The Obama puzzle remains unresolved

Is Barack Obama just disappointing or is he dangerous? That is the way debate may be going in the months ahead as the US President continues to surprise and sometimes shock his supporters with his positions – and with his reluctance to fight for what he says he wants.

Sometimes it just seems like exceptionally bad strategizing and framing of the issues he is tackling. As framing guru George Lakoff said recently, it is amazing that a politician who brilliantly framed the election that gave him the Whitehouse, seems amateurish and inept when trying to get done what he committed to during that election. He completely lost control of the health care issue in spite of huge majority support for major reform – failing to fight back aggressively against the vicious attacks of Republicans and their storm troopers at the town hall meetings.

And, according to Rory Stewart, the British journalist who actually walked across Afghanistan several years back, Obama has boxed himself into a situation in that war which will see ever increasing numbers of troops going in just as  Americans say they want them coming home. “It’s also the way he’s framed the problem. He said that he wants to build a legitimate effective state and defeat the Taliban. He’s asked the experts what their views are. The experts have come back and said, ‘If you want to do that, give me 40,000 more troops.’”  By stating that these were his objectives, Obama now has no choice to agree to the troop increase – and the next one and the next one – because that is what those unlimited objectives would require.

While he is now musing about a rethink of the mission it is too late: he has already declared what the objectives are and to rethink those now would make him look completely foolish. If he had wanted a narrower counter-insurgency strategy that would allow him to reduce troops, he could easily have made that clear months ago – and asked his generals how they could accomplish that. Surely people in his inner circle knew – if he didn’t – that building a legitimate state in Afghanistan is literally impossible. That is a job, now, that will take decades of indigenous institution building.  It is simply not something foreigners can do regardless of the resources they devote to it.  “Defeating the Taliban” is nearly as impossible.

Regarding Israel and the Palestinians, Obama is beginning to look even worse than George Bush. He completely caved in to the extremely right wing Israeli Premier Netanyahu on the issue of freezing new settlement construction in the West Bank. This was perhaps the most definitive test that Obama faced. If he could not force Israel to back off on expanding the settlements the message to Netanyahu is absolutely clear: he does not have to do anything to accommodate the Palestinians.

While a peace settlement might still be possible it just about disappeared with Obama’s reluctance to press the issue. And reports today suggest that instead of pressing Israel to halt settlements – something Bush insisted upon – Obama has successfully pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop the settlement condition. This could fatally weaken the Palestinian leader in the eyes of his own people.

And yet, Obama has enormous flexibility on the issue. Israel desperately needs the US – indeed, it could be argued that Israel could simply not survive as a viable state and prosperous nation without the billions given to them every year by the US. And it has been years since Israel acted as a “US policeman” in the Middle East: the US has no practical need of Israel any more. Indeed, in terms of getting moderate Arab regimes on side for the US’s various goals, the continued carte blanche for Israel is a huge liability.

But Obama signalled early on in his presidency that he had no intention of seriously pressing Israel when he declared that he would not use American aid as leverage to achieve peace – the only real leverage he has.

But it is actually worse than just a failure to act. In moves that are indistinguishable or worse than those of George Bush, Obama in recent weeks has:

1) Dropped espionage charges against two AIPAC agents for spying on the US (they were pursued by the Bush administration who resisted pressure to drop the charges).

2) Attacked the UN’s Goldstone Report (Goldstone is a renowned Jewish judge from South Africa) on war crimes in the Israeli invasion of Gaza as “one-sided” when many more neutral observers claimed it could have gone ever further.

3) Has said nothing about the illegal Israeli blockade against Gaza which prevents everything from medicine to cement to rebuild from getting into the territory.

4) Continues the Bush policy of refusing to negotiate or even acknowledge the existence of Hamas, the democratically elected government of Gaza. This is the Bush doctrine of demanding of your enemy that they capitulate on all important issues before you will sit down and negotiate.

Disappointing or dangerous? Good question.

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