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Obama's Potemkin Villages: Including Burma, Cuba, Ukraine And Syria

31 July 2015

By Amir Taheri

Commenting on the multiple crises the world faces today, US President Barack Obama has often boasted about his "21st century diplomacy" presumably in contrast with the old school that, he claims, must now be relegated to the dustbin of history.

In a sense, Obama has succeeded in marketing a new diplomatic method based on the belief that perception is more important than reality. What matters is how things look at the moment, not what they really are or could be in the longer term.

As a concept, that view of the modern world was deconstructed by French Marxist writer Guy Debord in his fascinating 1967 book The Society of Spectacle. In such a society there is no right and wrong, no good and evil. There is only what looks good and what does not in the fleeting moment of observation. What matters is the surface of things, the façade and the décor.

One key assumption of Debord is that the spectator, that is to say the public at large, has a short attention span and is incapable of retaining too many images for a long time. Make them happy for the moment and tomorrow shall take care of it!

For their part, Russians have a perfect phrase to describe the Obama method: The Potemkin method.

Grigori Potemkin, a minister of Russian Empress Catherine II, drew a world of make-believe for the gullible tsarina. He would employ experts in stage sets to create ideal villages on the routes chosen for her provincial tours, populated by extras shipped from Moscow dressed up as happy peasants to cheer the imperial party. The extras earned good money, the empress was happy and Potemkin was able to pose as a statesman and increase his own wealth. Who cared if the peasants were really dirt-poor or if the Tsarist Empire was rotten to the core or if the minister had his hand in the cookie jar?

This is what Obama has been doing with US foreign policy for the past seven years.

Obama's first Potemkin village was the "peace initiative" he launched with fanfare, promising to inaugurate a Palestinian state alongside Israel within a year. His cheerleaders in the US media called him "the president of peace". He put Senator George Mitchell, one of the most respected statesmen in recent US history, in charge of the project. But once the initial show was over, Obama simply forgot the whole thing to the point that he would not even have time to see the frustrated Mitchell who was forced to quit.

Obama's other Potemkin villages include Burma and Cuba, which he cites as two of his successes. The fact is that in neither case did Obama's kowtowing to despots produce any change beyond the facade.

In Burma the military junta is in control with more vigor than ever and the massacre of the Rohingya minority continues unabated.

In Cuba the Castro clique continues ruling with an iron fist, and building new prisons.

On Ukraine, Obama's Potemkin village came in the shape of one US brigade sent to six European countries, a move that made even the dour-faced Vladimir Putin smile.

On Syria, Obama's Potemkin village was launched with the sound and fury of his "Red Lines" and ended up with a Mickey Mouse-style hiding behind the Russians through the stillborn "Geneva process."

The latest Potemkin village, and perhaps the most oversold one is the so-called "deal" that is supposed to prevent the Khomeinist regime of Iran from building a nuclear bomb that it has always said it did not want to build.

Obama has pushed this thing over hurdles as fast as he could.

A dense text that was never signed by anybody was presented as a "deal" and then used as the basis for a United Nations Security Council resolution, the seventh on the same topic. The resolution was needed for two reasons. First to bestow a measure of legality to the Vienna "deal" which, negotiated by the P5+1 group which was itself an ad hoc body with no legal existence, was not a legal document.

Secondly, the resolution would render opposition by the US Congress legally ineffective. This was the first time in history that a US president was using an international body, in this case the UN Security Council, to override the decisions of the American legislature.

As both a sponsor of the resolution and a permanent member of the Security Council, the US marketed and voted for the text. However, Iran, not a member of the Security Council, did not have to vote and thus retains the option of accepting or rejecting it. At the time of writing this article, Tehran has refused to accept the resolution thus depriving the Vienna deal meaningless of a mechanism for implementation.

In the past few days, a range of figures in the Khomeinist establishment have hammered that point in. The "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei has refused to endorse either the "deal" or the resolution based on it.

Several senior military figures, including the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard General Aziz Jaafari and Defence Minister Hussein Dehghan, have stated publicly they would never accept the resolution.

The Islamic Majlis has appointed a special commission to "reexamine" both the "deal" and the resolution, making it clear that, as far as Iran is concerned, nothing has been decided yet.

Even the Iranian Foreign Ministry had decided to hedge its bets. In a long statement, it offers an alternative interpretation of the text of the resolution.

The regime refuses to publish the Persian text of the "deal" or even to let members of the parliament have a look at it.

Maybe Tehran's strategy is to adopt a pick-and-choose approach to the whole thing, accepting pieces of the "deal" that it wants, such as the easing of some sanctions, and rejecting measures to put Iran under the "oversight" of the six world powers for the next decade or so.

Meanwhile, Obama is easing sanctions and has promised to prevent Congress from imposing new ones.

I don't know whether or not the Khomeinist leadership wants to build a bomb. But if they do, Obama's Potemkin village will not prevent them from doing so at a time of their choosing.

In the meantime, the "deal" strengthens the position of radical hardliners in Tehran who believe they now have carte blanche to pursue their dreams of empire. Khamenei has already declared his "zone of influence" in the Middle East and is trying to build what his adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati calls "a regional coalition" under his leadership.

Frankly, it would be better if US Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama stopped getting involved in matters that they neither understand nor are really interested in. Their "Potemkin diplomacy" has made the world a much more dangerous place.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.  


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