As 2013 ends, President Obama has lost credibility with many people who trusted him at the start of the year. Thanks to the Healthcare.gov debacle, polls find support for the president among women and independents has dropped to the lowest ebb of his presidency. Obama's words -- promising Americans they could keep their doctors under his health care plan -- didn’t match his deeds.
Surprisingly, the same thing is happening on the other side of the world among Arabs in the Middle East and for the same reason.
Too often, Obama’s speeches and actions don’t match.
"We are glad the Americans are here," said Ahmed al-Ibrahim, an adviser to some of Saudi Arabia's royals and officials, when I met with him recently, "but we fear that the president has lost credibility after Syria."
Astonished Saudi officials are contrasting Obama's quick actions in South Sudan with his unwillingness to act in places like Syria or in Bahrain.
The Saudi official is referring to Obama’s “red line” vow of military action if the Syrian dictator Bashir Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Assad did and Obama didn’t. Saudi officials were stunned.
Next came the revelation earlier this year that Obama was secretly negotiating with Iran, the mortal enemy of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Officials in both nations have told me that they simply don't believe that the president can sweet-talk the mullahs out of the weapons they have coveted for years.
“The bond of trust between America and Saudi Arabia has been broken in the Obama years," al-Ibrahim said. "We feel we have been stabbed in the back by Obama."
"Every time that Obama had to choose between his enemies and his friends, he always chose his enemies," he said. "We don't know what he's putting in his tea."
Al-Ibrahim also pointed to Obama's “dangerous inaction” during violent Iran-backed uprisings in Bahrain, and now his negotiations with Iran, and his separate, secret negotiations with Iran's terrorist proxy Hezbollah. Since American officials cannot legally negotiate with terrorist groups and Hezbollah is a State Department-listed terror organization, the administration has been using British diplomats to carry messages to Hezbollah. The Obama administration reportedly favors a "warm up to a direct relationship in the future" with Hezbollah.
Obama is sending conflicting messages. In Washington, the president says negotiations are all we need to meet the Iranian threat. He issued a rare veto threat to try to halt tougher sanctions against Iran.
At the same time, in the Middle East, the president has dispatched more than 40 U.S. Navy vessels (including a carrier-strike group) and sent his secretary of defense to detail America's vast military assets in the region.
Speaking to Arab defense ministers, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel itemized America's military commitment to immediately respond to Iranian aggression:
• More than 35,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in the theater; • Even after exiting Iraq, the U.S. Army maintains more than 10,000 forward-deployed soldiers as well as tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters; • America's most advanced fighter jets, including F-22s, are deployed less than an hour's flight time from Iran; • American surveillance aircraft, ground listening stations, satellites, and sea patrols continue to scan for threats across the region; • America's missile defense systems--on ground, sea, and air--remain on high alert. That includes the U.S. Navy's ballistic missile defense ships, Patriot missile batteries, and phased-array radars.
“The Department of Defense will work with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on better integration of its members’ missile defense capabilities. The United States continues to believe that a multilateral framework is the best way to develop interoperable and integrated regional missile defense. Such defenses are the best way to deter and, if necessary, defeat coercion and aggression," Hagel told the Gulf News on Dec.18.
With little fanfare, Obama has also quietly lifted the ban on selling sensitive missile-defense technology to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies living within reach of Iran's new Shahab-3 missiles. The Shahab-3's range is 1,242 miles--placing Israel and most of America's Arab allies within striking distance.
However, Obama's quiet efforts to provide new missile defenses and renewed security guarantees may be too little, too late.
The Saudis are now seeking their own military arrangements because they no longer trust the U.S. The GCC, a regional alliance of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, recently announced the creation of a joint military force based in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
“There will be a unified command of around 100,000 members, God willing,” Prince Miteb bin Abdullah told reporters. This new force represents a massive expansion of the 30,000-strong Peninsula Shield force.
"We no longer believe that America alone can safeguard our freedom from Iranian aggression," said al-Ibrahim, "that's why we are expanding our forces and integrating our missile defenses with our neighbors."
He added, "the world should understand that the GCC will not stay quiet and leave our member-states vulnerable to bad actors and bad deals in the region. It is our duty to protect our region."
And now, astonished Saudi officials are contrasting Obama's quick actions last weekend in South Sudan with his unwillingness to act in places like Syria or in Bahrain where thousands of U.S. troops and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet are based.
"The president has shown that he can take action when he chooses to. He chose not to act after the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but as soon as things started to go wrong in South Sudan, Obama jumped on it," said al-Ibrahim.
On Saturday, Obama dispatched three CV-22 Osprey aircraft, the sort that can fly like an airplane and an helicopter, to South Sudan to evacuate Americans caught in ongoing violence in the city of Bor. The aircraft came under small arms fire and were forced to retreat as they attempted to land. Four U.S. service members were injured in the attempted evacuation. American citizens were rescued successfully on Sunday using civilian and U.N. helicopters.
In his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech, the first American president raised in a Muslim land came to offer a bold promise: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect." Four and a half years later, Arab leaders like al-Ibrahim say that "mutual interest" is sundered and "mutual respect" squandered.
If the Saudi exasperation sounds familiar, it is because it is the same tone you hear in Tel Aviv and in Washington.