Obama Leaves Dictators Free to Flourish

Wednesday, July 29, 2015
By Roger Boyes in U.K.'s The Times:

Barack Obama leaves dictators free to flourish, human rights hit

Ever since Barack Obama demoted the US from global policeman to risk-averse traffic warden, an important question has nagged contemporary historians: whatever happened to detente? Can the West ease tensions with the world’s many aggressive dictators and avert war without surrendering the moral high ground?

Forty years ago this week the Helsinki Final Act, a diplomatic masterpiece, showed how it could be done. It helped to defuse the Cold War, appeared to give the Soviet bloc the security it craved but, by setting up a mechanism to scrutinise human rights, gave legitimacy to dissident groups who started to subvert communism from within. “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out,” as the former British foreign secretary Ernie Bevin once had it. Obama’s statecraft has to be measured against the Helsinki yardstick.

On almost every count, the President falls short. He has given dictators leave to rule and enrich themselves until they die peacefully in their beds. The grand bargain with Iran leaves the clerical regime unscathed. Indeed, while negotiators were locked in nuclear talks over the past six months in Vienna, 694 people were executed in Tehran. Fourteen years after Helsinki, dissidents in eastern Europe, emboldened by Western diplomacy, toppled their rulers. Fourteen years after the Iran deal, Tehran will be free of most constraints on its nuclear program; it will be wealthier and more assertive.

The US calculates that the opening up to Western trade will give Iran a more liberal and responsive government. The evidence suggests otherwise: Russia and China are building up an alternative value system that encourages countries to snub Western models and pursue a combination of managed capitalism and authoritarian rule that supposedly offers stability rather than the hazards of parliamentary democracy.

In Cuba too the Castro brothers and their broken regime have been given a lifeline by Obama’s determination to restore normal relations. There has been no US demand to make serious improvements in human rights. Since the thaw more than 3000 people have been detained in Havana. The migrant flow to the US has more than doubled since the opening because Cubans believe the Americans, at Raul Castro’s request, will start turning back refugees.

Dictators are most likely to take the path of conciliation with the West when they are on the ropes, yet no pressure is being put on them to pay the price of political rehab. Bashar al-Assad last week lamented the lack of Syrian military manpower. His message was directed at Iran, his chief sponsor. Don’t desert me, he was pleading, just because you now have a deal with the US. If I fall, you lose too.

Bashar doesn’t have to worry, though. Cash and guns will still flow from Iran. And Obama is not going to touch him either. Not as long as he surrenders the moral argument by co-opting bad guys in the name of regional stability. Obama entered the White House committed to ending imperial overstretch, winding down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That mission, though, has mutated into an almost dogmatic reluctance to use force or coercive diplomacy.

Even the dimmest autocrat now grasps he can rule with impunity and that the age of Western-influenced regime change is over. It wasn’t long ago that tyrants like Saddam Hussein ended on the gallows calling “Down with the traitors!” Now their last words, spoken in palaces surrounded by fawning courtiers, are more likely to be the gasped details of their numbered Swiss bank accounts.

It’s pretty much official: the US administration no longer considers anything worth fighting for beyond a direct and verifiable-in-triplicate threat to the homeland. Its allies are split between the relieved, the discomfited, the nervous and the downright perplexed.

Perhaps no one is more bewildered than the Kurdish fighter who for the past year has considered himself, proudly, to be Obama’s man-on-the-ground in the war against Islamic State in Syria — and who is today being bombarded by a NATO ally, Turkey, with the apparent approval of the US.

The result: moral confusion all round. America’s allies are being built up and then left hanging in the wind. Human rights are promoted and then betrayed. Obama wanted to leave behind him a world that conformed to rules of good behaviour, to international norms. Instead, through his lack of consistency, his over-eagerness to abandon the principles of strong, democratic foreign policymaking in exchange for imaginary future gains, much of the world will be pleased to see him go.