Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oba-ma? When Domestic and Global meet asking the same questions, the answer is Failure

(The Guardian)....An anxious world is asking what has become of all Obama's promises to solve the thorniest and most entrenched problems, from the Middle East conflict to closing the internationally reviled Guantánamo prison camp and halting Iran's nuclear defiance. As the flood of words dissipates with little concrete change to show, hope has faded, leaving disillusionment in its place.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East. Arab capitals were buoyed when Obama initially dared confront Israel over settlements. But when pressure mounted in Washington and around the country against harming US relations with Israel, the president quickly backed down and made amends – somewhat – with hawkish Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

With his poll ratings slipping, Americans still rattled by their thinning wallets and worried about a possible Republican revival in crucial mid-term elections, Obama the bold, the daring, has adopted a more populist tone and become more risk averse than ever before.

More than a year since he was swept to office riding on waves of hope from a tired people, Obama has angered and frustrated his most liberal and most conservative supporters by bowing to internal political pressures. He is now reportedly on the verge of yet another about-face, this time reneging on his decision to try the 9/11 suspects in federal criminal courts and bringing them instead before Bush-era military commissions.

After months of shuttle diplomacy from secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Washington's top Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, the Palestinians and the Israelis appear close to resuming long-stalled negotiations, albeit indirect ones brokered by the US.

The Palestinians, who have long insisted that any conditions be predicated on a return to pre-1967 borders, had dragged their feet for over a year in part because they lacked the political cover from key regional powerbrokers Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With the Arab League now giving its blessing to indirect talks, the onus is now on Washington to prove it can play a vital role as honest broker and realise a peace deal that has eluded Obama's predecessors. But the path is riddled with landmines, and last-minute setbacks can be expected at every turn.

Obama may have extended his hand to Tehran, but the Islamic Republic has yet to unclench its fist and halt uranium enrichment. At best, the outreach has managed to give him political cover to push for slapping a fourth round of UN sanctions on Iran for its continued defiance over its suspect nuclear programme. In the meantime, the White House has hardened its tone, drifting further from the consensual approach of the president's Nowruz video and sounding more and more like Clinton during her failed bid for the presidency. From her perch as the top US diplomat, Clinton the realist can now contently tell her former rival: "I told you so."

The world, perhaps prematurely, awarded Obama its highest peace prize, but even the Nobel committee acknowledged it was more an assignment of sorts to act on his promises of engagement than a reward for actual accomplishments.

So many deadlines have been missed now – on clinching a Middle East peace deal, shuttering Guantánamo Bay or persuading Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions – that Obama no longer bothers to issue any more.

Even in Europe, where he remains popular, Obama made an apparent snub at his allies by cancelling a planned appearance at the US-EU summit this May, angering Madrid and forcing the event to prematurely shut down.

His international schedule during this second year in office will be far leaner than his record-breaking pace last year, as the president sets his sights more squarely on hard-hit areas at home.

Given the history of overly zealous US presidencies on the international front, he may be well-advised to continue this long break from the world stage. Domestic failures have unmistakably weakened presidents' hands to secure hard-won concessions in global capitals. If Obama does not hone his appeal at home, where even senior Republican fundraisers are playing up conservatives' fear of the president's "socialist threat", he risks becoming a one-term president like Jimmy Carter with few victories and many failures in his name.