The low stakes of Biden’s visit to Cyprus show Obama’s failures in the post-Arab Spring world

The island's gas could open a new era of prosperity


A US foreign policy announced with the bang of President Obama’s famous speech in Cairo is ending with the whimper of his vice-president tramping around Cyprus with his cheque book.

This week Joe Biden became the first senior American official to hit the island’s soil since Lyndon Johnson in 1962. It is reported that he was accompanied by more than 350 officials, joining the 400-strong security force already in the island. For a place this small, that seems rather a lot.

On touching down he hastened to insist that he had not come with a  peace plan for the former British colony, bitterly divided between the Turkish north and the Greek south since the Turkish invasion of 1974, “in my back pocket.” Nor did his arrival signal any change in Washington’s attitude to the status quo: like the rest of the world except Turkey, the US recognizes only “one legitimate government” in the island – the Greek one based in Nicosia.

His visit was facilitated by the improved relations with the US forged by the island’s conservative President Nicos Anastasiades, but the real novelty was not political but geological: following the discovery of large reserves of gas off the coast of Israel, another such find has been made in the island’s waters.

Mr Biden was not coy about the potential significance of these discoveries. Cyprus’s gas could open a new era of prosperity for the island. And it could solve Israel’s problem of how to get its own gas to market, surrounded as it is by hostile neighbours unlikely to be interested in helping out. Cyprus, said the vice-president, could become a new “global hub” for natural gas. And once that has come to pass, it will offer another route to the diversification of the west’s gas supplies, given the sharp deterioration of European relations with Russia, until now its main provider.

If Cyprus takes the bait, it will have political benefits for America, too. The island’s ties with Russia are strong. Even after the famous investor haircut of March last year, in which bank deposits of €100,000 and above were stung for big one-off levies as part of the price for an EU bailout, wealthy Russians still have billions stashed in the island’s banks. Sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea could heavily impact the Cyprus economy. The US would like to sweeten that pill. A strong flow of gas could do the trick.

So Mr Biden’s visit makes perfect geopolitical sense. But nonetheless, in the context of other events around the world, there is something a little pathetic about it.

In June 2009, a few months after becoming president, Barrack Obama galvanised the gullible world with one of his most masterful rhetorical performances, a clarion call to democratically-inclined Muslims to shuck off tyrants such as the one ruling the country where he was speaking, Hosni Mubarak, while also eschewing the snake-oil of jihad. “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,” he declared. “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

It was an attempt to yoke the energy released by the explosions of what at the time was still being called ‘the Arab spring’. Only an American politician inspired by a kind of cosmic narcissism and wilfully blind to the loathing of the US created by the Afghan and Iraqi wars could have made that pitch. Five years on, it is clear that it has failed utterly.

Obama’s attempt to escape the Middle Eastern quagmire prompted the big idea of his second term, the pivot to Asia. But now, with their $400 billion gas deal signed this week, Russia and China have made it painfully clear that there will be no easy gains in Asia either. Hence Mr Biden’s Cyprus trip. The stakes are comfortably low. For a superpower in full retreat, it is a suitably modest gamble.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The daily catch-up: Joe on Vlad, the banks of the Jordan and Blair's radicalism

John Rentoul

Believe me, I said, there’s nothing rural about this urban borough’s attempt at a country fair

John Walsh
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor