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Published on: September 18, 2012
Middle East Mess Part Two: Changing Strategies At The White House

None of President Obama’s big policies in the Middle East have worked out as he hoped. That whole “fix the peace process by pushing the Israelis” thing turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Coming into office, President Obama was sure he’d be able to straighten this out; he’s been the least effective president in […]

None of President Obama’s big policies in the Middle East have worked out as he hoped. That whole “fix the peace process by pushing the Israelis” thing turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Coming into office, President Obama was sure he’d be able to straighten this out; he’s been the least effective president in terms of the Arab-Israeli relationship since Kissinger launched his shuttle diplomacy back in the Nixon administration and his ill-considered approach achieved the unusual result of angering both sides.

The “reconciliation with the Muslim world” concept did succeed, for a while, in turning down the heat in the relationship, but the Cairo speech never had the kind of policy follow up that people in the Middle East were waiting for, and today there is precious little to show for what was once hailed (by the reflexively pro-Obama MSM, anyway) as a historic turning point, one of the greatest speeches ever, and on and on and on.

That “engagement with Iran” idea didn’t pan out, either. Kind words, soft pedaling their repression of protesters after Ahmadinejad’s shambolic “re-election” and otherwise making nice did not persuade the mullahs to drop their bomb plans and settle down. Iran diplomacy in many ways showed the Obama team at its best, though. The international coalition was strengthened and sanctions were progressively intensified. This is something that the polarizing Bush administration would have been hard pressed to accomplish, and it stands as a genuine achievement.

There were, however, two drawbacks. The policy hasn’t stopped the Iranian nuclear program, and the price of a long term diplomatic effort was a series of increasingly specific and even strident threats against Iran which now leave the administration very little room. If Iran doesn’t change course soon, the U.S. is committed to attack it, and President Obama will have to either follow through on his threats or suffer the most thorough and public humiliation and loss of prestige by an American president since British troops drove President Madison out of the White House. He would also then have to deal, from a position of almost pitiable weakness and discredit, with an arrogant nuclear Iran.

The signature Libyan intervention, from the “lead from behind” phase through the murder of the US ambassador, has lived up to Colin Powell’s characterization of the Iraq invasion: “a catastrophic success.” The President got what he wanted, and while there are signs of hope for the Libyan people in the rubble, from the standpoint of American interests and priorities, it’s a disaster. Libya is a strategic distraction—exactly the criticism candidate Obama made of the Iraq war—and the consequences both in Libya and the neighborhood will involve time, treasure and political capital that are urgently needed elsewhere (in Syria, above all).

The President’s greatest success may be in relations with Turkey. Turkey’s relations with Europe and with Israel have changed profoundly in the last few years, but Turkish-American relations are better than they were five years ago. President Obama’s patient and laid back approach helped minimize friction between Washington and Ankara as the new Islamist leadership tried its wings on the international stage. While disagreements over Syria seem at least temporarily to have cooled the Erdogan-Obama bromance, Turkey and the United States seem well placed to cooperate on some significant issues where their interests align. This is still a work in progress, but the new, more Middle East-focused Turkey is potentially a very useful (though as always prickly, proud and problematic) ally in a difficult part of the world.

If we step back from specific policies, we can see some large movements in the administration’s basic approach to the region. In the first two years of his presidency, President Obama seemed to be operating from a theory that under George W. Bush the United States had gotten itself too entangled in the Middle East and that American interests in the region were best served by our shifting away from being a central protagonist in the region’s politics to becoming an offshore balancer of sorts. Rather than trying to build good things and improve the region (an effort which the conventional wisdom saw as doomed to failure following the Iraq mess and the failure of Bush’s abortive efforts to press Egypt and other Arab autocracies toward democratization), the U.S. would concentrate on a handful of key interests, mostly involving assuring the smooth flow of oil and gas from the Gulf countries to the rest of the world and a focused and—to the degree possible—minimalist approach to the terrorism problem. The “global war on terror” would be disaggregated into a set of separate conflicts and police measures, with U.S. response and reaction taken off the front pages.

This was the strategic alternative to the Bush “engage and transform” strategy adopted after 9/11 that Obama came into office supporting. It is what under the Special Providence typology I’d call a Jeffersonian strategy: seeking to reduce U.S. exposure and costs while safeguarding basic interests as far as possible through diplomacy and balance of power politics rather than by the direct deployment of American force. In very broad terms it is what many of President Bush’s realist critics (from Brent Scowcroft to Zbigniew Brzezinski) wanted to see, and it has much in common with Henry Kissinger’s Vietnam-era diplomacy.

It was a policy of disengagement and the “pivot to Asia” was to play a role similar to Kissinger’s Asia diplomacy of the 1970s: Kissinger hoped both to distract global attention from the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina and to strengthen its hand against the Soviet Union by the high profile pivot to China. The Obama strategy envisioned a new round of U.S. activism in East and South Asia with a new coalition of allied and associated partners as a move that would both strengthen the U.S. geopolitically and deflect attention from the (limited) withdrawal from the Middle East. As an additional benefit, the savings in costs associated with winding down the U.S. forward posture in the Middle East meant that the enhanced Asian activism, the administration believed, could be financed even as military budgets went to the chopping block.

In the last couple of years, the administration has gradually dropped the disengagement and balance strategy and shifted to a new form of “engage and transform.” Overthrowing dictators to set up democracies, pressing autocrats to share power, and pursuing democratization as a way to overcome the divide between the Arab world and the U.S.: these policies have returned to the forefront of U.S. Middle Eastern strategy.

But cynical realpolitik is a tough course for an American administration to pursue. President Obama isn’t just a Jeffersonian trying to reduce America’s overseas risks and commitments by focusing only on our most essential interests and then pursuing them in the cheapest, least confrontational way possible. He is also a Wilsonian who believes deeply that America’s values and interests alike compel us to promote and support the democratization and transformation of the world. As I wrote in Foreign Policy a couple of years ago, the last U.S. administration torn between these two approaches was that of Jimmy Carter, when a sincere wish to end the Cold War and the militarization of American foreign policy battled with a commitment to human rights for the soul of the administration. Detente with the Soviets or freedom for Soviet Jews? You can’t get both.

The resurrection of Middle East Wilsonianism and world-saving came by a twisted path. Part of it was less idealism than a creeping realization that it was hard to scrape the Middle East off our shoes—the region is hard to escape. Several forces pulled the Obama administration back into the Middle East it once hoped to escape. The success of radical groups in Yemen and elsewhere, plus the necessities of coalition building against Iran, kept the U.S. more deeply engaged in the region, perhaps, than the administration had expected.

Then the Arab Spring put democracy back on the regional agenda. It is one thing for the U.S. to pursue a realpolitik, balance of power approach when the only regional powers are secure tyrannies and autocracies; it’s something else when popular revolutions start rocking the casbah. The development of a working relationship with the AK leadership in Turkey led the administration to believe that smart diplomacy and skillful management in the U.S. could result in productive partnerships with moderate Islamist regimes. And most dramatically, concerns about a “bloodbath” in Libya (and later in Syria) activated the President’s Wilsonian conscience as close friends and associates in the White House told him that persisting in Kissingerian realpolitik and withdrawal in the face of a potential mass murder was morally unacceptable and would stain his presidency forever.

Wilson and Jefferson are hard spirits to blend: Wilsonianism is an outward looking, expansionary vision of American responsibilities and roles. Jeffersonianism is cautious, introverted and seeks to dodge bullets more than to lead charges. Trying to mix the two often leads politicians into phrases like “leading from behind”—Libya was an effort to fight a Wilsonian war with a Jeffersonian strategy, and as I suggested in the Foreign Policy piece, it’s hard to keep the two elements of the policy in balance.

So there we are: order, counter-order, disorder. Possibly without ever thinking the whole thing through coherently, the Obama administration has abandoned the strategy it brought into power for the strategy it originally wanted to drop. Worse, neither strategy has worked very well for it. Two years of failure and frustration with “disengagement and balance” led to a year of failure and frustration with “engage and transform”.

We should never underestimate the potential for the Middle East to get worse, but the view from the White House today isn’t far from a worst case scenario. Libya is unstable, the government is weak, and Britain and France seem as helpless to restore order as they were to overthrow Qaddafi without massive U.S. help. Losing ambassadors to angry mobs and having your safe houses shelled and your documents ransacked are generally considered signs of poor planning and bad judgment.

From the bloodbath standpoint, President Obama’s historical reputation will now be deeply and irretrievably stained by a year of inaction to deal with actual and recurring bloodbaths in Syria, turning his moral stance over Libya into a vain gesture rather than a statement of principle. He has all the inconvenience and risk of bold moral action, and all the obloquy and disdain that comes from standing aside as innocents die—not to mention the anger in an Arab world that blames America simultaneously for being too present in the region and failing to help the Syrians.

Anti-American riots around the region have flared, terror groups have shown a new ability to use public anger at the U.S. to advance their agenda, and the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis has suddenly and horribly recovered its vigor. War with Iran is becoming a greater concern than ever, and at a time when the U.S. and Israel need to coordinate much more closely than usual, the President and the Israeli Prime Minister distrust and dislike one another.

Meanwhile the “pivot to Asia” is proving to be expensive and taxing. This is something the U.S. needs to do, and do well, but it is increasingly likely that any “peace dividend” from Afghanistan and Iraq will be consumed by continuing commitments in the Middle East and significant costs down the road in Asia.

It is easy to criticize the Obama White House for a set of Middle East policies and strategies that appear to be neither coherent nor successful, and these are proper subjects for debate and discussion during an election campaign. But it would neither be fair to Obama nor true to the actual situation to suggest that there were some easy, surefire policies he could have followed that would have brought peace to the Middle East and filled it with feelings of gratitude and love toward the United States.

Things started going awry for Americans in the Middle East when Thomas Jefferson attempted to negotiate with the ambassador of one of the Barbary states. Why, Jefferson asked at a meeting in London called to make peace, do you make war on a far off land that has never done you any harm? It was a reasonable question and it received a clear answer. The Tripolitanian ambassador, according to the U.S. diplomatic record of the meeting, explained what was happening from his perspective:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.

When Jefferson was inaugurated and refused further payment of tribute, the flag in front of the U.S. Consulate in Tripoli was hacked down, and hostilities commenced.

American intentions have been going awry in the Middle East since then. President Eisenhower sided with Egypt’s President Nasser against Israel, Britain and France in the Suez crisis. Nasser repaid him by aligning with the Soviet Union. President Carter urged the Shah to leave Iran; the resulting revolution helped wreck his chances of re-election. President Reagan’s biggest blunders—the dispatch of marines to Beirut and the Oliver North mission to Iran—were in the Middle East. President George H. W. Bush’s victory in the Gulf War left Saddam Hussein in power and left the U.S. committed to the unsustainable “dual containment” policy in its wake—and the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were the reason Osama bin Laden launched Al-Qaeda. President Clinton put all his political capital on the line to get the most generous offer the Israelis had made to the Palestinians since 1947; and he failed to get an agreement. Of President George W. Bush in the region there is little need to speak.

The pundits are jumping all over the Obama Middle East record today, and there is much to deplore. But that criticism needs to be tempered. President Obama, contemplating a Middle East in flames that he can neither transform nor abandon, stands in a long line of American presidents who have not found this region to be a field of dreams. (One lesson to his successors: get your Nobel Peace Prize early in your presidency. It only gets harder, the longer things drag on.)

The Middle East is an unforgiving environment for American presidents in which mistakes are easy to make and all your mistakes are sure to haunt you. There are no magic formulas that will bring success here, but struggling with the region, its intractable problems, and the consequences of the failures and missteps of your predecessors is part of what it means to be President of the United States.

At this point, President Obama needs to focus on the main issue: Iran. Stopping the nuclear program without war remains the paramount goal of U.S. policy in the region; other issues can be dealt with later. Having the capacity and the will to break Iran’s hold on Syria and Lebanon is an important bargaining chip in this process; the President must make sure he holds those cards. Aligning Israel’s timetable with America’s on the Iran issue is part of the process; this will not be easy, but it must be pursued.

Beyond that, continuing to develop the relationship with Turkey, looking for political solutions to the violence in Syria that address the concerns of minority communities, working patiently and behind the scenes in Egypt with those committed to stopping the Salafi push, promoting some kind of stable government in Libya and dealing with violent radicals from Mali to Yemen remain at the forefront of the agenda.

It’s a messy agenda that won’t bring a lot of joy to the United States or to many people in the region. No President can get it all done, and there will certainly be failures and traumas while working these issues. But there aren’t any real alternatives and the region remains too important to ignore.

And there is one thing to reflect on. Since Thomas Jefferson’s original unhappy encounter with the ambassador of the Barbary States, the U.S. has suffered one setback and disappointment in the Middle East after another. Our good intentions have often gone awry and we seem to sow dragons’ teeth no matter what we do. Yet at the same time, the United States has managed through thick and thin to advance and defend our core interests in the region and over time, some core American values have gained a tenuous foothold. In the Middle East, the United States has a record of failing forward.

It is not a particularly glorious or inspiring track record, but no outside power has done better.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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