How Obama abandoned allies for African dictators
Few moves taken by the Obama administration have been more consequential and less explored than his disastrous foreign policy. While ObamaCare, immigration reform, and his now famous ‘rule-by-decree’ have long been under media’s scrutiny, a patchwork of diplomatic missteps have failed to rise to the top of the media cycle. However, historians looking back at America’s first black president will surely point out that his most fateful legacy has been shifting our country’s foreign policy center of gravity away from some of our closest allies in favor of a motley group of questionable leaders.
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For the first time in half a century, the U.S is changing its system of alliances, especially in the Middle East -- Obama has pivoted away from Israel and Saudi Arabia, made a mess of Libya, Egypt, and Syria, cozied up to Iran, and struck bargains with uncouth African dictators.
Take Israel. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. up until 2013, caused a media firestorm in June with his provocative op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal that explained in an unexpectedly frank manner how Obama “abandoned Israel”. The former ambassador chronicles his time spent in Washington and how the White House systematically undermined its greatest ally, from Obama’s fateful decision to seek a nuclear agreement with the “irrational, genocidal regime” in Iran, to the unprecedented support he offered Palestinians by demanding a settlement freeze, to the brash manner in which he treated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Oren concludes that while Israel’s own bungles were unintentional or came as retaliation to Obama’s transgressions, our president acted in a premeditated way. It was the White House that kept Israel in the dark about the backchannels used to negotiate with Teheran, it was Pennsylvania Avenue that artificially fabricated crises in the bilateral relationship with Netanyahu every step of the way as a means of extracting concessions from Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, despite the obvious strain in the relationship, and against all evidence, Obama hypocritically chanted with every occasion that he is Israel’s best friend.
And then there’s Saudi Arabia. Obama singlehandedly succeeded in alienating both Arabs and Jews throughout his six years in office. But unlike Israel, whose strategic options are severely limited by its unfortunate geography, Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves enable the leadership not just to snub Obama -- but to go looking for other allies. While the new reformist King Salman refused to attend a May Camp David Summit by scathingly arguing that "not enough progress had been made in narrowing differences with Washington on issues like Iran and Syria to make the Saudi ruler's trip worth it", the Crown Prince paid an unexpected and cordial visit to Vladimir Putin’s Economic Forum in Sankt Petersburg. The contrasts couldn’t be wider. Away from the media spotlight, the Saudis negotiated a plethora of memoranda of understanding, including the building of 20 nuclear reactors in the Kingdom, Saudi investment in Russian shale oil fields and promises of buying Moscow-made defense equipment. In July, the media reported that Saudis would invest $10 billion in Russia in order to dampen the effects of U.S. sanctions.
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What about our administration’s successes? Obama can boast having signed a few ‘historic’ deals: the disastrous Iranian accord and the sacrilegious Cuban détente. While a lot of ink has been spilled over our country breaking bread with our historical enemies, in reality, our administration’s most overlooked "successes" have been keeping in power a garden-variety list of human rights trampling, power-hungry African dictators.
Blinded by a misguided assumption that it is America’s primary responsibility to police and battle African-grown Islamic terrorism (Al Shabaab or Boko Haram), the White House has been consistently outplayed in Africa. A series of revelations brought to the light by the media show just how knee-deep implanted is Washington in the region. Foreign Policy revealed that the U.S. maintains a secret drone base in Somalia, a country we had vowed never to get tangled up in again after Black Hawk Down. A similar military installation in Ethiopia (Arba Minch), operated by an “unspecified number” of U.S. Marines has been conducting airstrikes against terrorists for at least half a decade. A similar situation is found in neighboring Kenya. But the crown jewel is in Djibouti, where exists the Pentagon’s only official bricks and mortar African installation, Camp Lemonnier, responsible for thousands of drone strikes every year.
What binds all these countries together is their authoritarian leadership. Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, repeatedly blasted by the House and the media as a “China-cozying, rights-abusing ally”, has gained Washington’s favor through Camp Lemonnier before turning around and imprisoning political opponents and indebting his country to China. Beijing is slated to build its first African military base in the country later this year, a few kilometers away from America’s own installation. Ethiopia is essentially a one-party state, ruled by the same party for 25 years. In the latest round of elections, the EPRDF won all 547 seats, but not after killing three opposition members and jailing journalists. Kenya’s almost eponymous president Kenyatta managed to walk scot free from a charge of genocide leveled by the International Criminal Court after threatening, intimidating, and disappearing witnesses.
Nevertheless, in spite of lengthy chapters in this year’s State Department Report on Human Rights that outline the many abuses committed by the regimes in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, the White House considers them worthy of high-level visits. John Kerry visited in May Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti and Obama himself will honor Ethiopia and Kenya with the first visit by a sitting U.S. president.
Paradoxically, what this administration’s foreign policy boils down to is that enforcing counterterrorism operations in Africa and the Middle East necessitates keeping in power terrorist leaders. 2016 can’t come sooner.