Opinion

David Rohde

From Cairo to Geneva, Obama steps back from Mideast

David Rohde
Sep 16, 2013 19:36 UTC

It started as “a new beginning” and ended as “America is not the world’s policeman.”

Between President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike.

But he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.

The administration has had its achievements. It revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and its new agreement with Russia will likely remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. To the delight of Americans outside the Beltway and dismay of mandarins inside it, Obama is testing the premise that the United States can walk away from the Middle East.

The agreement with Russia is the latest example. In a chaotic 24-day period recounted in this  Wall Street Journal piece, the administration’s de facto policy in Syria has shifted from “Assad must go” to “Assad’s chemical weapons must go.”

Dictators never looked so good

David Rohde
Sep 12, 2013 23:43 UTC

Dictators have never looked so good.

Vladimir Putin is saving the United States from another Mideast military intervention. Bashar al-Assad promises to ‘thin the herd’ of jihadists and hold Syria together. And Egypt’s new strongman, General Abdal Fattah el Sisi, says he is sorting out the Muslim Brotherhood. With each passing month in the Middle East, it seems, authoritarianism grows more attractive.

Leaders described as “repressive” sound eminently reasonable. They promise to bring order to chaos without dirtying American hands. Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday was the latest example.

Written with the help of the American public relations firm Ketchum, the piece provoked a dizzying array of reactions. Here’s one fact check by Max Fisher of the Washington Post. Here’s a take down from Human Rights Watch. And the New Yorker posted this hilarious Andy Borowitz mock Modern Love column by the macho former KGB officer.

A Syria gift Obama must use wisely

David Rohde
Sep 10, 2013 16:46 UTC

In a sober, narrowly framed speech Tuesday night,  President Barack Obama argued that deterring chemical weapons use – not regime change – remained the goal of any American military strike in Syria. Ob ama said he would delay a vote in Congress on the issue, seek a UN resolution requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and explore Russia’s surprising – and probably  - offer to help secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

The speech’s most interesting passage was its final one. On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, Obama offered a rough outline of a new, more limited vision of America’s role in the world.

“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

For Obama, a contradiction too many

David Rohde
Sep 6, 2013 23:01 UTC

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama’s initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

The debate we should be having on Syria

David Rohde
Sep 3, 2013 22:20 UTC

On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One, departed for Sweden and left behind a looming political disaster. Despite the endorsement of Republican and Democratic House leaders, many members of Congress remain deeply skeptical about the president’s proposal to carry out cruise missile strikes in Syria. And they should be.

A few dozen missile strikes will not alter the military balance in Syria’s civil war. They will not punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the point where it moves him to the bargaining table. The Syrian autocrat is engaged in a ruthless fight for survival. Obama is not. As long as that dynamic continues, limited military action will have a limited impact.

Tomahawk cruise missiles are the latest wonder weapon to be used to lull Americans into thinking they can have war without cost. (For now, they’ve replaced drones.) In a sign of just how limited the American effort will be, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a resolution Tuesday night that would limit any military action to sixty days, with one thirty day extension.

Has Iraq shackled American power?

David Rohde
Aug 29, 2013 22:19 UTC

In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.

But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.

In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an intelligence assessment which said Assad had used chemical weapons fourteen times since 2012.

A moment of truth in Damascus and Washington

David Rohde
Aug 22, 2013 14:11 UTC

The images emerging from Syria — from this hysterical young girl to these rows of corpses — should be a turning point in a conflict that has killed 100,000 people. The deaths, if proven, demonstrate either the depravity of Bashar al-Assad — or the rebels fighting him.

But the Obama administration has spent so much time distancing itself and Americans from acting in Syria that a serious U.S. reaction is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson — and respecting Syria’s dead — the White House is repeating its destructive pattern of issuing empty threats.

Hours after the images appeared, National Security Adviser Susan Rice demanded on Twitter that the Syrian government “allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate” and vowed that “those responsible will be held accountable.”

A feckless response to Egypt’s avoidable massacre

David Rohde
Aug 15, 2013 15:18 UTC

Tepid rationalizations that the United States has “limited leverage” in Egypt or that the Arab Spring is “failing” do not change a basic fact: a U.S.-funded “ally” has carried out one of the largest massacres of protesters since the 1989 assault on Tiananmen Square.

It is time for Obama to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Ending assistance will not curb the behavior of Egypt’s increasingly autocratic military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nor will it ease that country’s political divide or reduce anti-Americanism. But it will say that the United States actually stands for basic international principles.

Wednesday’s killing of 638 people and recent events in the Middle East point to an alarming trend for the Obama White House: Its drone and surveillance-centric approach to counterterrorism is failing. A grim reality is emerging. George W. Bush’s invasion-centric method of countering militancy failed. And so is Obama’s cautious, middle of the road approach.

What failed in Pakistan won’t work in Egypt

David Rohde
Aug 2, 2013 15:09 UTC

 

As the Egyptian army continued its violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood this week, White House officials said that the United States can’t cut off its $1.3 billion a year in aid to Egypt. To do so would cause Washington to lose “influence” with the country’s generals. Vital American security interests are at stake, they argued, and keeping the torrent of American aid flowing gives Washington leverage.

If that argument sounds familiar, it is. For the last decade, the United States has used the same logic in Pakistan. Washington has given $11 billion in military aid to the Pakistani army in the name of maintaining American “influence” in Islamabad. From new equipment to reimbursements for Pakistani military operations, the money flowed year after year, despite complaints from American officials that the Pakistanis were misusing funds and inflating bills.

Can the United States do better in Egypt? Pakistan and Egypt are vastly different, but as the Obama administration fervently embraces its Pakistan approach in Egypt, it’s worth examining the results of its dollars-for-generals strategy.

Two American families — and two Americas

David Rohde
Jul 26, 2013 04:13 UTC

Over the last 20 years, two middle class American families — the Stanleys and the Neumanns — have done all the right things. Milwaukee natives, they worked hard, learned news skills,  and tried to show their children that strivers would be rewarded.

But their lives — as captured in an extraordinary Frontline documentary — are an American calamity. Followed by filmmakers for two decades, they move from dead-end job to dead-end job, one of the couples’ divorces, and most of their children spiral downward economically, not up.

The Stanleys and the Neumanns are a microcosm of the middle class that President Barack Obama — and House Republicans — will spar over for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. And they are part of a global trend. Across industrialized nations, income inequality is growing and people like the Stanleys and Neumanns are the losers.

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