OBAMA AT THE UN Hapless superpower and wandering minstrel
By M K Bhadrakumar
The expectation was that the United States President Barack Obama's annual address at the United Nations General Assembly session on Tuesday would contain some pronouncements of new American policy direction on the Syrian conflict and over the situation around Iran.
No doubt, the Middle East dominated his speech and all but edged out other global issues such as climate change or the US' rebalancing strategy in Asia or global disarmament.
This in itself is stunning - America, the lone superpower, in a diminished role as a hapless regional power, unable or unwilling to
assert. An era seems to be ending.
The overpowering impression one gets is that the Middle East remains a major foreign-policy preoccupation, perhaps even the most important preoccupation, and will do so for the rest of Obama's presidency. This will be keenly noted in Moscow and Beijing.
However, a recurring thought in the speech was also the US' helplessness - its inability to force the pace on the ground or prescribe solutions, and the sheer unfairness of allies clamoring for robust "action" and yet the imperative need to remain engaged.
This came out most starkly in the passage on Egypt. Obama acknowledged the compulsion to "constructively" engage the military junta in Cairo because Camp David needs to be preserved, but he views with distaste the abominable things that the interim government is doing.
While Obama spoke, hectic diplomatic maneuverings were going on in another part of the UN Headquarters over a Security Council resolution on the implementation of the Russian initiative regarding removal of chemical weapons in Syria.
Obama maintained that the "evidence is overwhelming" to the effect that it was the Syrian regime that used chemical weapons in the August 21 attack near Damascus and he was emphatic that it's "an insult to human reason - to the legitimacy of this [UN] institution" to suggest otherwise.
Fire in the belly
Obama used the polemic to project two things. One, he claimed that by using chemical weapons, President Bashar Al-Assad has forever lost political legitimacy to lead his country.
Two, following from the above, Obama argued for a "strong" Security Council resolution: a) to "verify" the Syrian regime's compliance; and, b) to make clear to it "there must be consequences" if there is failure to comply.
But he neither made references to the use of military force nor invoked Charter VII of the UN Charter as such, and all but implied he was making a minimalist demand. That leaves wriggle room, presumably, for the US diplomats to negotiate a "strong" resolution that Moscow can live with.
Indeed, there was no "fire in the belly". The speech betrayed that Obama is far from reconciling the serious contradictions in the US position on Syria.
Obama claimed it is for the Syrian people themselves to decide their future, but then he dismissed it as "fantasy" that Bashar could ever have a role in it.
Obama named Russia and Iran for "insisting on Assad's rule", but then he ignored the active role of the US Central Intelligence Agency and of America's close allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in the execution of the covert regime change project through the past two to two and a half years.
Obama actually proposed at one point that the US' regional allies should exert a restraining influence on the "moderate opposition" so that latter avoids pushing for a "collapse of the state institutions" in Syria.
The proposition is simply laughable in the prevailing circumstances - Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan tirelessly recruiting Islamist fighters from faraway places like Libya, Chechnya or Pakistan; bringing them to Syria's neighborhood; training them, equipping them, paying daily wages to them, and infiltrating them into Syria proper; and thereafter gently counseling them to fight sub-optimally by not weakening Syria's "state institutions."
Has anything really changed in the US policy? Obama didn't hold out any explicit assurance that the US wouldn't attack Syria. If at any time in the past two years such an unequivocal commitment would have helped, it would be now.
Instead, Obama spoke in ambivalent tones full of caveats. He didn't believe military action could achieve a "lasting peace", but then, "our response has not matched the scale of the challenge" in Syria.
He didn't believe America should determine who will lead Syria, but, he was 100% sure Assad could not - and should not. Obama was horrified about the Syrian regime using chemical weapons, but ignored their use by opposition groups supported by the US's allies.
On the other hand, Obama insisted this's not a cold war scenario or zero-sum game and claimed the US had no interest in Syria other than the welfare of its people.
Overcoming difficult history
What explains this ambivalence? Any number of factors related to the US domestic politics could be easily identified. But the key element lies in the shift in the tectonic plates on which the US-Iran standoff rested through the past three decades.
While the Syrian track is running - a "work in progress", as Americans would say - a new parallel track is being laid in terms of the commencement of direct US-Iranian talks. Obama hopes that at some point in a near future, the two tracks will begin relating to each other.
The Obama administration has pondered over the countless, nameless "signals" from the new Iranian leadership of President Hassan Rouhani - his statements before and after the election as president, his cabinet appointments, and the very body language of Tehran's diplomatic posturing lately.
The Obama administration has made three important conclusions: Rouhani has a strong electoral mandate, which is reflective of the desire of the nation for change and reform (and normalize with the US); Rouhani is a "moderate" albeit a longstanding establishment figure fully committed to the Islamic regime; and, most important, he enjoys the confidence and support of the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which gives credibility to his negotiating stance and enhances his capacity to "deliver" on what he pledges.
The sense of urgency in Washington is palpable. Obama disclosed, "I am directing [Secretary of State] John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government... "
But then, he also realizes that the "difficult history" cannot be "overcome overnight". He said that if a way forward can be found on the nuclear issue, it would constitute a "major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect".
Obama just stopped short of saying the two countries could also address other areas of interest - Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, etc.
He assured Tehran that the US is not seeking regime change and made it a point to take note of Khamenei's recent fatwa against development of nuclear weapons and Rouhani's most recent reiteration of it as providing the very basis for a "meaningful agreement".
Suffice to say, Obama's speech did not reflect new thinking as such on the Syrian conflict, because it needs to wait for the normalization with Tehran. The US hopes to deal with Moscow, Tehran and Beijing bilaterally over the Syrian question.
Meanwhile, this is the nearest Obama came to distance himself from a priori thoughts of launching military attacks against Syria for effecting a regime change. It stands to reason, after all, that Obama cannot possibly instruct Kerry to talk things over with Rouhani while also ordering Chuck Hagel to go for the jugular veins of Assad.
The most hopeful part of Obama's speech was the US's four "core interests" he unambiguously spelt out for securing which Washington will be prepared to use all elements of American power "including military power" in the Middle East - to confront external aggression against the regional allies; to ensure free flow of energy; to dismantle terrorist networks; and to thwart development or use of weapons of mass destruction.
Below that threshold lies the US' overall interests in advancing democracy, human rights, free-market economy, etc where, Obama underscored, there are inherent limitations to achieving the objectives "through unilateral American action, particularly through military action".
All things taken into account, therefore, a modest opinion seems justifiable that the prospects of the Geneva process on Syria may be looking less dismal today than when dawn broke on the Turtle Bay neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City on Tuesday.
What lingers in the mind, though, are the lines from the contemporary American poet Tony Hoagland,
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue
but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,
- to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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