Great words, little deeds
Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in the United States in 2004 with a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention. It marked him as a gifted orator and future political star.
He has lived up to both billings. Four years after that speech he returned to the convention to accept his party’s nomination for president, talking a path that included his “A More Perfect Union” speech regarding race. A few months later he was elected president of the United States.
Four months into his presidency, Obama travelled to Cairo and delivered “A New Beginning”, an attempt to restore the United States’ reputation in the Muslim world, a standing that had suffered since the attacks of 9/11.
Arguably, race relations in the United States are no better than when Obama was elected — he is not to blame for that; it is a bubbling up of latent racism — and America is viewed no more favourably in the Muslim world than it was prior to 2009.
Obama also expressed a desire for a nuclear weapons-free world with a talk in the Czech Republic. That position was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as the reason for awarding Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
His acceptance lecture was termed a “blockbuster” and a speech that “will live on for a long time as a text for peacemakers in power”.
Alas, like so many of Obama’s pronouncements, this one is far from approaching reality. Former Nobel Peace Prize committee chairman Geir Lundestad, six years after the fact, said he regretted the honour for Obama because it “didn’t achieve what it had hoped for”.
The trait of “great words, little deeds” has followed Obama into 2015.
Obama is not responsible for the tragedy that Syria has become but his refusal to stand by his own words allowed the conflict to fester. We can’t know what would have happened had he acted when Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s “red lines” regarding chemical weapons in Syria. However, we do know what has happened since there was no action: about 250,000 deaths, millions displaced and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen in 70 years.
Inaction is tacit permission. Since the international community didn’t respond to the humanitarian crisis spawned by Syrian chemical attacks and other brutalisations, the situation spiralled into ever lower levels of hell. It is very possible that early action by Obama and other world leaders would have forestalled the refugee crisis they are now scrambling to address.
If Assad’s forces had been stopped shortly after the first chemical weapons attack in March 2013, the situation in Syria may have developed in a very different way.
Obama is likely — and rightly — looking at Iraq and Libya as examples for what happens when a longtime ruthless dictator is removed without a viable replacement at hand.
Those are scary outcomes, to be sure, but is it then morally right to leave in place, to use Obama’s words before the UN General Assembly, “tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians…”?
Are these just words floating in a vacuum of leadership? Is it creating a space apparently filled by a militant Russia — using actions rather than words — bent on propping up Assad?
No one wants Syria to devolve into what Iraq and Libya are suffering through but Syria is nonetheless mightily suffering. No one wants a huge military enterprise that would, to paraphrase a US officer from another era, destroy the country to save the country.
There are small steps that can be implemented — perhaps a no-fly zone to limit Assad’s barrel-bomb campaign, for example. The United States is already flying combat missions over Syria to battle the Islamic State (ISIS); the assets are in place.
But we are left with inaction. Politically expedient; morally questionable.
President Obama talks but it is not presidential talk. Presidential speech is backed with conviction and action. People — friends and foes — have to believe a leader means what he says and is prepared to act on it.
Obama, gifted orator and politician, has little more than a year left to add the more important title of leader to his résumé.