The Political Quandary of Barack Obama

Commentary No. 306, June 1, 2011

The President of the United States is considered to be the most powerful single individual in the modern world. What Barack Obama is learning to his chagrin is that he still has enormous power to do harm. But he has virtually no power to do good. I think he realizes this, and doesn’t know what he can do about it. The fact is that there is very little he can do about it.

Take his biggest single concern at the moment – the second Arab revolt. He didn’t start it. He was obviously taken by surprise when it began, as was almost everyone else. His immediate response was to think, correctly, that it posed great dangers to the already shaky geopolitical order in the region. The United States sought in every way it could to limit the damage, maintain its own position, and restore “order.” One can’t say that the United States has been very successful. Every day in every way the situation has become more disorderly and beyond the control of the United States.

Barack Obama is by conviction and by personality the quintessential centrist. He seeks dialogue and compromise between “extremes.” He acts with due reflection, and makes major decisions prudently. He is in favor of slow, orderly change – change that doesn’t threaten the basic system of which he is not merely a part but the ordained central figure and most powerful single player.

He is today constrained on all sides from playing this role. Nonetheless, he continues to try to play it. He is obviously saying to himself, what else can I possibly do? What happens, as a result, is that other players (including those who were once upon a time his subordinate allies) defy him openly, and shamelessly, and get away with it – diminishing his power further.

Netanyahu addresses the U.S. Congress, which enthusiastically and endlessly applauds his dangerous self-interested nonsense as though he were George Washington reincarnated. It was a direct slap in the face of Barack Obama, even though Obama had already, in speaking to AIPAC, withdrawn de facto his timid attempt to propose the 1967 Israel/Palestine borders as the basis of a solution.

The Saudi government has made it very clear that it will do everything in its power to defend existing regimes in the Arab world and is angry at Obama’s occasional concession to “human rights” language. Pakistan’s government is telling Obama very clearly that, if it tries to be tough with it, they have a firmer friend in China. The Russian, Chinese, and South African governments have all made it very clear to Obama that, if the United States tries to get Security Council action against Syria, it will not have their support and it probably couldn’t get even a simple majority of votes – echoes of Bush’s failure in 2003 with the second Iraq resolution. In Afghanistan, Karzai is calling on NATO to stop drone attacks. And the Pentagon is feeling pressure to pull out of Afghanistan on the grounds that it is too expensive.

Lest one think that U.S. weakness is exclusively a Middle East issue, take a look at Honduras. The United States had virtually endorsed the coup against now former President Zelaya. Because of the coup, Honduras was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS). The United States then struggled hard to get Honduras restored to full membership in the OAS on the grounds that a new president had been formally elected. Latin American governments resisted this because Zelaya had not been allowed to return with all phony legal charges dropped.

What happened next? Colombia (supposedly the U.S.’s best friend in Latin America) and Venezuela (supposedly the U.S.’s nemesis in Latin America) got together and jointly arranged with the Honduran government in power Zelaya’s return under Zelaya’s conditions. Secretary of State Clinton smiled wanly at this de facto rebuff to U.S. diplomacy.

Finally, Obama is in trouble with the U.S. Congress over the war in Libya. Under the War Powers Act, Obama was supposed to be able to commit troops in Libya only for 60 days without explicit further endorsement by Congress. Sixty days have now passed, and there has been no Congressional action. Continuing the Libyan action is clearly illegal, but Obama is unable to get the endorsement. Nonetheless, Obama remains committed to the Libyan action. And U.S. involvement could escalate. So he can do the harm, but not the good.

Meanwhile, Obama is concentrating on getting re-elected. He stands a good chance of achieving this. The Republicans are moving further and further to the right, and politically they are no doubt overdoing it. But once re-elected, the president of the United States will have even less power than today. The world is moving on at a rapid pace. In a world with so many uncertainties and unpredictable actors, the most dangerous “loose gun” is turning out to be the United States.