As Syria burns and Egypt seethes, the biggest foreign policy story is unfolding right here at home. The establishment is rapidly losing patience with President Obama’s Middle East policy.
For some time, the left of the MSM has been attacking the White House over issues like drones and Guantanamo, but now much heavier fire is coming from the center. The Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Thomas Carothers and Nathan J. Brown arguing that the administration’s Egypt policy has been overtaken by events. And both Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker and Bill Keller in the New York Times have gone after the administration for dithering on Syria, especially in light of the mounting evidence that Assad has crossed the administration’s “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons. These are heavy hitters; throw in the David Sanger co-authored NYT weekender saying that the whole “red line” controversy in Syria was caused by a major presidential gaffe, and some of the biggest dogs in town are saying some very harsh things about presidential competence and judgment.
If we were sitting in the White House right now, we would be worried that the Benghazi hearings scheduled for later this week could be an important tipping point, accelerating the MSM turn away from a lame duck president whose Middle East policies, to put it mildly, face some unresolved issues.
President Obama faces a tough mix of domestic and foreign challenges in the Middle East. Abroad, the situation in Syria has steadily worsened while the Egyptian revolution he championed looks less attractive every day. The mullahs in Iran have not shown many signs that they fear his wrath, suggesting that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue is not in the cards.
Meanwhile, domestically, the coalition that supports (or in some cases, that used to support) the President is torn. Many of his most fervent backers support the anti-war, peace with Islam, anti-Bush activist they thought they were electing. To please these people, President Obama needs to somehow close Guantanamo, conciliate Iran, cut way back on drone strikes, and make peace in the Middle East by making nice to everyone except Bibi Netanyahu.
But many in the foreign policy establishment (which includes a significant chunk of the MSM) are starting to have their doubts. In some cases, this is about humanitarian interventionists opposing the stay-at-home realists: a classic Wilson vs. Jefferson battle. Others worry on more realist grounds that Obama’s Syria policy threatens vital US interests—by weakening our hand with respect to Iran and Hezbollah, or by creating Somalia style chaos in the heart of the Levant, or both.
The foreign policy establishment has been consistently kind to President Obama. In part, it’s because the establishment was so thoroughly put off by his predecessor. Deeply alienated from the neoconservatives and appalled by the Tea Party and the Ron/Rand Paul combination, the establishment heavily preferred President Obama over a GOP return to the White House in 2012.
But the calculus is changing. The fear that our current course in the Middle East is failing now outweighs the fear that a Republican electoral win will make a bad situation worse. The Left will pull Obama harder and be less tolerant of what it perceives as his shortcomings; the centrists at the core of the establishment are going to be more willing to take on an administration which they see as failing abroad and term limited at home.
Making things worse for the White House, the Clinton influence in the Democratic Party stands ready to use establishment discontent with executive dithering to pave the way for a Clinton restoration in 2016. Attacking President Obama’s foreign policy will no longer look like an act of treason opening the gates to the neocons and the tea partiers outside; it will look like a way to cement the Democratic hold on the White House by promoting Secretary Clinton as a president in waiting.
The rising criticism of President Obama’s Middle East policy in the establishment press is more than a recognition that some of the President’s most important strategic choices aren’t working out well; it is also a sign that much of the Democratic Party is preparing itself for a post-Obama world.
[Obama speaks at Cairo University in 2009, courtesy Wikimedia]