Lack of leadership on Fed chairman, Syria show Obama has lost his way

Kevin Rafferty says the US president has been all talk and no action on foreign policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 2:00am

US President Barack Obama, who came to office on a wave of enthusiasm and energy - promising a 21st-century vision of a rapidly changing world - has hit the hard brick wall of realpolitik and his own limitations.

He behaves as if he is lost: not merely has his vision disappeared in the fog of war, but he has little clue where he is going, and neither the American system nor his fellow Americans are helping him.

This was seen this week as Professor Larry Summers, Obama's candidate to take over from Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, was ignominiously forced to withdraw, and Obama clearly reluctantly accepted that decision.

Opposition to Summers had been brewing for months in Obama's own Democratic Party and among left-wing critics hostile to Summers for his closeness to Wall Street and the so-called big "banksters".

Obama is president and must lead from the high ground [but] has failed to do so

The president has had months to think about the job and yet pointedly refused to make a choice when he might have guided the debate and pre-empted criticism. It was only after newspaper reports that Obama was about to nominate Summers - which provoked a hostile reaction in the markets - that Summers withdrew.

Obama displayed not only a lack of leadership but tin ears to what people are saying openly about his policies, and lack of them. But he compounded even this failure by saying he will wait longer before deciding who to nominate for the Fed.

Rumours are that another former treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, may be in Obama's sights, even though Geithner has said he does not want the job. Geithner would attract the hostility of the same critics, who regard him as a "Summers lite". He is also seen as part of the gang of Robert Rubin who moved from being co-chairman of Goldman Sachs into Bill Clinton's White House, then to treasury secretary and out to be a director of Citigroup.

Whispers from the White House are that Obama does not want to be railroaded into choosing Janet Yellen, currently Bernanke's deputy, or that he wants someone with whom he feels comfortable, and he does not know Yellen.

The Fed chief should be independent of politics with a term that extends beyond the president's. It should not be a matter for the president's comfort, but who is best for the country, and it is inexcusable that Obama has not made it his business to get to know Yellen.

Obama's failure to articulate a vision for the future of the US and a road map to get there is one of the distressing features of his presidency. It has also got him into a fight with Congress over spending, which is likely to flare up again soon with renewed confrontation over the US debt ceiling and the budget.

The president deserves some sympathy for having to contend with bone-headed and very determined Republican opponents who, in his first term, showed themselves not susceptible to argument or to common sense.

But Obama is president and must lead from the high ground; he has failed to do so.

Foreign policy should have been the highlight of Obama's presidency, given his vision as a presidential candidate of a new place for America in the world. Instead, he has been all talk and no action. Who would have imagined that he would need rescuing by Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, from a potential quagmire in Syria?

Obama learned from George W. Bush and is determined not to put US boots on the ground in the treacherous shifting sands of the Middle East. So he refused to intervene in Syria, in spite of the killing of civilians and repeated atrocities, which have seen more than 110,000 people killed since March 2011 in an increasingly bloody and bloodthirsty struggle.

One consequence is that the Syrian opposition has become radicalised and infiltrated by al-Qaeda, so that the diminishing numbers of Syrian Christians feel happier ruled by the devil they know in Bashar al-Assad than face a potentially Islamist government.

Obama drew his red line at the use of chemical weapons, but blustered and dithered as bodies lay writhing on the streets, and eventually threatened a strike that would amount to a mere slap on Assad's wrist while still adding to the civilian death toll.

Putin, a major beneficiary of Russia's sale of conventional arms to Syria, sanctimoniously opined that Obama could not strike Syria without consent from the UN Security Council, not least because Russia wields a veto. He even lectured Obama on the opinion pages of The New York Times before offering a way out by destroying Assad's chemical weapons - though that means trusting Putin and Assad.

The irony is savage: Bush sent US troops to topple Saddam Hussein when there was only cooked-up evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and the US won a Pyrrhic victory; Obama has clear evidence of chemical weapons but refused to act. Who could possibly be afraid of Uncle Sam now? And who will stand up to murderous tyrants?

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University