Among the curious spectacles of our moment, the strangeness of the Obama presidency hasn't gotten its full due. After decades in which "the imperial presidency" was increasingly in the spotlight, after two terms of George W. Bush in which a literal cult of executive power -- or to use the term of that moment, "the unitary executive" -- took hold in the White House, and without any obvious diminution in the literal powers of the presidency, Barack Obama has managed to look like a bystander at his own funeral.
If I had to summarize these years, I would say that he entered the phone booth dressed as Superman and came out as Clark Kent. Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of the invaluable A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East, points out that, as far as Obama's foreign (and war) policy, it's almost as if, when the American president speaks, no one in the Greater Middle East -- not even our closest allies or client states -- is listening. And true as it may be for that region, it seems, bizarrely enough, no less true in Washington where the president's recent attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war were rejected both by Congress (though without a final vote on the subject) and by the American people via opinion polls.
It should be puzzling just how little power the present executive is actually capable of wielding. He can go to the U.N. or Kansas City and make speeches (that themselves often enough implicitly cast him as a kind of interested observer of his own presidency), but nothing much that he says in Washington seems any longer to be seriously attended to. In the foreign policy arena, he is surrounded by a secretary of defense who ducks for cover, a secretary of state who wanders the world blowing off steam, and a national security advisor and U.N. ambassador who seem like blundering neophytes and whose basic ideological stance (in favor of American -- aka "humanitarian" -- interventions globally) has been rejected in this country by almost any constituency imaginable. Unlike previous presidents, he evidently has no one -- no Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, or even Henry Kissinger -- capable of working the corridors of power skillfully or bringing a policy home.
Domestically, who ever heard of a presidency already into its second term that, according to just about all observers, has only one significant achievement -- Obamacare (whatever you think of it) -- and clearly hasn't a hope in hell of getting a second one? Just as he's done in Syria, Obama will now be watching relatively helplessly as Republicans in Congress threaten to shut the government down and not raise the debt ceiling -- and whatever happens, who expects him to be the key player in that onrushing spectacle? America's waning power in the Greater Middle East is more than matched by Obama's waned power in this country. In our lifetime, we've never seen a president -- not even the impeached Clinton -- so drained of power or influence. It's a puzzle wrapped in an enigma swaddled by a pretzel. Go figure. Tom
A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet's Sole Superpower
The Greater Middle East's Greatest Rebuff to Uncle Sam
By Dilip Hiro
What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known -- repeatedly -- and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.
In the future, the indecent haste with which Barack Obama sought cover under the umbrella unfurled by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis will be viewed as a watershed moment when it comes to America's waning power in that region. In the aptly named "arc of instability," the lands from the Chinese border to northern Africa that President George W. Bush and his neocon acolytes dreamed of thoroughly pacifying, turmoil is on the rise. Ever fewer countries, allies, or enemies, are paying attention, much less kowtowing, to the once-formidable power of the world's last superpower. The list of defiant figures -- from Egyptian generals to Saudi princes, Iraqi Shiite leaders to Israeli politicians -- is lengthening.
The signs of this loss of clout have been legion in recent years. In August 2011, for instance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored Obama's unambiguous call for him "to step aside." Nothing happened even after an unnamed senior administration official insisted, "We are certain Assad is on the way out." As the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Similarly, in March 2010, Obama personally delivered a half-hour-long chewing out of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a politician Washington installed in office, on the corruption and administrative ineptitude of his government. It was coupled with a warning that, if he failed to act, a cut in U.S. aid would follow. Instead, the next month the Obama administration gave him the red carpet treatment on a visit to Washington with scarcely a whisper about the graft and ill-governance that continues to this day.
In May 2009, during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama demanded a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem. In the tussle that followed, the sole superpower lost out and settlement expansion continued.
These are among the many examples of America's slumping authority in the Greater Middle East, a process well underway even before Obama entered the Oval Office in January 2009. It had, for years, been increasingly apparent that Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with several lesser campaigns in the Global War on Terror, were doomed. In his inaugural address, Obama swore that the United States was now "ready to lead the world." It was a prediction that would be proven disastrously wrong in the Greater Middle East.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Invaded and occupied Afghanistan was to be the starting point for phase two in the triumphant singular supremacy of Uncle Sam. The first phase had ended in December 1991 with the titanic collapse of its partner in a MAD -- that is, mutually assured destruction -- world, the Soviet Union. A decade later, Washington was poised to banish assorted "terror" constellations from nearly 80 countries and to bring about regime change for the "Axis of Evil" (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). Having defeated the "Evil Empire" of the Soviets, Washington couldn't have felt more confident when it came to achieving this comparatively modest aim.
Priority was initially given to sometime ally and client state Pakistan, the main player in creating the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Much to the chagrin of policymakers in Washington, however, the rulers of Pakistan, military and civilian, turned out to be masters at squeezing the most out of the United States (which found itself inescapably dependent on their country to prosecute its Afghan war), while delivering the least in return.
Today, the crumbling economy of Pakistan is in such a dire state that its government can keep going only by receiving handouts from the U.S. and regular rollover loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since the IMF arrangement is subject to Washington's say-so, it seemed logical that the Obama administration could bend Islamabad to its diktats. Yet Pakistani leaders seldom let a chance pass to highlight American diplomatic impotence, if only to garner some respect from their own citizens, most of whom harbor an unfavorable view of the U.S.
A case in point has been the daredevil actions of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder-leader of the Lashkar-e Taiba (Army of the Pure, or LeT), listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations following its involvement in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which killed 166 people, including six Americans. In April 2012, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to Saeed's arrest and conviction. The bearded 62-year-old militant leader promptly called a press conference and declared, "I am here. America should give that reward money to me."
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