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Opinion: Obama’s second term surprises | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Barack Obama smiles during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. The president claimed an array of successes in 2014, citing lower unemployment, a rising number of Americans covered by health insurance, and an historic diplomatic opening with Cuba. He also touts […]

Just before his second election win, President Barack Obama was caught by a surreptitiously live microphone whispering confidences in the ears of the then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The gist of the whisper, later broadcast by eavesdroppers in the US media, was an Obama promise to be “more flexible” in his second term in office.

We may never know what the president exactly meant by that vague phrase. However, several opportunist powers and rogue states took it to mean that Obama saw his mission as one of “restraining” the United States rather than using its immense resources to impose an American vision of world order.

Russia, the original receiver of Obama’s promise, lost no time to move on several different fronts. It scrapped formal talks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two chunks of Georgian territory that Russia invaded and occupied in 2008. Then came Russian pressures on Kyrgyzstan to shut the US staging base on its territory. The next move was to try and “Finlandize” Ukraine by imposing a Moscow-appointee as president. When that did not work, Russia simply invaded Crimea and annexed it with little ceremony. As the Moscow Times noted in an editorial, Vladimir Putin felt that he had a free hand to play with whatever fire he liked.

The perception that Obama is either a closet anti-American or a prisoner of his illusions encouraged the Assad clique to use mass murder as their method of government while consolidating alliances with Moscow and Tehran.

Nor did the North Korean miss the Obama message. They quickly brought their hitherto semi-clandestine nuclear project into the open by conducting high risk tests of fissile material and the warheads needed to carry them.

As for the mullahs of Tehran they put their nuclear program into high gear.

While Obama wrote lyrical letters to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, the mullahs increased the number of working centrifuges from around 800 to 12,000.

Though a cautious player, China, too, decided to test the waters by annexing a Vietnamese island, declaring exclusion zones in parts of the East and South China seas, saber-rattling against Japan and building up its presence in the Strait of Malacca.

In each and every case, Obama did not disappoint the United States’ adversaries. Whenever he is forced to “do something” he has always opted for making one of his meaningless speeches and/or decreeing a set of sanctions, calling this confused mixture “twenty-first century diplomacy.”

Earlier this month, he unveiled a more spectacular example of this by declaring his intention to end more than 50 years of tense ties with Cuba. His hope is that a US embassy will be up and running in Havana before his own term in the White House ends in 2016.

In justifying his move, Obama claimed that the embargo imposed by then President John F. Kennedy in 1962 “failed.” Since Obama did not say what he thought the aim of the embargo was, we can’t know whether it failed or not. If the aim was to topple the Castro dynasty, then it was a failure. However, if the aim had been to put some clear water between the US and a despotic regime, the embargo was successful. For half a century the US was the only Western democracy not to waver in its opposition to an oppressive regime which has consistently had the worst human rights record in Latin America.

Obama’s second claim was that restoring ties with the Castro clique would help an imaginary process of liberalization on the captive island. However, that is precisely the illusion that has been nurtured by many Western democracies, notably Canada and France, over the past half century. Paris and Ottawa developed warm relations with Havana but failed to persuade the Castro clique to tolerate any form of dissent. While half a century of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea has achieved little in terms of taming Kim Jong-Un.

In his Cuba speech, Obama offered a narrative of US relations with Latin America designed to please the Castros. He spoke of “colonialism” as if the US had sent millions of “colonists” to settle in Latin America in the name of a non-existent empire. If anything it is the US itself that was and is being “colonized “by millions from all over the world, including from Latin America.

Also to please the Castros, Obama, speaking in broken Spanish, announced that “we are all Americans”. One aim of that bizarre utterance was to establish moral equivalence between the US and the Castro concoction in Havana. Another aim was to dismiss an old US claim to “specialness” with such shibboleths as “American values” and “the American dream”. Obama’s message is that democracy and despotism are one and the same and thus claim moral equivalence.

Obama forgot to remind the Cubans that their island nation owes its independence to the United States which—having won a war against Spain—chose to dismantle the Spanish Empire rather than annex its possessions.

Obama’s choice of a Spanish phrase to suck up to the Castros is sure to appear strange to many in the so-called New World where Spanish is the native language of around 32 percent of the population. The largest linguistic bloc belongs to English just ahead of Spanish, followed by Portuguese, French, Dutch, German and Papiamentu among others. In any case, no one in Spanish-speaking America would regard Cuba as a leader in political or cultural terms.

To be sure, Obama’s latest gesticulation may lead nowhere. He may even visit Havana to hug Brother Raoul in one of those photo-ops he has always cherished.

However, the fact remains that a left-over of the Cold War, the Castro regime, was doomed to extinction because of its own strategic failure. The buoy thrown at it by Obama may prolong its life for a few more years.

Following all this, other second term surprises from Obama may be a speech including the phrase “We are all Iranians” in broken Persian.