by Janet Daley
The West can no longer rely on American leadership in the world. For the remaining duration of the Obama administration, Washington’s judgment and effectiveness in foreign policy cannot be trusted. It is quite an achievement for the one remaining superpower to appear as ineffectual and wrong-footed as the United States has managed to do in the past week. But there it is. The president’s global strategy in his second term was based on two resounding premises. First, al‑Qaeda was “on the run” having been smashed by the killing of Osama bin Laden and the successful US drone operations in Pakistan: in May, Mr. Obama gave a triumphal speech in which he declared the War on Terror officially over.
That was then. This is now: over the past week, 19 US embassies in the Middle East and North Africa had to be closed for a week, and diplomatic staff evacuated from Yemen because of “specific terrorist threats”. So who exactly is on the run?
When the embarrassing contrast between this mass exit of the American presence and the “War on Terror (End of)” speech was pointed out, White House spokesmen clarified – as government spokesmen like to call it – what the president had said: it was al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan that had been all but defeated, not its franchise in Yemen, which was clearly still alive and kicking.
This clarification was followed shortly by the evacuation of diplomatic staff from Lahore in Pakistan due to – a specific terrorist threat. In his most recent comment, Mr. Obama rephrased his dismissal of the Islamist forces: al-Qaeda may not be “on the run” but it is “on its heels”. (Meaning: still facing forward and able to fight?) More confusingly still, Mr. Obama is apparently determined to return some Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen, where they will presumably add to the dangerous mix of jihadi terrorists.
The questions remain: is the US “at war” with global jihad or isn’t it? It is now engaged in drone attacks on Yemen, whose government is repeatedly declaring victory over the local al-Qaeda branch. What precisely is America’s role in this, if not as part of an international “War on Terror”? When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, he committed himself to the war in Afghanistan (rather than Iraq) and refused to rule out the possibility of invading Pakistan. Does he now have any clear, coherent objectives or is his White House simply reacting to events?
The second plank of the Obama global plan was that America’s contentious relationship with Russia would be “re-set”, thereby eliminating one of the main obstacles to the West’s attempts to deal with Syria and Iran. But last week, to pursue the computing metaphor, the re-set crashed rather spectacularly taking the entire software program with it. The White House decided to cancel the scheduled Obama-Putin meeting during the G20 summit in what was publicly presented as a “snub” to the Russian president, who had been so famously unhelpful over the matter of Edward Snowden.
Well, one man’s “snub” is another’s attempt to save face. In fact, one commentator close to the Obama administration put it quite frankly: “The calculation… was [that] going to Moscow would have yielded no benefit to the president’s agenda and he would have paid a price over Snowden and human rights in Russia.”
In other words, Mr. Obama would have emerged from this one-to-one meeting having to admit that he had gained absolutely nothing from an obdurate Mr. Putin. So he decided to get his own snub in first, and to try to make it seem like an international humiliation for Russia – when in reality Russia has made the US look impotently furious over the Snowden affair. This presupposes, of course, that we take the White House statements over Snowden at face value. Suppose we assume for a moment that, in foreign diplomacy, nothing is as it seems. Does the administration really want to take Snowden back to America to be put on trial for espionage or treason?
Public opinion polls in the US show that a majority of the electorate is concerned about NSA surveillance and could be ready to see Snowden as a genuine whistleblower who performed a national service. And this dissident view stretches right up to Capitol Hill, where two politicians of wildly different orientations – liberal Democrat Congressman John Lewis and Republican Senator Rand Paul – have both compared Snowden to Martin Luther King, which is about as close as you can get in American political culture to secular sainthood. (This may be why the president was tying himself in knots at his Friday press conference, insisting that the NSA surveillance programme was not being abused – but that he was still determined to reform it.)
So if Snowden, who has shown himself to be very articulate indeed, was taken back to the US and put on trial, isn’t there a chance that, with the help of a clever defence counsel, he might inspire an enormous national controversy about mass surveillance and data mining that would create serious problems for the administration? Might it be that the US security services are quietly advising the White House not to try too hard to get Snowden back? The Obama putdown of Putin looking like the “bored kid at the back of the class” was an attempt to counter the damage done to US prestige by the mischievous Russian president.
But a bit of international embarrassment is preferable to the undermining of your entire intelligence programme, and American transparency being what it is, an awful lot of awkward questions might have to be answered about how much access the federal government already has to everybody’s “private” electronic communications. At any rate, the heavily publicised cancellation of the one-on-one session with Putin is neither here nor there. The US and Russian foreign and defence secretaries were meeting as planned in Washington, quite as if nothing had happened. The presidential sulk on both sides is public relations tosh.
But for the rest of the free world, or the West as it is now loosely defined (including, as it does, much of Eastern Europe), this is all deeply worrying. The American government seems to be incapable of stating – or acting – in a consistent, decisive way at a very dangerous time. Mr. Obama has accused Mr. Putin of having a Cold War mentality. This is a charge with a real sting, since we all know that the Russian president is an authoritarian KGB man at heart.
But there must be at least a glimmering of doubt even in Europe – where the Obama presidency has been given an absurdly easy ride – that America, too, is adrift in the post-Cold War landscape: that it no longer has any clear conception of its global role. Mr. Obama, who talks constantly about his hopes for the future, seems to have very little interest in the new demands this new landscape might make on his country.
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Janet Daley has lived in Britain since 1965. She was educated at the University of California at Berkeley (BA in Philosophy), and Birkbeck College, London (post-graduate). This article appeared in the Telegraph (London).