May 21, 2011

Obama Misses “Moment of Opportunity”


Although the White House billed President Barack Obama’s “Moment of Opportunity” as an evolution in U.S. foreign policy, many observers viewed it as an opportunity to right a lost ship. U.S. media reaction remains mixed, with most focus drawn to Israel and Palestine’s future borders and the impending battle with Benjamin Netanyahu. International reactions have been less flattering.

Now, in the aftermath of Thursday’s speech, the damage is revealing itself in full. Obama spoke as though he expected his own audience to tune out. They heard him loud and clear, however, and they sound even hungrier than before.

De-evolution appears to be the dominant theme of Obama’s narrative. In Syria, Time reports that “the American President's words may have only hardened the resolve on both sides.” Pro-democracy protesters were shocked that Obama had given Bashar al-Assad another chance, a move that stepped backwards from sanctions on his regime. al-Assad proceeded to condemn Obama and open fire on protesters as they marched across the country, and shows no intention of halting his crackdown.

Some Western observers welcome Obama’s hesitancy to deploy a Libyan-styled force to intervene. This stance is supposed to allow the opposition to determine its future, and avoid another costly military operation. Except giving al-Assad a choice after such intense violence is choosing for the opposition. As Time accurately surmised, Obama’s position is likely to reinforce Syria’s deadlock and thus escalate the crisis instead of resolve it.

Off in Bahrain opposition figures welcomed Obama's speech as a first step. The valiant but grossly outnumbered street protesters, on the other hand, denounced Obama for ignoring Saudi Arabia’s intervention. A number of reports have alleged a secret trade between Washington and Riyadh, Libya for Bahrain, after their mixup in Egypt. While Obama did call on the Bahraini government to release hundreds of political prisoners, he then ordered the opposition to negotiate with the government.

He even acknowledges that Bahrain has failed to comply with U.S. principles and values, but regime change is explicitly ruled out through the use of “dialogue.” Is the opposition still supposed to negotiate when, after months of brutality, the “conditions for dialogue” are unlikely to develop?

“Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known,” Obama concludes after his remarks on Syria. “But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”

This one moment must have hung in the air for Yemen's pro-democracy protesters. Surely something was about to break Obama's months-long silence. He then finished, “And that is true, today, in Bahrain,” quickly transitioning away from one of the weakest links in U.S. foreign policy. The majority of Yemen’s revolutionaries were disappointed in a snap. Refusing to budge from the streets, they too speak of hardening their position.

So does Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of nearly 33 years.

It may seem odd that Obama called for Saleh’s exit while letting Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa slide. While Saleh is no ally of Saudi Arabia - Riyadh refers to him as “the Devil we know” and runs a proxy intelligence network inside Yemen - he is considered a necessary ally in America’s war against al-Qaeda. However Obama’s backing of Saleh’s “commitment to transfer power” is nothing short of an illusion.

Saleh has only made such a commitment in words, not actions.

Most youth coalitions and even parts of the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) reject the power transfer in question, considering it a biased proposal in favor of Saleh. If signed under Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) current terms, protesters would need to return home while a 90 day transition takes over (30 days to Saleh’s resignation and another 60 to a national election). Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) would retain substantial powers during this transition.

As the GCC’s proposal is largely authored by U.S. and Saudi officials, with minor help from the EU, Washington added an immunity clause to spare Saleh from Hosni Mubarak’s legal quagmire. Like al-Assad’s relatives, who hold similar positions in his security forces, Saleh relies on his son Ahmed and his nephews to lead the crackdown against protesters. Unlike al-Assad’s forces, Saleh has redeployed U.S.-trained and equipped counter-terrorism units against his domestic opponents, the northern Houthis and secessionist Southern Movement.

These forces have redeployed again from AQAP’s area of operations (AO) in the south, this time to defend government installations in Sana’a and suppress the revolution. Their crimes have increased Washington’s urgency of getting “its men” out before they snitch. U.S. complicity in Yemen’s security forces also redirected Obama’s attention away from ongoing brutality against protesters.

Yemenis couldn’t believe that Obama ignored Saleh’s crimes against them.

Like many U.S. media outlets, The New York Times followed Obama’s lead in blanking on Yemen’s revolution. The NYT is responsible for promoting White House propaganda that it had “shifted” against Saleh - 54 days ago. Western and Arab reporters continue to leak rumors of "intense U.S. pressure," yet another warning is likely to bounce off of Saleh’s ears. Instead he vowed to stage an early election, backing up his rhetoric of daring the JMP to take power “through the ballot box.” A corrupt and potentially violent election is the expected result.

Backing Saleh’s “commitment to transfer power” extends his rule rather than shorten it. Obama needs to back away from the GCC and engage the popular coalitions instead. While Yemenis don’t want to lose hope in him - they don’t have many alternatives - Obama is running out of chances.

Finally, when it comes to the “main event” of Obama’s speech, few appear satisfied with the show. In the West Bank, officials have sought a commitment to pre-1967 borders that the streets already taken as a given. Ruling out the right of return isn’t sitting well either, and Gazans were angered that Obama ignored their plight. Reaching out to them while condemning Hamas seems like a move that would pay off, but one without the other stands out as the Israeli bias that it is.

That Israel is no happier than the Palestinians demonstrates how little the region stands to improve after Obama’s speech. With Netanyahu already pushing back and preparing an address to Congress, and Obama ready to appease AIPAC on Sunday, the Palestinians may find an even deeper hole after next week. Again U.S. foreign policy feels as though it’s stumbling backward, not leaping forward.

De-evolution isn’t a pretty sight, whether in nature or politics. With one strike down in Cairo and another taking shape after Obama’s “Moment of Opportunity," we begin to wonder how many more strikes he has left. He’s already running low on major addresses for the Middle East, and Thursday should have been approached as “now or never.” Instead he took no political risks after his “gutsy” raid on Osama bin Laden.

Without a strong campaign in 2012, Obama might only get one more opportunity to fundamentally realign U.S. foreign policy. And by then it may be too late to make a real difference.

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