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22 April, 2013  ▪  Michael Binyon

Where Has the American Leader Gone?

Current U.S.’s politics of non-interventionism can severely undermine the credibility of the West

The world was delighted when Barrack Obama took over from George Bush. Here was a President with a very different view of American leadership - a man who would listen, consult his allies, pull troops out of Iraq and end Bush's aggressive culture of unilateral intervention. Obama's popularity around the world soared. He was cheered on the streets of Europe. Leaders lined up to be photographed beside him. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize after only a few months in office.

Four years later, the euphoria has disappeared. Instead, there are worried questions in European capitals. Where is Obama? Where is American leadership? Europeans no longer hurry to Washington to have their pictures taken. In the Middle East, Arabs complain that Obama's early promises to bring them peace and justice have come to nothing. In Africa they no longer cheer him as one of their own. The President has become all but invisible overseas. Has America turned its back on the world? Is Obama really an isolationist at heart?

So far, Mr Obama's main achievements have been to reverse American policies that made his predecessor so unpopular. He has withdrawn all US forces from Iraq. He has promised an end also to the US role in fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan. American forces are pulling out after more than 12 years in the country, signalling a general retreat by all the NATO forces. By next year most will be gone. Two costly Bush-era wars are almost over and the troops are going home.

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Most of the world is delighted. The Iraq war turned into a bloody and disastrous occupation, draining America of blood, money and credibility. The Afghan war looks now to almost everyone in NATO - including many of the military commanders - as unwinnable. Public opinion in Europe and America now believes the aims, strategy and even the original justifications for both wars were wrong. This has had political consequences. There is little appetite now in the West for new military interventions in the Muslim world, which many fear will only cause massive unpopularity and loss of Western influence.

Does this mean an end to the use of military force in the future? Without a credible use of its military muscle, where is American leadership? Three countries have proved to be test cases for Obama: Libya, Syria and North Korea. And in each case, there is a worry among America's allies that he is simply running away from the challenge.

Libya set the trend. Britain and France were quick to call for force to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering the inhabitants of Benghazi, who had risen in revolt. But Obama was hesitant, and made it clear that any military operation should be left to Britain and France. Eventually Washington did provide transport and surveillance planes and NATO took control of the operation to help Gaddafi's enemies. But questions were already starting about Obama's lack of leadership.

Syria is a much clearer case. Western military commanders say intervention in Syria would be politically disastrous and logistically impossible. But the Syria rebels have begged for arms - and Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, urged Obama to help them. He refused. He has given verbal support to the anti-Assad forces but very little else. Indeed, he has hardly spoken about Syria in public in America at all. And his administration has made it clear that if Britain and France are pressing for more direct help to the rebels, they should provide it themselves.

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He has been equally careful not to get involved in peacemaking in the Middle East. After first coming into office, he called for a new US relationship with the Muslim world. Since then, every effort to persuade Israel to end its settlements policy and open talks with the Palestinians has failed. Obama gets on badly with Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. But he knows that an open quarrel with Israel would have disastrous consequences within America, where the pro-Israel lobby is very strong. So instead he has simply walked away from the issue. True, he is making a trip to Israel now. But this is little more than a courtesy visit. No new political initiatives will be on the table.

Obama's calculation is shrewd. America no longer depends on the Middle East for its energy. Shale gas deposits are so vast that soon America will be self-sufficient in energy. Oil from the Middle East no longer matters. And Obama has seen how presidential involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been disastrous for all his predecessors. Clinton lost time and credibility trying to get a peace deal. The younger George Bush made almost no progress when he did eventually push for a two-state solution. Both men spent their political capital and failed in their task.
Obama has other things to do. His presidency will be judged on its domestic and economic record. For that reason, his focus is on reviving the US economy, and on building new markets in Asia. He also knows the mood of his country. Most Americans believe the Europeans are rich, idle and victims of their "socialist" ideas. Americans are angered by repeated cuts to defence budgets in Europe, which have now left Washington paying 75 per cent of the costs of NATO. And yet NATO no longer serves US foreign policy interests, as its European partners cannot agree on what its purpose should be.

Obama therefore has little incentive to show himself a vigorous leader of the Western alliance. It is significant that Chuck Hagel, his new Defence Secretary, is a Republican politician who has spoken out against previous US military interventions. Mr Hagel is likely to resist any pressure for any fresh deployment of US troops overseas. America will not offer troops to help the French operation in Mali, or to help Yemen or any other countries where al-Qaeda is currently operating. The Pentagon will instead rely more heavily on the use of pilotless drone aircraft to track and attack terrorist suspects.

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His policy is being tested, however, by the belligerent rhetoric from North Korea, where the new communist dictator, Kim Jong-Un has threatened to tear up the armistice agreement with South Korea and launch a "merciless" attack on the South. North Korea last month conducted its third nuclear test, and is also testing ballistic missile technology. It has been infuriated by the new United Nations sanctions which the North Korean leader denounced as aggression against his country.

Washington could not ignore these latest threats, although it has grown accustomed to the unpredictable and regular hostile outbursts from North Korea. Mr Hagel has announced the deployment of 14 new missile interceptors to Alaska and the dispatch of radar tracking devices to Japan. Mr Obama cannot afford to show he is not prepared to stand by South Korea or demonstrate a lack of response to the rest of Asia. But so far, the response is very limited.

The world will be watching to see if America really intends to maintain a "hands off" policy in Asia, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. The danger, many US allies say, is that others are ready to exploit the vacuum - especially Iran and Russia. Putin is already returning to the rhetoric of the Cold War in his denunciation of American policies. Will he now find no American response if he seeks to increase Russian influence in Syria, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union?

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