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Middle East Mess: When Dems and GOPers Agree, Be Afraid


Have the Bush-era neocons and Obama liberals made all the same mistakes in the Middle East? David P. Goldman argues convincingly in Tablet that the past five years of Middle East policy have been marked not by a Democratic departure from the previous administration’s policies but by a complete failure by consensus: with regard to Egypt, Libya, and beyond, liberals and conservatives have been making many of the same mistakes for many of the same reasons:

Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.…

They were all wrong. Just two years later, the foreign-policy establishment has fractured in the face of a Syrian civil war that threatens to metastasize into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon and an economic collapse in Egypt that has brought the largest Arab country to the brink of state failure.…

As Goldman explains, as much as the Obama liberals and Bush neocons love to hate each other’s Middle East policies, they’re very similar in an important way: both are based on the flawed and distinctly American expectation of a happy ending. A little prudence would have done the neocons a world of good in Iraq, and a bit more of this underrated virtue would have helped both parties during the Libya fiasco and larger Arab Spring.

Wonks in both political parties in America need to take a long, hard look at the assumptions and expectations informing their policy decisions in the Middle East. It’s looking like terrorism and Islamic extremism aren’t going to disappear in this century any faster than Communism disappeared in the last one. And it’s clear that commentators and decision-makers on both sides of the aisle still haven’t figured out what to do about it.

Our suggestion: American wonk wannabes spend too much time in school studying IR and economic theory, leading them to think about the world in ideological ways. Less theory, more history would make for a smarter and more cautious wonkocracy. We especially recommend the study of the long effort to spread liberal governance and cultural ideals, an effort that began in the early 19th century and that has had many successes, failures and hard-to-categorize surprises since. Today’s democracy promoters, whether liberal or conservative, are almost always illiterate about the rich and complex history of the endeavor they usually cluelessly seek to push forward.

Read Goldman’s whole piece here.

[Obama and Bush image courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Sumantra Maitra

    That’s why, US needs to have a “Realist” Foreign Policy. Not Neo-Con, not Liberal.

    Stephen Walt’s piece…

    and by yours truly…

  • Alexander Scipio

    A) Leave them alone. They are able to handle their own business without us and, if they get too obnoxious, Israel is fully-capable of handling any problems that arise.

    B) If they don’t leave us alone, insisting, rather, on another 9-11 attack. Nuke em. Then revert to Plan A (above).

  • wigwag

    Here’s the reality: Fox-watching neoconservatives=NPR-listening liberal internationalists. The problem is that what passes for realism in foreign policy today is even worse. There may be plenty wrong with the Robert Kagans and Samantha Powers of the world, but the idea that the Zbignew Brzezinskis, Brent Scowcrofts, James Bakers, Charles Kupchans or John Mearsheimers of the world have more to offer is absurd.

    What it all suggests to me is that as a nation we have hit a new all time low when it comes to the quality of our foreign policy glitterati.

    • Corlyss

      “There may be plenty wrong with the Robert Kagans and Samantha Powers of the world, but the idea that the Zbignew Brzezinskis, Brent Scowcrofts, James Bakers, Charles Kupchans or John Mearsheimers of the world have more to offer is absurd. ”
      Brother, you said a mouthful. I shudder to think of that crew as being the reservoir of advice from which any president draws.

    • Kavanna

      Yes, the so-called “realists” here are anything but. They’re just hugging a shrinking Rolodex of petrodictator phone numbers, hoping for a break. Their world started coming apart back in the 70s, with the Lebanese civil war, and has suffered blow after blow. Now they’ve retreated to a fantasy world of conspiracy theories and the like — their ideas are a total bust.

      Real realists (like Kissinger, probably the last of the line) are better to listen to. In an age when ideology and globalization play a larger role than balance of power, they have to be listened with some skepticism. But they’re worth listening to, nonetheless.

  • USNK2

    I read Goldman at earlier, and think Mr. Mead needs to understand that not all GOP = neocon and not all Democrats = Obama Liberals.
    Thus the actual title here is confusing.
    fwiw, STRATFOR is the home of neo-realism, and tries to sell the need to study GEOGRAPHY.

    • skhpcola

      How many Democrats that aren’t “Obama Liberals” abstained from voting for the Marxist in the Oval Office? Close to, if not, zero, I’d imagine. Today’s leftists are blindly ideological. Today’s Libertarians are neo-leftists.

      True conservatives are few and far between. We desire smaller and less intrusive government, lower taxes, and more liberty. Establishment Republicans are no different than modern leftists…they throw in with the Democrats on major issues and perform transparent Kabuki theater the rest of the time.

      As an aside, whenever someone uses the term “neo-con,” I immediately dismiss their words as blather. Nobody uses the term besides Ron Paultards and progressives seeking to denigrate patriots that wish to commit themselves to American Exceptionalism.

  • Corlyss

    When it’s those two Dem/GOP representatives, I agree: I can’t think of two more inept presidents when it came to foreign policy. Bush has a slight edge IMO only because he at least showed he wasn’t afraid to use the US military. Unfortunately, he was as clueless on how to use it as Val and ‘Chelle are (let’s face it, O doesn’t make any of those decisions – come to think of it, the only decisions he makes is where to strafe Republicans and how often).

  • Anthony

    “What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in toughminded pursuit of our security interests.” Now, that’s a coda for our foreign policy bipartisan Middle East consensus to endorse despite illiteracy about rich and complex history….

  • Luke Lea

    Less theory, more history would make for a smarter and more cautious wonkocracy.

    Indeed. You could say the same about our entire educated elite.

  • Felipe Pait

    I do not understand the argument. Let me start by agreeing that whoever expected a happy ending, whether in the far right, far left, or far center, was wrong.

    That said, the Obama administration’s actions were varied and adapted to the different circumstances. In Tunisia, support democracy quietly. In Egypt, pressure the military to avoid violence against civilians. In Libya, armed intervention. In Syria, diplomacy without much hope it will work. In Bahrain, continued support for the repressive government.

    Now one may point out that none of the other countries turned out like worst-case Syria to support the administration. Or you may say that the US should have done something different in each case, specially Syria, though no one seems to know what. Or you may criticize the details of the conduct in Libya or Bahrain. Or that the US should have invaded Syria and left Libya alone, put pressure on Bahrain but not on Mubarak. Or perhaps that the president should have simply washed his hands.

    I am not sure there is much in favor of these possibilities, but an argument is possible. What you cannot do is point to a range of completely different decisions as an example of rigid decision making driven by ideological consensus. It is simply untenable.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Speaking of history, I’m just rereading Shirer’s Rise and fall of the Third Reich. I last read it 50 years ago on the subway. At 70 I feel a lot more compassion for Neville Chamberlain – he just didn’t have a clue what he was up against. He found out that he couldn’t do business with totalitarians after Munich and Obama appears to have realized something similar after Benghazi. And totalitarianism is the easy side of Islamism to understand. The kind of stuff that appealed to the Muslim Brotherhood at their founding in the 1930s as they sought to imitate the then breathtakingly successful dictators, Hitler and Stalin. It is the religious side that we have forgotten, have lost the use of the very categories of thought that people totally committed to certain religious points of view take for granted. Take for example, witchcraft. Not a category of thought deemed essential for those going into International relations these days, but James the First of England thought it important enough to write a treatise on the subject. Imagine if Bush had announced he was undertaking a study of witchcraft. Or Hillary! Likewise the Devil is not something we take seriously. Indeed we think it quite ridiculous that the Iranian government refers to US as the Great Satin. We just just don’t get it.

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