Saturday, 28 September 2013

One telephone call may seal Obama's place in history

For many, the Obama presidency has been a disappointment. The 'Yes we Can' mantra has faded into a distant memory. But in many ways he was bound to disappoint. Voter expectation for change wasn't predicated on an agreement on what that change would be. Change meant different things to different people. 

But change there has been, and nothing reflects that change more than a simple act; a telephone call.

When Obama lifted the phone in the Oval Office to call Iranian President Rohani it represented a different way of thinking about world affairs. It said 'Yes we can' to solving issues in a way that doesn't require a resort to military intervention. 

Of course it required the biggest change of all. A change in the Iranian Presidency. But it takes two to tango and the first tentative steps have been taken in a fifteen minute telephone call. 

It is of course too early to say what a rapprochement with Iran will lead to. But if there is rapprochement it may make Obama's mark in the history books. If it creates a new atmosphere for resolving the problems of the Middle East the world will be a safer place. 

It is also too early to say  how the Syrian crisis will resolve, but Obama backed away from a military strike to 'give peace a chance'. At one point it looked as if a military strike had momentum. But popular will said a resounding 'no'. First it was rejected by the UK parliament; then Obama backed off to seek congressional approval.

Some saw this as weakness. But it takes strength to think again. As Obama has said in response to criticism that he was dithering 'I am much more concerned with getting the policy right'. 

How different history might have been if the Bush administration had taken time to think again about invading Iraq or at least thought through what the end point was likely to be.

If the Syrian regime gives up its chemical weapons it will be a major achievement. Russia will take great credit for brokering the way forward. But Obama has shown real courage in stepping back and supporting the process. It is surely better than military intervention in a messy civil war. 

There will be those who are sceptical. Perhaps they are right to be. But when I heard the news of the telephone call made by Obama I was full of hope and optimism. A great deal more now needs to be done. But it is the first bit of optimism I have felt in international affairs for a long time. A cloud has lifted and the sun might shine. 

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