Dec 2nd 2009

What Was He Thinking?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the Presidentof the Arab American Institute

I do not make a practice of using this space to express my disagreements with other columnists, but a piece last week by Abdul Rahman al Rashid, was so off the mark that I cannot let it pass without comment.

Writing in al Sharq al Awsat, al Rashid takes US President, Barack Obama, to task for being indecisive and giving the impression of being weak. Where has Obama exhibited these traits? Al Rashid, not unlike former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and other neo-conservative critics, identifies both the President's delay in deciding on future US troop levels in Afghanistan, and demonstrations of what he calls signs of weakness in the face of North Korean and Iranian intransigence. To be fair, unlike Cheney and company, al Rashid throws into his mix criticism of Obama's failure to stand up to Israel's settlement program.

But mention of Afghanistan and Israel appear to serve as mere punctuation marks designed to give emphasis to al Rashid's main concern and that is Obama's supposed failure to stand up to Iran's efforts to play games with demands regarding their nuclear program. Now, al Rashid is justified in finding Iran's behavior frustrating and irksome, and he can, as an expression of his irritation, criticize the US President's performance on this issue and others. That is fine by me.

What is unacceptable and wrong, and even bizarre, is for al Rashid to make the claim that Iran would not be getting away with this type of behavior if George Bush were still US President!

During the past month, we were all forced to endure a flood of press commentary claiming to evaluate Obama's performance at yet another supposed milestone - this being the one year anniversary since his election. Words like "disappointing" and "fading star" were all too often used to describe the first 10 months of the new President's term. In commentaries of this type that appeared across the Arab World there was growing, and some justifiable concern, that the "change" Arabs had hoped for and that Obama's Cairo speech seemed to promise, might not be in the offing any time soon.

But with the exception of Dick Cheney and Co., and now Abdul Rahman al Rashid, no one with a straight face has dared make the comment that anything might be better if George Bush were still in office.

It is more than fair to offer criticisms of President Obama's handling of a range of foreign policy issues. But the criticism should, at least, make an effort to be sober and reality-based.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge that when Obama won the election last November and took the oath of office10 weeks later he was not handed a magic wand. Instead, he was handed the shovel his predecessor had used all too vigorously to dig deep holes in many parts of the world. George W. Bush's neglect of some critical issues and the reckless adventurism displayed in his approach to others, created the world Obama inherited.

What the new US President has to contend with is a world where precisely because of the rigid ideologically-based policies pursued by Bush in the Middle East and beyond we face:

- two ongoing wars that have taken thousands of lives and drained over one trillion dollars from the US treasury. And despite being unfinished, there a growing sense among analysts and the public, alike, that at least one of these wars (Afghanistan) may be unfinishable;

- an emboldened Iran whose tentacles now reach into Iraq and more deeply than before into Lebanon, Palestine and even, it appears, Yemen;

- an equally emboldened and increasingly hard-line Israel which feels entitled to obstruct US efforts at peace-making and feels confident that it had sufficient support in the US Congress to withstand the pressures of any US President;

- the bitter fruits of a reckless "victor/vanquished" approach to resolving rivalries between our allies and their foes, wherein our allies came out defeated and/or weakened; and

- a US more isolated in the world and facing a resentful Europe, an ascendant China, a resurgent Russia, and a veritable revolt across the Americas.

And so I think it is only too appropriate to ask what exactly is it that George Bush would do to confront the damage he has done, other than to dig a deeper hole?

Would he launch another war, in a region where we have our hands full with two, and the US military leadership is warning that they are hard pressed to find sufficient troops to fight the wars we are in? Would he attempt to mobilize the international community to support pressure leading, if necessary, to sanctions - and would he be any more successful at this than Obama, who is working to earn the support needed to make this happen? Or would he merely talk tough, make threats, and then pursue policies that only embolden Iran's hardliners and inflame anti-American passions?

What Obama has done is to eschew hollow tough talk and chart, instead, a different course. But changing direction takes time: time to assess the damage done and plot a new strategy; time to rebuild trust and mend frayed relationships with needed allies; and time to break the back of adversaries' bad behavior.

When he became President, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas didn't surrender their hard line views, nor did Benjamin Netanyahu. The Taliban didn't put down their arms nor did the US public fall in love with a war they want to end. The economic crisis continues to grow as do federal deficits, putting constraints on new spending.

The point, in other words, is that Obama inherited a mess that was largely the creation of George Bush. What on earth could possess anyone to suggest that they would want him back?

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