FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama’s Legacy: An Abyss Gazing Back

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” warned Nietzsche. “For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Russian tanks rolling into Hama, its airforce bombing Idlib, its missiles flying from the Caspian, its fighters violating Turkish airspace, all of it backed by the familiar language of the “war on terror”, is the abyss staring back at an America that, in search of monsters to destroy, has helped legitimise monstrous deeds. Vladimir Putin can face little resistance bombing ambulances in Idlib when US gunships are incinerating hospitals in Kunduz. Bashar al Assad can get away with murder because, like Netanyahu or Sisi, he has conveniently pronounced his opponents “terrorists”. Syria is Shuja’iyya and Rabaa writ large.

As long as the US carries the dead weight of the “war on terror”, it will have neither the agility to respond to crises nor the moral authority to restrain its wayward—and inadvertent—allies. When Putin volunteered his forces to join a “war on terror” in Syria, Obama had little choice but to assent. Putin, unlike the US, however has targeted mainly anti-Assad forces, some of them “US-backed”. But Washington’s feeble complaints ring hollow when the US has itself set the precedent in targeting anti-ISIS groups. In over a year of bombing Syria, the US hasn’t just targeted ISIS, it has also struck Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the Islamic Front at least five times, and even the FSA on three occasions. Meanwhile it has been careful to spare the Assad regime as it wages its own “war on terror” against the Syrian people.

One reason Obama embraced counterterrorism over counterinsurgency is that the latter involves substantial resources, political flexibility, and boots on the ground. Counterterrorism absolves one of such responsibility. One does not have to be attuned to the politics, history or culture of a place to bomb it—as long as one perceives oneself invulnerable to the blowback. Drones, special operations, and local proxies thus became the preferred means of waging war in the Obama administration. The costs were deferred onto the targeted populations. In an infamous policy called “signature strike”, the administration even bombed people, including rescuers and mourners, without knowing their identity, certain that only civilians in the region would be exposed to likely retaliation.

For his two terms in office, this policy ensured that Obama would earn kudos for his successes while the costs of his failures were borne by others. He could project toughness by ordering assassinations from Waziristan to Somalia without ever having to confront an adversary equal in might. If Obama is Kennedy, then his Khrushchev is a teenager in FATA armed with an AK-47 instead of an SS-4 ballistic missile. Obama’s greatest victories have been at the podium: he is a gifted orator. But where his capacity for delivering inspirational homilies is unparalleled, many have sensed invertebracy when it comes to actions. At home and abroad, Obama’s resolve has proved elastic.

Vladimir Putin is made of sterner stuff. But the kudos he has earned for his recent bold moves in Syria is overstated. Putin is no master of the chess board. As his nemesis, the former grandmaster Gary Kasporov notes, Putin is only “good at playing poker with a weak hand against anxious opponents who fold against his every bluff”. Putin’s confidence is merely a function of his opponent’s weakness. Obama betrayed his hand long ago when failed to match hot rhetoric with even modest action. His resolve was tested and was found wanting. Assad brazenly breached his “red line” in August 2013 and, instead of suffering consequences, was rewarded. Confident of American inaction, Assad killed three times as many civilians in the 28 months after the chemical attack as he had in the 28 months prior. Russia and Iran were watching.

The conflict in Syria is often described as a “proxy war” between the US and Russia. Syrian rebels are rarely mentioned without the obligatory prefix “US-backed”. (The regime army on the other isn’t often described as “Russian-backed”.) The backing, though tangible, takes distinctly different forms; and the support that the contending parties have received reflects the character of their patrons. Not used to doing things by half, Russia has supplied the Syrian regime with bombers, gunships, armour, and missiles. The US on the other hand has spent many years trying to ensure that no anti-aircraft weapon would reach Syrian rebels lest it affect its ally Israel’s ability to bomb Syria with impunity (the downing of a Malaysian airliner by pro-Russian militias also underscored dangers). Instead its support has taken the form of non-lethal aid, such as night-vision goggles, satellite phones etc. It took many years before the Saudis were allowed to supply out-dated TOW anti-tank missiles. But so far the US has refrained from passing on any game changing technology.

Part of Obama’s reluctance to act affirmatively in Syria, it is reported, stemmed from his concern that it might undermine delicate negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal, a deal that he hopes will be his legacy. Obama may have paid a very high price for securing a legacy that is now being humiliatingly unravelled by his own supposed partners. Reuters reports that around the time the nuclear deal was being finalized, the top Iranian commander was in Moscow, lobbying Putin to intervene in Syria to shore up Assad. Several months on, with Russian Sukhois now bombing Hama, thousands of Iranian soldiers have entered Syria to spearhead a regime offensive on beleaguered Aleppo, under Russian aircover. Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility has been further undermined by the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has announcing a ban on all further negotiations with the US and president Hassan Rouhani telling CNN that, in a call with Putin, Obama had actually welcomed the Russian intervention.

Russian actions in Syria are an act of aggression against the country’s long-suffering people. Yet, beyond mealy-mouthed statements—and the silent hope that Syria would become Russia’s second Afghanistan—the US has done little to challenge this. Indeed, on several occasions, US officials’ commitment to the “war on terror” ideology has obliged them to welcome Russia as a potential partner against ISIS. Little thought is given to the toll this might extract, given Russia’s looser definition of a “terrorist”, and what an emboldened Putin might do next. “In all times and places”, said Hobbes, “nature abhors a vacuum”. The vacuum Obama left in Syria has been filled by Putin. “Right now,” journalist Nancy Youssef overheard a Pentagon official saying, “we are Putin’s prison bitch.” This is Obama’s legacy. But in the character of his inadvertent ally we can now at least recognise: the war on terror is also a war of terror.

More articles by:

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative war.

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail