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Commentary: The ambiguous Mr. Obama

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM– More than any other national leader, Barack Obama has a global constituency. The world does not vote in American elections, but his capacity to fulfill his obligations depends on the cooperation of other national leaders, and the opinions of publics that have at least a minimum of influence on them.
Balancing those far flung publics is not easy. The task may have something to do with the 20 percent of Americans who are think that their president is a Muslim, and his forth and back postures with respect to the controversial idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
The tensions built into the world context of his presidency also help us to understand his repeated efforts to divorce the concepts of Islam and terror, while he is leading the greatest crusade against Islam since the 13th century.

Politicians lie. Of course. They have to. How else to juggle the multiple obligations they are expected to serve. They say one thing and do something else. The higher the office, the more likely the dissembling. And Obama’s is the highest.

His loyal supporters may already be furious at me. He did not begin the war against Iraq. He has proudly announced the withdrawal of combat troops, but commentators are not confident that he is leaving behind anything close to a victory, or a  regime that can keep things stable. He has adopted and expanded American military efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Barack Obama makes Richard the Lionheart look like a boy who got into a schoolyard brawl.

Guantanomo is still holding jihadists, despite the president’s campaign pledge to close it down. This may not be his desire, but who can be sure about the desires of a politician who has to serve so many interests, and is beholden to Congress, the courts, advisors who may convince him to abandon some commitments, and–in this case–the governments of other countries not enthusiastic about taking some of those prisoners off his hands?

Obama has had a mixed record on Israel, but mixed records are the nature of political leadership.

After his Cairo speech and demanding a freeze of building for Jews in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, only 4 percent of the Israeli Jewish population felt he was supportive. Since then, however, he has backed off from his sweeping demands against the country’s capital city, and his invitation to Israeli-Palestinian talks is close to the Israeli desire of no preconditions.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes what has been seen for some time in Israeli media, that American military aid remains at a high level, with Israeli access to some of the most advanced weaponry, and joint exercises that may surpass what previous administrations have offered. One passage in the WSJ reinforces the image of a crusade against Islamic extremists.

“The intensified partnership is part of the Obama administration’s broader policy of boosting military support for American allies in the Mideast amid heightened tensions with Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas . . .”

Judging presidents is a task best left to historians and others with a broad perspective, some years after an incumbent has left office. Archives, memoirs, and contemplation can take the place of partisan passions. Even distance leaves open a number of difficult issues. How much credit should be given to any president for the nature of a national economy that responds to international and non-governmental stimuli, as well as to what the president does on top of what former presidents did? A dispassionate assessment of what came out of Congress and the White House under the heading of health reform might conclude that it is a mess not likely to deal with the self-serving efforts of insurance companies and HMOs, but only a child would think that a president can dictate legislation in such a context, or even maintain control over the details in a bill that grows from 1,000 to more than 2,000 pages.

Obama stirs passions. Soon after his inauguration, there were reports that he was the most threatened president since the Secret Service began its protection after the assassination of William McKinley. More recent news is that the tempo has declined to what has been the norm. 

The President’s 2008 campaign stimulated great emotion, but a careful study of his nomination indicates that it had something to do with the formulas used by state Democratic parties to divide the delegates between him and HIllary Clinton (Mattan Sharkansky, “The Impact of the Electoral System on Delegate Allocations in the 2008 American Primaries,” Representation, 46/2, July 2010). Obama’s victory in November was more clear cut, but we can argue if that was on account of Obama, McCain, or Palin.

Currently the tea leaves do not look promising for his party’s success in the mid-term Congressional elections, and I have not seen any rosy predictions for his success in 2012. That, too, is part of the job. George Washington might have still been a national hero when he left office, but that is not the image of presidents that I have been observing since FDR.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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