19 Mar 2013

Obama: from ‘Yes, we can’ to ‘Well, perhaps we can’t after all’

Ten years ago today George W Bush went on prime time TV to tell the world that the invasion of Iraq had begun. The fifteen second pre-roll before the broadcast, which went out inadvertently but revealingly on some stations, showed Bush clenching his fist and puffing himself up to deliver his declaration of war.

Minds have long been made up about that war and whatever the merits or demerits of Saddam Hussein’s removal and the US occupation; even supporters of the conflict admit in hindsight that the intelligence on WMD was faulty and that they reacted precipitously.

Ten years on we are still feeling the consequences of that American hubris, but in a way that few would have expected at the time.

If Washington was conspicuous by its eagerness to intervene in Iraq it is equally conspicuous by its reluctance to do so in Syria. The words bitten and shy come to mind. We saw an example of this again in today’s White House press briefing, when Jay Carney said there was no evidence of a chemical attack near Aleppo reported by some news outlets.

He is right to be cautious. And the picture in Syria has become so fragmented and confused that we can no longer be sure who is using such weapons, if at all. But the language of caution contrasts poignantly with the language of intervention 10 years ago. Having been arrogant and foolish about the possibilities of American power in converting a country like Iraq into a western-style democracy, this administration is burying its head in the sands of pragmatism.

It is so obsessed with the limits of American power that it has not even done all it could to engage diplomatically in Israel/Palestine or indeed Syria.

In 2008, Obama electrified America and the world with “Yes, we can!” Now he has retreated, especially on foreign policy, into the shell of  “Well, perhaps we can’t after all and why waste our time, money and reputation trying?”

America may pay the price for what opponents of excessive caution over Syria, like Senator John McCain, already call a crime of omission. The price could come in the form of a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, a spillover into Lebanon or Israel, and a wider Sunni Shiite confrontation which pits Saudi Arabia and its allies, against Iran and its.

Finally President Obama may heed the words of his good friend Bill Clinton, who once told me that the biggest regret of his presidency was a tragic omission.

Motivated by excessive caution he failed to intervene militarily in Rwanda, when a few thousand US marines just may have prevented the slaughter of over a million Tutsis. “It would have been a risk worth taking,”‘ he said with unusual understatement. You bet.

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