imploded, is fading as fast as a Honolulu sunset.
Part of the explanation is faltering industrial and financial clout, reflecting the rapid rise of rivals such as China and India. But that is compounded by another central element: Mr. Obama's persistent failure to stand up, in practical, substantive ways, for the values, beliefs and interests he so eloquently espouses.
Mr. Obama's early, anguished indecision over keeping his promise to close Guantanamo Bay now looks like a grim portent. So, too, does his administration's failure to support the Iranian students whose “green revolution” was so cruelly suppressed in Tehran in 2009. When the Arab spring took hold this year, the man who in Cairo had preached the pre-eminence of the democratic ideal took fright. Tunisia did not matter much. But when he faced accusations of becoming the President who “lost” Egypt, Mr. Obama's dither default setting was triggered anew.
In the event he achieved the worst of all worlds. Hosni Mubarak, that staunch, unlovely friend of the West, was deposed with Washington's belated blessing — to the lasting mortification of another key American ally, Saudi Arabia. Now the army-led, supposedly caretaker regime that replaced him appears equally unappealing. Egypt may soon require a second revolution, and next time the Islamists may not act so coy. For its part, Riyadh absorbed the lesson of U.S. unreliability and took matters into its own hands by crushing dissent in Bahrain.
In Libya, as elsewhere, Mr. Obama talked the good fight from the sidelines. Speaking about Syria in August, he condemned President Bashar al-Assad's “imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering” of pro-democracy demonstrators and demanded he step aside immediately. The call came after months of White House debate about the consequences of supporting change in Damascus. Mr. Assad, meanwhile, contemptuously ignores U.S. mouthings, and a fracturing Syria accelerates towards the abyss.
Mr. Obama's handling of his legacy wars — Afghanistan and Iraq — provides little to crow about on the stump. The Afghan troop surge has not brought about the looked-for breakthrough. Instead, casualties are up, while the Taliban, in contrast, has increasingly resorted to targeted terror tactics — such as last month's assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan President and head of the high peace council.
Any examination of whether Mr. Obama and his diplomats and commanders want a negotiated Afghan peace settlement finds President Dither at his most infuriating. Speaking at the end of Ramadan, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, clearly signalled interest in pursuing talks to create a new political order acceptable to all Afghans. But Washington seems more intent on threatening Pakistan than ensuring a peaceful transition in Afghanistan after 2014. Much the same may be said of Iraq, where U.S. concerns focus less on the stability of a country it so massively destabilised than on how Iran may exploit the U.S. withdrawal.
Mr. Obama's foreign policy under-achievement leaves a global trail. He spoke out forcefully in Prague about the necessary inevitability of a nuclear bomb-free world. But his carrots and sticks have had little impact on North Korea's or Iran's ambitions, while the Libyan war delivered a clear message: if Muammar Qadhafi had not abandoned his nuclear weapons programme in 2003 he might still be in power now.
As a candidate Mr. Obama condemned Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgian territory. But as President he offered Vladimir Putin's regime a “reset” of relations amounting to a reward for bad behaviour. Along the Pacific rim, meanwhile, widely shared perceptions of a lack of political resolve in the face of China's military expansionism are fuelling an arms race from Taiwan and Malaysia to Vietnam and Australia.
Amid multiple disappointments, one dismaying act of expediency stands out: Mr. Obama's open-ended threat to veto U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. After the three-year runaround handed out by Israel's last-ditcher, “no surrender” Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Obama had the chance to deliver a symbolic blow for peace, something surely right up his street. But with a wary eye on the 2012 campaign, he just couldn't do it. Under Mr. Obama, the empire does not strike back. It strikes out.
If Mr. Obama is re-elected it won't be due to his international achievements — unless you think killing Osama bin Laden is worth another four years.
Source: The Guardian, London