Obama Is Treading Water


Despite the brilliant Nobel rhetoric, Barack Obama is a president treading water. The peace efforts in Iran and between Israel and the Palestinians that seemed so promising at the end of summer are fading. America will soon have 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. The bombings and general destabilization in nuclear-armed Pakistan continue at a frightening pace. It is not exactly a win-win scenario.


The eloquent talk about a muscular use of American military power in a war of necessity masks the realities on the ground. The al-Qaida threat is largest and most deadly in neighboring Pakistan; Obama has yet to connect the dots showing how military intervention in one place will affect the situation in the other. After two major speeches in West Point and Oslo, it is still unclear why Afghanistan is an unavoidable war.

The continuing commitment to troops as a solution and the discussion of a “just war” doesn’t address this reality: The future of Afghanistan is a political proposition that is largely in the hands of the Afghan people themselves. After eight years and $200 billion spent, this vast nation-building project does not seem to be getting much headway. Neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to produce a plan dealing with Hamid Karzai and the substantial corruption emanating from Kabul. U.S. troops cannot solve these critical issues.

The troop decision and Obama’s high-profile efforts to defend it give the impression that he is trying to please too many people at once. Obama throws a bone to conservatives who believe victory is largely a military equation. Simultaneously, he attempts to placate a left that is weary of how the “War on Terror” is defined and executed by portraying himself as an unwilling warrior. His insistence on casting the problem in terms of an American military victory or defeat will only polarize this debate and restrict his ability to cobble together the coalitions necessary to pursue his domestic agenda.

Two months ago, it would have been easy to argue that Obama was a bold risk taker for peace. Middle East envoy George Mitchell was traveling regularly to jumpstart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In June, Obama gave a brilliant speech in Cairo viewed by many as a powerful step toward reconciliation with a suspicious Arab world. Diplomacy in Iran seemed to finally bear fruit after the United States and its partners presented Tehran with a scheme that would allow it to send its uranium away for processing in Russia and France. The Nobel Committee saw these efforts and rightly awarded the prize for the hope that they inspired.

Many argue now that the Palestinians are too fraught with internal friction to guarantee any deal. But the administration is not making clear to either Israelis or Palestinians as to the parameters of how their long-term interests could be protected. The result is an increasing sense of futility. “Failure usually means a return to violence and resistance and maybe now a massive popular civil uprising,” Gershorn Baskin, of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information said in an interview with The Root. The fading peace between Israel and Palestine has generated suspicion that Obama’s Cairo speech was only talk.

Negotiations with Iran have been no less discouraging. ln October, the United States, France and Russia proposed a U.N.-drafted deal to Tehran regarding its nuclear program, in an effort to find a compromise between Iran's stated need for a nuclear reactor and international concerns that Iran may develop an atomic weapon. The draft plan required Iran to send about 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia by the year's end for processing. Subsequently, France would convert the uranium into fuel rods for use in a reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.


On October 29, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced an openness toward cooperation. "We welcome fuel exchange, nuclear co-operation, building of power plants and reactors, and we are ready to co-operate," he said on state television. A month later, however, Iran not only has yet to sign a deal but has threatened to build 10 more enrichment facilities. “Iran has invested so many resources in its nuclear program that it won’t give up now,” a senior U.N. diplomat familiar with the negotiations said in an interview with The Root. “It’s one of the few things that everyone, including the opposition, agrees on and so far their strategy is working.”

Obama’s presidency has created tremendous expectations that a new approach to diplomacy will bear fruit in the Middle East and elsewhere. But real change in these difficult parts of the world will require tenacity and political courage. The longer President Obama treads water, the weaker he will become.


Greg Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You can contact him here.