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Obama gets the hang of war

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 8:58 AM EST, Mon November 7, 2011
President Obama at the G-20 Summit in Cannes, France, on Friday.
President Obama at the G-20 Summit in Cannes, France, on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Three years ago, Barack Obama seemed like the anti-war candidate, says Frida Ghitis
  • These days, no one will confuse him with a peacenik: He's not shy about using force, she says
  • Ghitis: As commander in chief, Obama is frequently dispatching troops across the globe
  • He vowed -- and failed -- to repair America's image through diplomacy, Ghitis says

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- It seems a memory from a distant time: A charismatic Sen. Barack Obama, railing against the war in Iraq to rapturous cheers from anti-war voters; the campaign trail crowds overflowing with electrified activists, many convinced he shared their opposition to the use of force. A supremely self-assured Obama declaring he would hold face-to-face meetings with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba and North Korea; his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, calling him "irresponsible -- and frankly naïve."

Three years later, the euphoria has exhaled its last breath. So has any hope that President Obama, by the power of his words, can talk the world out of fighting and into loving America.

Instead, the president, once a darling of peace activists, has scored another victory on the battlefield, this time in Libya.

It was another notch on the belt for the president under whose command a very busy U.S. military has conducted countless operations, including the killings of Osama bin Laden and of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The president is withdrawing U.S forces from Iraq, but no one will confuse him with a peacenik. While high diplomatic ambitions have achieved very little, Obama is not shy about using force.

He was supposed to be the "Kumbaya" president. Instead, Obama has come to embrace the use of force as much as any of his predecessors.

He is dispatching troops around the globe, most recently sending about 100 military advisers to central Africa to support a campaign against a rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army. As commander in chief, he continued to lead the fight in conflicts started during the previous administration. He also added 30,000 troops to the U.S presence in Afghanistan, although promising to bring them out by September.

He has approved the firing of missiles from American drones in at least six countries. And last month, he repeated a warning against Iran, declaring, "we don't take any options off the table" -- code for "I may decide to attack."

This is not what his anti-war supporters had in mind or what the Nobel committee envisioned when it rushed to award him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. But Obama, too, probably counts himself among the disappointed.

He had vowed to repair the damage America's image suffered in the Bush years through skillful diplomacy. But the effort has largely failed.

His Cairo speech to the Muslim world in June 2009 briefly improved America's image. By now, however, favorable ratings for the U.S. in most Arab countries have fallen below their disastrous levels at the end of the Bush administration, according to a poll conducted in July by Zogby for the Arab American Institute. Opinion of the president has plummeted into single digits in most Arab countries, says the survey. A Pew Global survey in May showed Obama remains deeply unpopular in every Muslim nation surveyed except Indonesia, where he lived as a child.

The bad signs started surfacing as soon as the applause quieted in Cairo. Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims." Within hours, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, dismissed "beautiful speeches," saying the people of the region "deeply hate America."

As a candidate, Obama promised to work tirelessly to advance democracy. But when pro-democracy uprisings erupted across the Middle East, it turned out some of their intended targets, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hamad bin isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, were close friends of Washington's.

The president offered his support for the protesters in some, not all, cases. His lukewarm and inconsistent response fell short of enthusiasm. In 2009, when protesters took to the streets in Iran, demonstrating against an election they said was manipulated, Obama kept quiet for too long. The approach has done much to remove the halo that floated above the candidate. His standing with Arabs also suffered when he backed down from demands that Israel stop settlement construction on land it captured in the 1967 war.

Obama's plan for smart diplomacy relied on more than speeches. An important part of the strategy focused on turning Syria.

Washington had frozen out the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Tehran's and of groups classified as terrorist by the U.S., such as Hamas and Hezbullah. The plan was to entice al-Assad with the prospect of normal relations. In exchange, al-Assad was supposed to turn his back on Iran, stop interfering with U.S. efforts in Iraq and cut off support for groups that refused to accept the existence of Israel.

Washington made its overtures but received nothing in return. The supposedly moderate al-Assad regime is now butchering Syrian protesters, and Washington has lost any illusions that diplomatic contact with al-Assad can lead to peace and stability in the Middle East.

Despite efforts to persuade Iran to stop nuclear enrichment, the United Nations atomic watchdog agency will report this week that Tehran, in fact, is working to develop nuclear weapons for military use. It amounts to confirmation that Obama's conciliatory policy towards Iran failed. And will add to tensions that had already escalated last month after federal prosecutors charged that elements in Iran allegedly plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

Diplomacy has also proved fruitless in bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It seems nobody, not even Obama, believes that his vaunted rhetorical gifts can change the world and bring peace.

In fairness, he never said he was a pacifist. His supporters somehow convinced themselves he secretly shared their views.

Now, as he prepares for another election, nobody can accuse Obama of inexperience. He has learned the hard realities of a world in which difficult conflicts cannot be resolved by words, even brilliant, inspired words, unless accompanied by more tangible tools of persuasion. His critics may call him many things, but naïve is not one of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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