Obama: inconsistent, unimaginative, unengaged — or simply over-stretched?

Every disaster gets a name — Katrina, Exxon Valdez, The Tsunami — and now The Spill?

Even after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has officially become the worst oil spill in US history, this is a disaster whose generic and mundane name has contributed to an underestimation of its significance. After all, how bad can something called a “spill” really be?

At the same time, the image of a president and his administration as passive observers of events over which they can exert little control, is now becoming the signature of the Obama presidency itself.

“Obama has appeared almost scarily unengaged from what the public increasingly recognizes is a genuine national emergency,” writes Dan Froomkin.

Obama’s effort on Thursday to show that he is engaged will have been far too technocratic in tone to satisfy many Americans, leaving serious doubts about his ability to operate effectively as a crisis manager.

Indeed, doubts about Obama’s approach now seem to spring up wherever his attention is demanded.

Stephen Walt points to the glaring disparity between Obama’s earlier promises to engage with Iran and the threatening posture that US has increasingly assumed.

[T]he U.S. approach to Tehran is deeply inconsistent. Obama has made a big play of extending an “open hand” to Tehran, and he reacted in a fairly measured way to the crackdown on the Greens last summer. But at the same time, the administration has been ratcheting up sanctions and engaging in very public attempt to strengthen security ties in the Gulf region. And earlier this week, we learned that Centcom commander General David Petraeus has authorized more extensive special operations in a number of countries in the region, almost certainly including covert activities in Iran.

Just imagine how this looks to the Iranian government. They may be paranoid, but sometimes paranoids have real (and powerful) enemies, and we are doing our best to look like one. How would we feel if some other country announced that it was infiltrating special operations forces into the United States, in order to gather intelligence, collect targeting information, or maybe even build networks of disgruntled Americans who wanted to overthrow our government or maybe just sabotage a few government installations? We’d definitely view it as a threat or even an act of war, and we’d certainly react harshly against whomever we thought was responsible. So when you wonder why oil- and gas-rich Iran might be interested in some sort of nuclear deterrent (even if only a latent capability), think about what you’d do if you were in their shoes.

But not only must Iran be suspicious of US intentions, likewise Turkey and Brazil have reason to wonder — as does Walt — who is actually steering US policy on Iran?

Robert Naiman points out that preceding last week’s announcement of a nuclear swap initiative — a bold piece of emerging powers’ diplomacy that the administration was nevertheless quick to dismiss — Obama had actually given clear support for their approach.

[I]f you get your information from major U.S. media, here’s something that you almost certainly don’t know: Brazil and Turkey say that before they reached the deal, they understood that they had the backing of the Obama Administration for their efforts. The available evidence suggests that Brazil and Turkey had good reason to believe that they had U.S. support, and that the Obama Administration has taken a 180 degree turn in its position in the last few weeks, and is now trying to cover its tracks, with the active collaboration of major U.S. media.

Reuters reports from Brasilia – in an article you won’t find on the web sites of the New York Times or the Washington Post:

Brazil argues Washington and other Western powers had prodded Brazil to try to revive the U.N. fuel swap deal proposed last October.

“We were encouraged directly or indirectly … to implement the October proposal without any leeway and that’s what we did,” said Amorim.

In a letter to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two weeks ago, U.S. president Barack Obama said an Iranian uranium shipment abroad would generate confidence.

“From our point of view, a decision by Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad, would generate confidence and reduce regional tensions by cutting Iran’s stockpile,” Obama said, according to excerpts from the letter translated into Portuguese and seen by Reuters.

I haven’t seen any reference to this letter from President Obama to President Lula in the U.S. press – have you? But in Brazil, this letter from Obama to Lula was front-page news on Saturday morning – I saw it on the front-page of O Estado de S. Paulo, above the fold.

Note that the Reuters story, dated May 22, says Obama sent this letter two weeks ago. The deal was announced Monday, May 17. So, about a week before the deal was announced, Obama told Lula that from the U.S. point of view a decision by Iran to send 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium abroad would generate confidence and reduce regional tensions. Note furthermore that Obama’s words – according to Reuters, this is a direct quote from Obama’s letter – actually specify an exact amount of transfer that would “generate confidence”: 1,200 kilograms, exactly what was agreed a week later. So the U.S. officials and media stenographers (like Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post – “Iran creates illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations“) saying a 1,200 kilogram transfer would have been great in October but would be worthless now are directly contradicting what President Obama himself wrote to President Lula one week before the deal was announced. But if course you wouldn’t know about that direct contradiction from the U.S. media, because in the U.S. media, the letter from Obama to Lula apparently doesn’t exist.

As Naiman wistfully suggests: “It’s a shame we don’t have a leader in the White House right now who is ready to lead on this issue. If only we had elected this guy:

As far as Dilip Hiro is concerned, Obama has already revealed that he lacks the qualities of a genuine statesman.

Irrespective of their politics, flawed leaders share a common trait. They generally remain remarkably oblivious to the harm they do to the nation they lead. George W. Bush is a salient recent example, as is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When it comes to foreign policy, we are now witnessing a similar phenomenon at the Obama White House.

Here is the Obama pattern: Choose a foreign leader to pressure. Threaten him with dire consequences if he does not bend to Washington’s will. When he refuses to submit and instead responds vigorously, back off quickly and overcompensate for failure by switching into a placatory mode.

In his first year-plus in office, Barack Obama has provided us with enough examples to summarize his leadership style. The American president fails to objectively evaluate the strength of the cards that a targeted leader holds and his resolve to play them.

Obama’s propensity to retreat at the first sign of resistance shows that he lacks both guts and the strong convictions that are essential elements distinguishing statesmen from politicians.

When candidate Obama spoke of the fierce urgency of now, he might have been employing hollow rhetoric, but I’m more inclined to believe that he used this expression with a genuine awareness of the historical moment. But that isn’t to suggest that he had much idea about how his rhetoric would translate into action.

Now as we witness the performance of what appears to be an inconsistent, unimaginative, unengaged president, we may in fact simply be seeing the results of the failing efforts of a man who can’t do enough because he is trying to do too much.

In the introduction to his newly-released National Security Strategy, Obama writes:

America’s greatness is not assured — each generation’s place in history is a question unanswered. But even as we are tested by new challenges, the question of our future is not one that will be answered for us, it is one that will be answered by us. And in a young century whose trajectory is uncertain, America is ready to lead once more.

Sorry, but neither the world nor America itself needs to hear more clichés about the revival of American leadership. We’re much less interested in what kind of high-minded declarations this president can make than in what he can actually do.

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One thought on “Obama: inconsistent, unimaginative, unengaged — or simply over-stretched?

  1. Christopher Hoare

    The Muppets go to Washington.
    George W Bush was the puppet of Chainey and the neo-Cons; Obama seems to be the puppet of Netanyahu and AIPAC. It’s a pity the US got rid of real kings who could order beheadings at will for make-believe kings who are kept on a leash by sold-out politicians and lobbyists and cannot even beg for cooperation.
    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and good speeches?

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