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

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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.

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