It was not to be.
The last major news event before Obama’s trip was the announcement by Assistant National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that the US would increase its aid to the Syrian rebel military forces in unspecified ways because the US could no longer credibly deny the evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad had called Obama’s bluff by crossing his stated “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. It was bad news, because over the past two Obama has been desperately seeking to avoid further involvement in Syria. Instead, his procrastination and denial has allowed what started out as peaceful pro-democracy protests to degenerate into a bloodbath which has already claimed at least 93,000 lives, destroyed the fabric of Syrian society as a cohesive state, and now threatens to plunge the entire region into a Sunni vs. Shiite jihad.
FALSE HOPE FOR HELP FROM THE RUSSIANS
Even though the Russians were openly mocking US evidence that Assad used his chemical weapons against the rebels, the White House still held out hope that at the G-8 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin could be persuaded to at least hold up scheduled arms deliveries to Syria. Obama asked Putin to wait until after another diplomatic attempt could be made to find a peaceful solution at a conference they had jointly called for in Geneva.
Putin rejected Obama cold. He condemned the idea of sending Western arms to the rebels as destabilizing, while defending his own sale of advanced anti-aircraft systems and other Russian-made armaments to Syria. While accusing the US of arming Islamic terrorists fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, Putin continues to supply arms to the pro-Assad forces, including 5,000 Hezbollah terrorists, along with a flotilla of Russian naval ships docked at the Syrian port of Tartus.
After hours of private talks on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting, Obama was unable to budge Putin at all on Syria. When the Russian leader bluntly informed Obama in front of press cameras that “of course our opinions do not coincide” on Syria, the American president had no response to offer. To add insult to injury, Putin also rejected out of hand Obama’s proposal for a further mutual reduction in nuclear warheads by both the US and Russia from 1,500 on each side down to 1,000, leaving the distinct impression that Obama is alone among the leaders of world powers who is truly interested in nuclear disarmament.
OBAMA EMBARRASSED BY A FRIEND
Aside from the brusque rebuff from Putin, Obama was also embarrassed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who warned him about the dangers of spying on friends, in an unwelcome reminder of the NSA revelations of recent weeks. Snowden revealed that the US also spied on its friends, like Germany as well as the Chinese. Merkel lectured the American president on the need for “proportionality” between security and personal freedom. She also continued to reject the urging by Obama and his economic policy experts that she approve more stimulus for the floundering EU economy instead of imposing more austerity on the struggling EU debtor countries.
What was supposed to be the highlight of his visit, Obama’s return to the scene of his 2008 triumph at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate for another stirring speech to capture the imagination of Europe, fell flat.
When Obama’s Teleprompter failed, he struggled through his prepared speech, mispronouncing the name of his host, Berlin’s mayor. He rambled on about such topics as nuclear disarmament, global warming and the vague concept of “peace with justice,” leaving a meager crowd of 4,500 invited guests, and the international media covering the event both underwhelmed and disappointed.
PREVIOUS MEMORABLE BERLIN SPEECHES
It was a far cry from the previous moments of triumph for past presidents, when John F. Kennedy electrified a crowd of 450,000 Berliners on June 26, 1963 by declaring “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” on the steps of the West Berlin city hall. It was a pivotal moment during the height of the Cold War, when US resolve to keep Berlin free in the face of Soviet intimidation was very much in doubt, just 22 months after the Communists erected the Berlin Wall.
On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood before 45,000 people at the Brandenburg Gate, within site of the Berlin wall, and issued a challenge that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire when he emotionally declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Just 29 months later, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe had collapsed, and the people of Berlin joyously began to dismantle the wall with their own hands. A year later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and the Cold War was over.
Obama achieved some of that same drama and enthusiasm in his 2008 speech, when he was still a new and relatively unknown figure in the international community.
In contrast, his speech last week earned only a polite smattering of applause from the small crowd. It left most of the crucial questions about the challenges facing US foreign policy still unanswered. Obama had nothing new to add to what he said in Berlin five years ago. Since then, his international audience has learned to take this American president’s sweeping rhetoric with more than a few grains of salt.
Reagan’s Berlin speech 26 years ago was a display of strength and conviction by the leader of the free world. It gave hope to millions of people trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet “evil empire.”
WHAT OBAMA LEFT UNSAID
By contrast, Obama’s Berlin speech last week gave no new hope to those fighting for freedom in the face of oppression. Because of Obama’s refusal to confront the forces of evil around the world, his speech was dismissed as a recitation of empty liberal platitudes. It lacked the conviction and determination needed from the leader of the world’s remaining superpower, to achieve the noble goals his country still represents to the rest of the world.
His silence on the most urgent international issues was seen as another attempt by Obama to appease America’s enemies and strategic adversaries abroad. Instead, it is likely to further embolden them.
Obama has failed to unite the West behind a US-led effort to end the slaughter in Syria. He has failed to renew the declaration of war by Western civilization against the rise of international Islamist terrorism. He has issued no credible threat to use force to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Nor has he criticized the growing defiance and obstructionism by Russia’s autocratic ruler, and his continued aid and support for the rogue nations of the world and the enemies of the United States. His silence on these crucial issues in his Berlin speech was far more important than anything he actually said.
MEDIA TURNING AGAINST HIM
Obama’s continued failure to confront the international challenges of our time exposed him to criticism from the international media just as harsh as he has received over the past month from the Washington press corps over the scandals dogging his administration at home.
At long last, Obama’s honeymoon with the media is largely over. His failures at home and abroad are being exposed by liberal true believers in the press who now feel that he has betrayed their blind trust in him. His secret policies sanctioning the government’s wholesale invasion of personal privacy, his administration’s intimidation of the free press, the abuse of the power of the IRS to persecute his conservative political opponents, his deliberate deception of the American people, along with his refusal to stand up to US enemies abroad have combined to wear down the faith and trust of the American people in his leadership.
FREE FALL IN THE POLLS
In just one month’s time, his ratings in the national opinion polls have been reversed. In May, 53% of Americans approved of his job performance, while 45% did not. Today, 54% say they disapprove, while only 45% still support him.
On issue after issue, including his handling of the economy, foreign affairs, and even his stand on immigration, Obama is now losing the support of the American people.
More than 60% of those polled say that they are concerned over the Obama’s surveillance policies invading their privacy. Voters also seem to be losing their personal faith in Obama, his most valuable political asset. Last month, 58% said they considered him to be honest and trustworthy. This month, it is down to just 49%.
Many Democrats claim that Obama’s “likability” with voters last November was an important factor in helping him to win re-election despite a poor economy. (A lackluster campaign by a weak opponent helped too.) That advantage is now quickly eroding.
CONTRAST TO PUTIN
Obama’s refusal to commit the US to a clear and strong course of action stands in sharp contrast to his main opponent on the international scene, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has taken full advantage of Obama’s reluctance to act.
Iran has also taken note. It stepped up its presence in Syria and accelerated its nuclear weapons program, daring the US to stop it.
After their meeting last week in Northern Ireland, it was very clear that Putin had fully committed himself to the support of his ally, Bashar Assad, while Obama was still unwilling to give any kind of clear commitment to the Syrian rebels on the other side of the conflict.
In his Berlin speech Obama declared that, “we cannot dictate the pace of change in places like the Arab world, but we must reject the excuse that we can do nothing to support it.” But in a broadcast interviews just a few days earlier, Obama warned in advance to ignore the military implications of that rhetoric, when he told the world that even after Assad had crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons Obama would not authorize air strikes and that any further aid to the rebels would be delivered “in a careful, calibrated way.”
He also admitted his main fear. It was not that the forces of freedom in Syria would be defeated, or tens of thousands more would be killed, or that US national interests in the region would be irreparably harmed. Obama’s main express fear was that, “it is very easy to slip slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments.”
SHAKING THE FAITH OF OTHER US ALLIES
Now imagine how America’s allies around the world who depend upon the US nuclear shield to protect them against their regional enemies must have felt upon hearing those words. If the US is afraid to intervene decisively to halt the humanitarian disaster consuming Syria, effectively conceding victory not only to Assad, but also to Iran, Hezbollah and Putin, why should Japan, South Korea or Taiwan trust in the US to shield them from the encroachment of China, or Israel believe that Obama will keep his promise to use the US military to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability?
Obama’s refusal to confront Assad and his allies undermines the basic credibility of US foreign policy. This has even become clear to fellow liberal John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State.
Since taking office, Kerry’s personal credibility has been badly damaged by the failure of the US government to deliver on the non-lethal aid which he promised the rebels back in April. Now that the tide has turned in favor of Assad’s forces on the battlefield, thanks to the support of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, it is up to the US to re-establish the military balance. The rest of the world is now closely watching what the US will do to support the Syrian rebels in their time of need as a litmus test of America’s international leadership.
KERRY RISES TO THE CHALLENGE
To his credit, Kerry has risen to the challenge. As someone who came to national attention 40 years ago because of his opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam war, Kerry was long viewed as one of the US Senate’s leading Democrat pacifists. During his confirmation hearing he cited a Henry Kissinger quote about a new era of emerging powers replacing superpower dominance. Yet during his five months as Secretary of State, Kerry has been much more aggressive than his predecessor, the liberal Mrs. Hillary Clinton, and Obama in committing his personal prestige to achieving clear US foreign policy goals, both in support of the Syrian rebels and in his dogged efforts to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
The clash between Obama and Kerry over Syrian policy surfaced last week. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has enjoyed frequent direct access to Obama ever since his first run for president, reports that Kerry argued “vociferously” within the White House for the US to launch air strikes against Syrian airfields. Kerry claimed that it is the only way to counter the advantages Assad has gained due to the support he is now receiving from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
OBAMA’S FEAR OF COMMITMENT
This runs directly counter to the way Obama believes America should exercise its influence. Obama remains determined to prevent the US from rushing into “one more war in the Middle East”, as he put it last week.
Obama has always hedged his bets in making foreign commitments. When he ordered a troop surge into Afghanistan, at the same time he announced a withdrawal date, allowing the Taliban to run out the clock. When he pulled out of Iraq in 2012, he left no US forces behind, and he is likely to do much the same in Afghanistan when the US pulls out in 2014. This leaves the US powerless to impose its will in either country after having made such great commitments there, and Obama has made it clear that he is not willing to send US troops back in, no matter what happens.
The Obama administration was late in choosing sides in the Syrian conflict. Even after it belatedly endorsed the rebel cause, it offered them little more than humanitarian aid and moral support until very recently.
Whenever faced with a difficult foreign relations problem, Obama seems to be more afraid of being criticized for being too aggressive in support of US interests than allowing those interests to be compromised or defeated.
RESPECTING THE NEED FOR COMMITMENT
Kerry, on the other hand has more practical foreign policy experience. He spent many years on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. During that time he was often involved in practical diplomacy. He knows that all alliances are built on mutual trust. If the US develops a reputation of failing to stand by its allies and commitments, in the end it will lose its respect and influence in the international community.
The Secretary of State argues that in the case of Syria, the US has now committed itself to the rebel side. US support for the rebel cause and Obama’s declaration that Syria has crossed a chemical weapons “red line” means that US credibility is now on the line in the outcome.
No matter what reservations the US may have about jihadist groups among the rebel forces, it cannot now allow Assad to get away with the use of chemical weapons. It is also too late to worry about the diversion of US weapons into terrorist hands when Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have put their arsenals and troops at Assad’s disposal.
On Syria, Kerry has pitted his influence in the White House against Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey as well as others in the Pentagon who are reluctant to send US soldiers into battle.
KERRY’S ARGUMENTS FOR INTERVENTION
According to reporting by Goldberg, Kerry makes a number of arguments in favor of intervention. The first is moral. It says that the US can’t simply sit by and allow the slaughter in Syria to continue without trying to stop it. Former President Bill Clinton made that argument two weeks ago, based upon his own experiences as president. Clinton failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but he did successfully intervene later in his presidency to halt the slaughter in Kosovo and Bosnia after Yugoslavia broke up into warring ethnic provinces. While Syria’s civil war has not yet reached equivalent levels of genocide, jihadist elements and family blood feuds on both sides seem to be driving it in that direction.
Kerry also argues that as long as Assad believes that he is winning the war, he has no incentive to come to Geneva to negotiate with the opposition. Before he is truly willing to negotiate, Assad must be made to feel that he could lose the war militarily. The most efficient way to do that, while risking the fewest US casualties, would be by unleashing the full might of US air power against Assad’s forces.
Israel has already proven that the Syrians are vulnerable to air strikes. It carried out three separate air attacks to prevent Syria from transferring new weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In light of the Israeli experience, Pentagon arguments that US air power is not up to the job seem unconvincing.
After Obama’s public warning against Syrian use of chemical weapons, US credibility will be damaged if it does not respond with sufficient military force. Sending the rebels some more small arms and ammunition would not be sufficient. The US must punish Assad by doing something that could change the outcome of the war, such as launching US air strikes.
Kerry also argues that the US cannot back down in Syria and hand a victory to our greatest enemy in the region, Iran. Even though Obama may be eager to see the US exit from the Middle East, the US must not betray our allies there by leaving a power vacuum to be filled by Shiite or Sunni Islamic radicals.
The US has been working with rebel groups for long enough to figure out which ones are more moderate and can be trusted, at least in the short term.
Giving the Syrian rebels heavier US weapons is a risk. General Dempsey argues that giving arms only to the “moderate” rebels will not guarantee the outcome in Syria that the US desires.
There is no guarantee that terrorist groups won’t ultimately gain the upper hand after Assad is deposed, even if the US arms and trains pro-democracy rebel groups and their leaders.
US credibility is on the line, and we are fast running out of time to influence the outcome. Nobody believes that there is an easy answer to resolving the Syrian conflict. The Sunni-Shiite civil war is already a humanitarian nightmare and an acute strategic challenge to US interests in the region. It may already be too late to save Syria as a state. But the past two years shows that waiting and hoping for the best solves nothing, and is likely to result in even greater risks to US interests in the region.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report