The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
WRM in WSJ: Obama's Failed Grand Strategy

Though still traveling in India, WRM has a major essay in the Wall Street Journal on the comprehensive and compounding failure of Obama’s Middle East policies. Here’s a taste:

The next problem is that the Obama administration misread the impact that its chosen strategies would have on relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia—and underestimated just how miserable those two countries can make America’s life in the Middle East if they are sufficiently annoyed [...]

Many Americans don’t understand just how much the Saudis dislike the Brotherhood and the Islamists in Turkey. Not all Islamists are in accord; the Saudis have long considered the Muslim Brotherhood a dangerous rival in the world of Sunni Islam. Prime Minister Erdogan’s obvious hunger to revive Turkey’s glorious Ottoman days when the center of Sunni Islam was in Istanbul is a direct threat to Saudi primacy. That Qatar and its Al Jazeera press poodle enthusiastically backed the Turks and the Egyptians with money, diplomacy and publicity only angered the Saudis more. With America backing this axis—while also failing to heed Saudi warnings about Iran and Syria—Riyadh wanted to undercut rather than support American diplomacy. An alliance with the Egyptian military against Mr. Morsi’s weakening government provided an irresistible opportunity to knock Qatar, the Brotherhood, the Turks and the Americans back on their heels.

This is an important and frequently overlooked dynamic that’s caused Obama no small number of headaches in the region. And it’s a dynamic still very much at play, as Obama considers cutting aid to Egypt in the wake of the military’s crackdown there. ”If the U.S. is taking a position that undermines the Egyptian government and empowers the Brotherhood, a lot of us will say: ‘Good luck, you’re on your own.’ There will be a wide regional fallout,” an unnamed senior Arab official was quoted as saying in the Journal today. If Obama chooses wrong, he stands to wreck our alliance with Saudi Arabia without getting anything of value done in Egypt.

WRM’s latest offering is far broader than just this one point, and we do encourage you to go and read the whole thing this Saturday morning. And let us know what you think in the comments.

Published on August 24, 2013 10:05 am
  • ljgude

    I think there is an even higher level failure at work here. To wit, the inability to recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood is not moderate. It is a totalitarian organization and was founded in 1928 to advance what we now call Islamism. through the pursuit of secular political power above all else. Despite their lip service to Islam they are a modern organization pursuing secular totalitarian goals in the name of religion. Political power above Allah. In religious terms they can be seen as idolaters, which is why Westerners, placing the state above God are blind to the difference between the genuinely religious and idolaters like themselves. The MB allied itself with nazi Germany and to this day states its goals as the overthrow of the West in general and the US in particular. Unlike Harry Truman, Obama has no George Kennan to send him a memo explaining that you can’t do quid pro quo with totalitarians. Instead Obama sees the MB through the lens of postcolonial ideology and falls into the trap of cognitive egocentrism by assuming that he is dealing with people who are interested in compromise and win win outcomes. They are interested in win-lose. They win – we lose. If a retired old observer like me can see this coming, how can all those striped trouser boys from Yale miss it? Perhaps because our elite schools have their ME Studies departments too much funded by Arab money. Astute observers of the scene like Daniel Pipes and Barry Rubin have been pointing out the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood for years while the elite press corps has been been writing puff pieces on Moderate Islamists in the Times and the WaPo. Both Obama and his predecessor are have pursued a policy of democratic interventionism and the ME has largely rejected that policy. Obama’s policy his failing more because his policy is more detached from ground realty than even Bush’s policy. I hope I am wrong but I think Obama lacks the capacity to get outside his ideology. I think we are in for more of the same. Bush moderated his policy after the 2006 election put the Democrats in Congress. He somehow finessed the Surge and a competent General past Congress and recouped some lost ground. Another shellacking in 2014 may make Obama compromise, but i doubt it.

  • USNK2

    Mr. Mead writes: “…Turkey’s glorious Ottoman days when the center of Sunni Islam was in Istanbul…” without noting that was only possible after the Ottomans under Sultan Selim I conquered, (from wiki) “…between 1516-1517 of the entire Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, which included all of Sham, Hejaz, Tihamah, and Egypt itself ,,, Upon conquering Egypt, Selim took the title of Caliph of Islam, being the first Ottoman sultan to do so. He was also granted the title of “Khâdim ül Haramain ish Sharifain” (Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina), by the Sharif of Mecca in 1517.”
    Almost every western pundit fails to include Jordan as a key American ally, ironic because King Abdullah II is a direct descendant of that Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, and Jordan is being destabilized by Syrian refugees more than any other neighbor.
    In this essay, Mr. Mead fails to mention Sinai, where Egypt’s military is fighting a terrorist haven enabled by Morsi’s MB and their offspring, Hamas.

    Mr. Mead also underestimates the damage done to USA-Israel relations in 2009-2010, whilst over-estimating the success of more recent ‘resets’, i.e., bullying, wih Israel, and is blithely captivated by the irrational obsession with re-starting peace talks at precisely the time when all of Israel’s neighbors are in some state of instability.
    as ljgude notes in his well written comment, there is nothing moderate about Political Islam, not Erdogan’s AKP, nor Egypt’s MB.
    As long as the Obama presidency believes in linkage (solve Israel/palestine and you solve all the other grievances); and that Islamists are capable of adapting to any kind of multi-confessional modernity whilst staring at what Sunni Islamists wrought in Afghanistan and Gaza! ; well, I am cheering for al-Sissi, and all the monarchies.
    As for Afghanistan: it is only “remote…and barbarous” if you can not study a map, or history. Kabul and Peshawar have been conquered more times than any any other cities in recorded history.
    Western media coverage would have been helpful past twelve years if anyone had bothered to study the history of Pashtuns, who really DO know their history.
    I await a post that mentions the Ghilzais, the Durranis, the Mehsuds, and the Yousafzai Pashtuns. Guess which ones are the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, respectively…!

  • gwvanderleun

    “How did someone as intelligent and capable as Walter Russell Mead get fooled into thinking that Obama could conduct foreign policy successfully? After all, Mead holds a chair in foreign affairs at Bard College. I have often had occasion to quote his excellent and informative blog, Via Meadia.

    Or better, once you have so thoroughly misjudged a presidential candidate how do you save some face?

    Mead does so by saying that the Obama administration based its policies on reasonable assumptions and good intentions. He says that administration strategy was: “well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued.”

    It is not quite a whitewash of failure, but it removes the charge that the administration was incompetent and inept. If Obama was not up to the job, those who voted for him could and should have known it.

    Why is it that Mead fails to mention the Secretary of State who was charged with formulating and implementing administration policy?

    Is Mead trying to distance Hillary Clinton from the foreign policy failures that occurred while she was Secretary of State?

    ” Stuart Schneiderman @ Had Enough Therapy?

    • Pete

      It would not be politically correct for Mr. Mead to admit Obama is both unqualified and incompetent.

      Why? Because Obama is a black liberal, and in the world of the Meads, you dare not question the competency, qualifications, intelligence, etc. of such people. It just isn’t done.

      • gwvanderleun

        Bulls-Eye.

      • Jim__L

        Kinda like how he skirts around the issue of ultra-feminist leanings of our increasingly anti-male school system.

    • Jim__L

      Wow. So, WRM, with fans like these, who needs critics?

      • Pete

        Come on. Mr. Mead likes — and needs — the feedback.,

        • Jim__L

          Sorry, again a comment meant as bantering falls a little flat.

          It’s amazing to me that VM can attract so many readers dedicated enough to visit the comments section, who have the independence to be deeply critical.

          It’s a testament to the overall intelligence and quality of the reporting and topic selection here.

  • Anthony

    “…the Obama administration misread the impact that its chosen strategies would have on relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia….”
    On its face the strategy as articulated by WRM looking topically at region when ascribed strategy was crafted makes sense when considering espoused pivot to Asia. However, dynamic configurations have a way of confunding the best laid strategies. Also, WRM’s WJS essay intimates a distinctly political (partisan) cast to Grand Strategy; perhaps such myopia has helped to hinder strategy going forward (but as WRM notes administration yet has 41 months to right Middle East ship).

    Similarly given items listed as miscalulations, WRM may have inadvertently left off institutional patterns and historical organization as important component to be added with hindsight.

    In sum, WRM writes a comprehesive critique on administration Middle East missteps and adds suggestions for course correction. As he says “alliances play a large role in America’s foreign policy success; tending the Middle Eastern alliances now in disarray may be the Obama administration’s best hope now to regain its footing.” …strategic balancing perhaps.

  • johngbarker

    I think we are in for a long and bloody war and that a major terrorist attack on our homeland is somewhere between probable and imminent.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    In the article WRM calls Obama a talented leader. Shouldn’t calling someone talented, require that the person had shown some talent? In WRM’s article there are only examples of failure, in that he has failed everywhere. All of the leaders in other countries see him as weak, shouldn’t their opinions carry significant weight? Aren’t their opinions similar to a Doctor’s opinion on which Doctor, he would want to perform surgery on himself? I just don’t see evidence of Obama’s talent, as I think that if Obama was really talented, he wouldn’t have made any mistakes to start with, and he and America would now be feared and respected by everyone.
    WRM seems to think Obama is now going to turn things around, that he is going to adjust and adapt. I doubt anyone so arrogant that they think they are the smartest person in the room, can ever admit to themselves that they made a mistake. And admitting that you made a mistake, is a necessary prerequisite to adjusting and adapting. I think this administration’s record of lies, cover-ups, and persecution of whistleblowers, proves they don’t ever admit they’ve been wrong.

  • Leah Keever

    “A talented leader” LOL. Thank you for my Sunday morning chuckle, Mr. Mead. Unfortunately, until that moment I was reading someone whose opinion I respected. Now I see you are either as blind or disingenuous as the rest of the media.

    • Tom

      Well, the President is talented…the only problem is that, like many Presidents, the talents he used to get into office are not those necessary for doing well in office.

      • Leah Keever

        I’m not even sure I concede that point; although it’s arguable. But whatever his “talent” may be, it does not include leadership.