Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Why Syria Won’t Help President Obama Earn His Nobel Prize


13 May 2013

Obama’s Nobel

I remember having mixed reactions back in 2009 when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On the one hand, just like many people in the United States and around the world, I was excited about his presidency. He looked, spoke, and acted differently than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

On the other hand, I knew how past presidents had earned the famed peace award. Theodore Roosevelt won it in 1906 for brokering peace between Russia and Japan. Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson became a Nobel laureate for ending World War I. Jimmy Carter was given the award in 2002 not only because of his global human rights advocacy after leaving the Oval Office, but also because of his indispensable role in the Camp David Accords that secured peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

I was worried that the immense weight of the Nobel would raise expectations so high that – much like a child prodigy cracking under pressure and failing to reach his full potential – Mr. Obama would not be able to accomplish a great deal on the international scene.

To be sure, the American president has had impressive foreign policy accomplishments. He successfully guided the new nuclear arms reduction treaty (new START) with Russia through what could’ve been an impossible Senate ratification. His cautious approach to the Libyan Revolution in 2011 and his reluctance to go to war with Iran for its controversial nuclear program are also commendable. But the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize should earn the award by averting a major war or alleviating massive suffering, especially if he or she happens to be a current president of the United States.

Obama’s Allies and Adversaries in Syria

I was hoping that Syria would give Mr. Obama that opportunity but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The last time I wrote about Syria fifteen months ago, I had ended on a pessimistic (and somewhat banal) note: “Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But determined action may not be the answer either.” 70,000 dead Syrians later, I’m sorry to see that I have yet to be corrected.

The problem facing the President is that two of America’s Middle Eastern allies which are most involved in the Syrian crisis – namely, Turkey and Qatar – are pursuing policies that undermine U.S. interests. While Washington hopes to end the conflict on a negotiated settlement – the guns fall silent, an interim government takes over, and the Syrian people decide their future in free and fair elections – Ankara and Doha arm Sunni extremists, most notably Al-Nusra Front, which recently announced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Nusra is busy replacing the Free Syrian Army as the main insurgent group in Syria.

Although last week’s agreement between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to convene a conference with the representatives of the Syrian opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad is a step in the right direction, unfortunately, it may be too little too late. While Turkey and Qatar support the likes of al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also supplying Syrian insurgents. With Russian and Iranian backing, however, the Assad regime is holding fast and creating a deadlock: the Syrian president cannot crush the insurgents nor can they overthrow him. To paraphrase Churchill’s maxim about Russia, Syria is now a revolution wrapped in a civil war inside a Middle East-wide power struggle.

Not even Mr. Obama’s good relations with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, can help the United States to break the Syrian knot. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington on 16 May. Even if the American president makes a convincing case that Turkish support for Sunni insurgents is making the war in Syria bloodier, longer, and harder to end, it may not have an effect. In the aftermath of the car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı on the Syrian border two days ago, Mr. Erdoğan maintained his combative and defiant tone; he is not the type to admit mistakes and change course.

It would have been great for the United States if Mr. Erdoğan had the power to topple the Assad regime singlehandedly. The problem is that neither Turkey nor any of Washington’s regional allies – except perhaps Israel – would be able to pull off a military operation against Assad without U.S. support. After the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jetfighter last year, civilian and military leaders in Ankara realized the immense costs of the fight for Syria. The allegations of the use of chemical weapons sobered them once again. The Jordanians, Saudis, or Qataris would also be very hesitant to engage Assad head-on for similar reasons. As for the Israelis, despite their capabilities, it would be foolish of them to hand a golden opportunity to Damascus and Tehran to make the case that the uprisings in Syria are part of a “Zionist plot.”

The American president is wise to be pensive.
The American president is wise to be pensive.

“Birds in the Sky” without “Boots on the Ground”?

Mr. Obama has signaled his refusal to commit “boots on the ground” in Syria repeatedly. But he is coming under immense pressure to change course. In late 2012, the Obama administration had threatened the Assad regime that, the use of chemical weapons against the insurgents constituted a “red line.” Crossing that line, Washington said, would result in U.S. military action. Now, Senator John McCain, the president’s opponent in the 2008 election and an adamant advocate of U.S. humanitarian interventions, is taking the president to task after reports that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria. Mr. McCain wonders if the Obama “red line” was written on “disappearing ink.”

Likewise, Vali Nasr, a renowned Middle East expert and State Department adviser in the first Obama administration, pointed out how, if Syria were to become another Somalia in the heart of the Middle East, it would seriously hurt U.S. interests and regional security. The proponents of using U.S. airpower against the Assad regime argue that it could bring the Syrian civil war to a swift and less bloody conclusion.

Indeed, American “birds in the sky” may prevent the need for “boots on the ground.” Or, American birds could very well be combined with Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian boots on the ground. Unfortunately, even then a resolution to the Syrian conflict may not come, especially if Iranian and Lebanese Shia boots respond in kind.

The irony with the current deadlock in Syria is that, if Mr. Obama wants to resolve it on America’s terms, he would have to act like his maligned predecessor and go it alone (or preferably with “a coalition of the willing”). In fact, unlike Mr. Bush in Iraq in 2002-03, Mr. Obama may actually find many eager regional partners to topple Bashar Assad. Yet, it’s highly unlikely that the American people and their president will walk down that road – unless, of course, Mr. Obama decides to return his Nobel Prize.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


After One Year, Obama Surge in Afghanistan Has Mixed Results and Mixed Future


December 20, 2010

A leader is a man who can adapt principles to circumstances. General George S. Patton

The Obama administration’s new “Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review” is remarkably optimistic when compared to the conditions on the ground.

In his speech at West Point Academy on December 1, 2009, President Obama had defined the situation in Afghanistan quite dramatically: “What’s at stake,” Mr. Obama had said, “is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility – what’s at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the entire world.” To that end, the American president outlined the three core elements of his “surge”: “a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”

The Obama administration’s new report claims that “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas,” admitting, however, that “these gains remain fragile and reversible.”

Indeed, the “Obama surge” in Afghanistan has been a mixture of success and failure. The additional 30,000 troops sent in 2010 and adopting new tactics have given Afghan and international forces a fresh respite. Actually securing Afghanistan, however, has remained an elusive accomplishment: Insurgent attacks are on an all-time high; failure to resolve the allegations of fraud in last September’s parliamentary elections is shaking the already unstable foundation’s of Afghan democracy; and, in the aftermath of last summer’s floods, Islamabad’s already limited will to clamp down on Taliban strongholds within Pakistan has ground to a halt.

We can reach several conclusions from Mr. Obama’s stance on Afghanistan. First of all, the people of Afghanistan and their government will have to assume greater responsibility for their security – and a lot sooner than the target date of late 2014. America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

More important, we need to see that Afghan security forces, the United States, and NATO allies are fighting more than an organization or a network of myriad groups – they’re actually fighting decades of misery borne out of foreign meddling, occupation, and underdevelopment. Virtually every Afghan official and private citizen will tell you that “90%” of Taliban militants join the group out of economic deprivation and lack of a “meaningful future.” Thus, without building a viable economic order in Afghanistan, all security gains will remain reversible.

The problem is that America’s economic prospects also look bleak. As the veteran American journalist Leslie Gelb pointed out last week, “continuing the war [in Afghanistan] tears at our own nation’s very vitals. How on earth can the [Obama] administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America’s physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing?” “Of course, I feel for the Afghans;” Mr. Gelb continued, “but I feel far, far more for Americans.”

When Mr. Obama runs for re-election in 2012, he will face just that criticism – from friend and foe – that he has to focus on “America first.” As such, he will probably begin a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next summer in order to strengthen his hand at home. It will be wise for Afghan and international leaders to take note of that fact.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Change We Want to Believe In (But You Didn’t Give It to Us): The Road Ahead of President Obama


November 3, 2010

Yesterday was not a good day for President Obama. His party lost the House of Representatives by a significant margin and will have a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

In a sense, Mr. Obama’s historic success in 2008 led to last night’s defeat. As candidate, Mr. Obama had promised a lot and people believed in him. He had pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. He has failed to do so. He said he would fix the economy. He has failed to do so. He had promised “change.” He has failed to deliver most of it.

President Obama hasn’t failed on every count, of course. His adroit management of healthcare reform ultimately forced Congress to address one of America’s most pressing problems. The $800 billion stimulus injected much-needed cash into the economy and ended the recession. Through Wall Street reform, the chances of financial abuse leading to another recession are now more miniscule. And the Obama administration’s decision to help General Motors and Chrysler, though quite controversial in 2009, probably revived the auto industry and helped nearly 1 million people to keep their jobs. (Even The Economist, which had opposed the $86 billion bailout, gives credit to Mr. Obama for saving America’s auto industry.)

Furthermore, outside the U.S., people have welcomed Mr. Obama’s presidency with a sigh of relief after the nightmarish years of George W. Bush (although many in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan probably have other ideas).

But it all goes back to the American maxim, “it’s the economy, stupid!”

If Mr. Obama wants to keep his job in two years, he has to emphasize his commitment to the free market and point out its shortcoming to the American people only within that framework. His opponents try to stick the nonsensical “socialist” tag on him and they are getting very good at it. The President can put an end to such childish name-calling only if he convinces people in the United States that his objective is to get the federal government involved with the free market to help it function more effectively (case in point: the stimulus and Wall Street reform).

Deeds speak louder than words and Mr. Obama can boost his economic credentials significantly by taking aggressive steps to decrease the federal deficit. A lot of budget balancing will have to come from decreasing military spending, which can be realized only if the United States reduces its military commitments, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but throughout the world.

Ronald Reagan’s “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem” adage certainly influenced voters yesterday. But at a time when the world is globalizing and economies are transforming, governments have a lot to do and the U.S. government is not an exception. As such, Mr. Obama has to move more quickly and decisively in some of the signature areas where he had promised “change” in 2008: education reform, improving America’s infrastructure (especially the transportation system), and energy independence.

That the Obama administration has moved so slowly on these important issues is what led to yesterday’s Democratic defeat.

“Change we want to believe in (but you didn’t give it to us)” said American voters to President Obama. Two years ago, his charisma and message of change had struck a positive chord with a lot of Americans and people around the world. Yesterday, we saw the result of great frustrations borne out of great expectations. Not an outright repudiation of President Obama and his agenda.

Republicans as well as Democrats should keep that in mind in the run-up to 2012. 

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).