The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Obama Losing Control of Middle East Policy

800px-Barack_Obama_at_Cairo_University

The Obama administration is losing control of its Middle East policy and with it, Washington’s credibility. Yesterday the State Department and Pentagon gave conflicting accounts of the administration’s Syria policy before a bewildered Senate Armed Services Committee. While Secretary of State John Kerry reported working “very, very closely” with “the moderate, legitimate opposition” in Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said the ability to “clearly identify the right people” in the opposition is “actually more confusing…today than it was six months ago.”

The committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), asked Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Dempsey if the United States’ policy objectives in Syria are failing:

“Well, it hasn’t achieved the objective obviously,” Mr. Hagel said. “That’s why we continue to look for other options.”

General Dempsey said: “It has never been our goal to see a prolonged conflict. So on that basis I would agree.”

This is not a scene the United States wants Assad, the mullahs in Iran, and our allies in the region to see: an admission of confusion and failure from the Pentagon as the State Department makes dubious boasts of success. The contradictory testimonies bespeak an incompetent and vulnerable leadership at precisely the time Washington should be projecting strength and resolve.

But confused and failing Syria policy is only the half of it. The same day as the committee hearing, a group of former senior US officials, including many who recently left the Obama administration, issued a scathing assessment of the President’s Iran policy, claiming the White House’s two-pronged strategy of sanctions and diplomacy has produced unintended consequences without achieving strategic objectives:

As the pressure has increased, the group concluded, sanctions have “contributed to an increase in repression and corruption within Iran” and “may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States.” […]

“I fundamentally believe that the balance between sanctions and diplomacy has been misaligned,” said Thomas R. Pickering, who was one of the State Department’s highest-ranking career diplomats …

The President’s Middle East policies are spinning out of control. Those who have left the administration are publicly criticizing the White House; those now in the administration appear nonplussed. What we’re left with is a stalemate: 70,000 dead in Syria, Assad lives, Iran’s nuclear program advances, and the Pentagon continues “to look for other options.”

The President is faced with an unenviable set of questions and crises, but the least his administration can do is get its story straight. Public displays of confusion make military conflict in the Middle East more likely for the United States, not less.

[Image of President Obama at Cairo University in 2009 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Published on April 19, 2013 9:00 am
  • qet

    How many more times must sanctions “produce unintended consequences without achieving strategic objectives” before our opinionmongering class stops writing op-eds describing sanctions as sophisticated nuanced policy preferable to all else? Sanctions are just a “something” that can be “done” so that liberal elites can write opinion pieces claiming that “something is being done,” allowing them to return their concentration to the really important things like gay marriage and background checks. Seeing sanctions for what they are (which is mostly nothing) does not ipso facto mean military action must be taken. It just means we should all stop deceiving ourselves; or, rather, stop allowing ourselves to be comforted by the opinionmongers that sanctions really are “smart diplomacy.”

    • Jim Luebke

      Apart from South Africa, can someone name some effective sanction campaigns?

      I’m asking out of ignorance, here.

      • docscience

        Give South Africa a few more years to decline into corrupt social-tribalism and it too will be classified as a disaster in the name of good, like Zimbabwe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Lea/579129865 Luke Lea

    We are certainly losing control of the situation in Syria. But then we never had it in the first place. And as Meade himself has acknowledged, nobody knows how to get it.

    As for Iran, I see these things as the natural buildup to an eventual military response. Of course there will be officials complaining. That’s part of the process.

  • Kavanna

    None of this is surprising, when you consider that we have a clueless, narcissistic empty suit in the White House. He started with another exercise in empty self-righteousness (“reaching out” to the Islamic world), was completely blindsided by the Arab Spring, and has no idea what to do about Iran.

    Then he inexplicably appointed a phony “realist” (Hagel) as defense secretary, who was even more inexplicably approved by Congress. Now the Pentagon has its own foreign policy, run by another unqualifiee. I assume Hagel will be canned at some point — being a Republican, he will easier to boot out.

    Many in the Democratic party expected the Clinton years to come back. On Wall Street, that did happen, by and large, with a full-on Fed-supported asset inflation party and cooked economic statistics, although it can’t last. But in foreign policy, the evidence of incompetence has been coming thick and fast for more than two years now.

    I wonder how much longer it will be before it really spirals out of control. What were voters thinking last year?

    • Carol Shannon

      But, he gave that speech in Cairo! Didn’t that fix everything?

      • Kavanna

        Getting a president who really understands the Middle East and where it’s heading — that would require overturning every canon of PC, as well as the petrodollar lobby. Unlikely.

  • Fat_Man

    Losing? Shouldn’t that be Lost?

  • PDQuig

    No worries: Obumble has the estimable Sec State Kerry to backstop him. And behind Kerry is Chuck Hagel–all in all the foreign policy Dream Team.

  • Meowmeowoofwoof

    A trained neo Marxist agitator sowing confusion in health care, finances,debt, and foreign policy? You are kidding. He is agitating every sphere to create confusion and uncertainty. His mission is to destroy Pax Americana and destroy the dollar as the reserve currency. He laughs himself to sleep every nite. He’s either an economic moron, or a domestic enemy. He is going to leave crap sandwiches which will take decades to fix. ::::::::

  • sue-marie

    He is not a leader….the only vision this man has ever revealed was that of wealth redistribution for all on this planet. A socialistic state is his vision….as far as conflict goes….he is doesn’t have a clue…he is out of his league.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Frank-Johnson/100001454493588 Frank Johnson

    Obama remains clueless and continues to appoint people who are equally clueless—what then an you expect?

  • http://twitter.com/novaculus novaculus

    When your policies are based on ’60s Leftist ideology and tempered by political expediency, the result is incoherent policy. Ignorant and venal, Obama and his crew are incapable of forming coherent, rational policy that might yield positive results.

  • kaymad

    It doesn’t inspire confidence does it? Thing is, people attribute all kinds of underhanded motives to Obama, but I don’t think he’s that smart. He isn’t all that interested in Foreign policy, so you have state and the pentagon staggering around in the dark trying to fill the vacuum with a lot of hot air. It’s a disaster.

  • cubanbob

    In the case of Syria the smart move would have been to never get engaged. There are no good outcomes there. Same with the Palestinians. Same with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. If our interests are directly involved then get in only to the extent needed to protect our interest. Then get out. We cannot mold them in to what we wish them to be and the effort is bloody, expensive and futile and makes us look weak in their eyes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Francis/100002891424742 Bill Francis

    Mr. Obama never wanted anything else but chaos in the middle east. It is part of his efforts to destroy America.

  • massjim

    Sure, but Obama is “cool” and can sure talk about “hoops”, so what difference does it make that his mideast strategy is in disarray? Oh, and he has a charming smile. So there.

  • Jim Luebke

    OK, I’m not all that impressed by either man’s foreign policy… it seems to me that no one has had a good handle on the subject since the Cold War ended.

    But how did we end up with a foreign policy site run by a Democrat, who (rightly) criticizes both parties, that has a comment section with dozens who will vehemently defend GWB but barely any who will defend Obama, even in the most tepid way?

    It’s very strange. Any explanations? And I’m most curious to hear from those who are generally supportive of Obama.