Unlike Reagan’s prompt reaction to the events of 1983 in Beirut, the supposed passivity of the current American president, shown following the attack in Benghazi, is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.
After the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Stevens, President Obama responded with a resolute but cautious approach, in line with the foreign policy choices of his first term: “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
The voluntary preference for the term “act of terror,” and not “terrorism,” shows to what extent the strategy in presidential foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, is focused towards a path which diverges from that of the previous Bush administration, with both linguistic and cultural discontinuities. Behind such language there also lies the undeniable need to put into perspective a constant, and often exploitable, reference to the “Islamic” matrix of the attacks. The will to not concede to the easy temptation of military intervention further confirms the overall tendency towards caution and reflection.
A different reason for this behaviour is to be found in the additional aim of reaching a stabilisation of the political situation in the Middle East and a complex re-evaluation of the image of the United States. The current U.S. president has acted in awareness of America’s political limits in such a context, and has favoured an approach which is more pragmatic than the traditional idealism typical of U.S. foreign policy. The American presence in Middle Eastern and North African affairs during the 20th century has resulted in increased tensions, particularly post-9/11and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ordered by Bush. Anti-American sentiment, demonstrated by terrorist actions against sensitive U.S. targets, has grown in the last decade: it is one of the greatest problems faced by Obama, who was also elected for his promise of comprehensive normalisation.
Even the recent trip to the Middle East, described by the press, unsurprisingly, as a “maintenance trip“, showed Obama’s approach to be particularly tentative, almost reflexive, and his reluctance to take more incisive action, by virtue of a high-profile repositioning away from typical frenzied American interventionism.
The title of Fawaz Gerges’ essay, which appeared in March in Limes, effectively sums up widespread opinion on the so-called Obama doctrine: “Barack the Cautious.” Gerges’ words underline Obama’s pragmatism in the Middle Eastern context, focused on maintaining the status quo by avoiding ideological excesses and encouraging a calmer atmosphere. According to Gerges, this approach is the result of a deliberate American disengagement from the Middle East, in favour of the Pacific. Michele Basso, however, wonders just how realistic this outcome is, and alternatively to what degree a pivotal role in crisis contexts is still a determining factor for America, thus confirming Washington’s presence, albeit in a “softer” manner.
In many respects the same policy of re-evaluation and American outplacement came to be implemented, albeit with different strategies, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The stated objective was to regain credibility among Middle Eastern countries as well as to encourage a process of pacification, however in a strategic framework strongly influenced by the 1982 Westminster Address. Reagan’s doctrine was based on the idea of facing the Soviets at a global level in low-level-intensity conflicts, that is, those not directly fought between the two superpowers, also supporting guerrilla groups and opponents of philosocialist or pro-communist regimes wherever necessary. This aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy, imbued with an anti-communism which was as superficial as it was simplistic, had a positive influence in the direct conflict with Moscow in the long term, but greatly tarnished the image of Americans in other contexts. The U.S. invasion, often maladroit in essentially local matters, such as conflict between Israel and Palestine, or between Iraq and Iran, led to a tightening of international relations, particularly in Lebanon, Iran, and Central America. The American intervention in Lebanon in support of Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had exploited the civil war to undermine the Israelis, was considered an act of interference. The reaction to this “reintegration” in the area was very violent with a long series of attacks and abductions of hostages that characterised the entire Reagan presidency. The most shocking episode, which was in a certain sense similar to that of the embassy in Benghazi last year, was in October 1983 in Beirut, which saw the death of more than 200 Marines. The attack, then claimed by Hezbollah, led to a ramping up of American political choices at global level.
Reagan’s reaction was therefore quite different from that of today’s commander-in-chief. The then Republican president showed no reluctance to talk of “terrorism”, condemning the attack and planning a military response, which resulted in the Urgent Fury mission in Grenada. Despite the facade of a reasoning which concerned the defence of civilian and military Americans in the country, where there had been a resounding advance of the philosocialist regime, in so doing Reagan expressed the will for a muscular politics which would restabilise the predominant role of the United States.
Such a modus operandi seems to have been abandoned by Obama, who has always refused military involvement akin to that of the Reagan era. According to Del Pero’s reading, the re-elected president has initiated a policy of “low cost interventionism”, characterised by a general caution, “approaching passivity,” dictated by the pledges established by President Obama himself in electoral campaigns. Observers within the international community are currently reflecting on the validity of this approach with respect to issues in the Middle East and wonder about the need for the U.S. to play a more decisive and incisive role.
At the same time, one should not forget that the president has not completely abandoned the instrument of interventionism: for example, the uses of drones in war zones or in operations like the one that led to the killing of Bin Laden.
In its results, such behaviour does not appear far removed from Reagan’s more aggressive approach, as the escalation of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and in neighbouring regions does not appear at all diminished. At this time the greatest doubt is found in asking whether Obama’s current foreign policy is an almost obligatory and voluntarily considered choice to change the balance of power in ever-changing contexts, especially in light of the great political and cultural upheavals of recent years. It is highly likely that the American president’s supposed passivity is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.
Original Article: Obama e Reagan: visioni e scelte strategiche a confronto
Translated by Lois Bond
Photo Credit: isriya