Theodore Roosevelt, who like Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while serving as president of the United States, famously described his foreign policy as: "Speak softly and carry a big stick," which he said was a West African proverb. Many observers now castigate Obama for not carrying a “big stick" in Syria, while others bemoan America's decline in the international arena.
- The Syria crisis: A throwback to the Cold War
- Ambassador Oren: Israel has wanted Assad ousted since Syria war began
- Chemical disarmament pact tightens the noose around Assad’s neck
- The limits of brute force - learning from Ariel Sharon for today's Israel
- Russia says West exploiting Syria deal to threaten force against Assad
- U.S. should be the world’s policeman
- Geneva is not Munich, but there's a very disturbing echo
To put matters in perspective, in fact you don't need a "big stick" to navigate Syria. You need several "small sticks," and Obama uses them.
For starters, vocal critics of Obama - including MK Uri Ariel, MK and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, as well as generals in Syrian rebel forces – need to be brought back down to earth: The United States is neither an Israeli proxy state nor a mercenary force at the disposal of Syrian rebel forces.
Rather, it is a bleeding superpower that over the past decade has lost thousands of its sons and daughters in wars fought far from home that also pushed it trillions of dollars into debt. That is not the way to maintain superpower standing, that is how you lose it. Obama’s failure to fulfill the live up to the heedless power fantasies voiced by a handful of Middle East cynics makes him not weak, but rather cold and calculating.
In contrast to the impression made by right-wing Israeli politicians and the lobbyists of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who see catastrophe around every corner and are encouraging the U.S. to attack Syria, Israel's security has actually improved in the last few years.
Syria, whose weapons of mass destruction posed a serious threat to Israel, is falling apart, its army fighting against itself, and no longer constitutes an imminent threat to Israel.
Furthermore, as a result of being dragged by Syria into the civil war, Hezbollah’s power is declining, its soldiers dying on Syrian soil. Hezbollah's belligerence has generated growing criticism from the Lebanese, including some Lebanese Shi`ites.
Meanwhile, Iran's economy is hurting, and the election of President Hassan Rohani indicates that large parts of the Iranian public would welcome a change of political course.
In light of the recent U.S.-Russian deal, it could well be that within several years Syria's weapons of mass destruction will be dismantled, Hezbollah will lose much of its influence in Lebanon and Iran will seek new ways to bolster its regional standing. In other words, the Shi`ite axis that has threatened Israel is growing weaker and will probably continue to do so. So why rush to battle?
What is more, Obama is not the lightweight weakling his critics describe. Granted, he does not walk around waving a big stick, but he does, quietly, use "small sticks" all over the world. While Shabtai Shavit was complaining that the U.S. wasn’t firing Tomahawk missiles into Syria, Washington changed its policy and began supplying light arms and much-needed logistical aid to the Syrian rebels. If this continues, the balance of power within Syria will shift in favor of the rebels, and President Bashar Assad's diminishing control over the country will shrink further.
In addition to its growing commitment to the Syrian rebels, the United States is involved in several smaller operations throughout the world. On Obama's orders the CIA operates drones in Pakistan and Yemen, forcing Al-Qaida leaders to remain in hiding. U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in a surgically precise operation. The U.S. Air Force played an important role in toppling Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, and the United States is also very likely involved in the so-called cyberwar against Iran's nuclear program (the Stuxnet computer virus being a prime example).
Unlike his detractors, Obama understands the effectiveness of the proportional use of power. Why start a war when your enemies are sinking anyway? Why destabilize an already destabilized region when diplomatic agreements can lead to the dismantling of Syria's weapons of mass destruction and perhaps also put an end to Iran's nuclear charades? If the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria is implemented, Obama's "small sticks" may prove much more effective and less costly for the United States than tripping over a "big stick" in another Middle Eastern country.
Nimrod Hurvitz teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and contributes to the Canthink-Molad website