The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on October 24, 2012
What They Should Have Debated

It’s been a while since I addressed specifically Middle Eastern issues in this space, but of course that does not mean nothing is going on there worth commenting upon. If anything, too much is going on.

In addition to the standard frustrations of the bloodletting in Syria, the fragility of the new Iraq, the even greater fragility of the new Libya, the pointlessness of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (at least the way we’re doing it), a low-level proxy terrorist war in Yemen, the multidimensional mysteries of a supposedly democratic Egypt, and the global drama of confronting Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions—all of which have been constant newsmakers for months mounting into years—we now have just in the past few days a Shi‘a uprising in Saudi Arabia, mass protests in Kuwait, an incipient bloodbath in Lebanon spun off from Syria, and, most recently, the near avoidance of a catastrophic terror offensive in Jordan. We even have the spectacle of David Ignatius admitting that perhaps the Obama Administration has been less than perfect in handling the situation in Syria. That’s not actually real news, of course, but it is at least mildly amusing, which is more than we can say about the rest of this stuff.

Note, please, what I have not mentioned: the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian mash-up, which of course antedates all of these other subjects. How can I get away with not mentioning this (and with so many of you, dear readers, not even noticing)? The answer is fairly simple: This particular problem, irritating and occasionally telegenic as it may be, is not really connected to any of the other more pressing issues with which we are genuinely concerned. What is going on in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Iran would be going on anyway, Israel or no Israel.

And yet what did President Obama and Governor Romney talk most about in their third debate a few days ago, the one that was supposed to be on foreign policy? Israel was mentioned more times than any other country. And this is completely ridiculous.

Of course, this so-called foreign policy debate wasn’t really a debate and, for the most part, wasn’t really about foreign policy. You got the feeling watching it that, if the President had had his way, none of it would’ve been about foreign policy.

So how to explain all this? Well, it’s called politics, but not necessarily the way you think. The standard explanation would have you believe that both candidates are striving mightily for the Jewish vote and, of course, Jewish campaign contributions, even at this late stage in the game. I suppose one could make a case that in at least one swing state, Florida, the Jewish vote could make a difference at the margin—possibly in Nevada, too, but that’s a stretch unless the vote is tortuously close.

But this is a very misleading approach to explaining the political logic at work here. Insofar as the candidates are deliberately pandering, which is what candidates do, after all, they are pandering to Evangelical and other traditional forms of Christians, who far outnumber Jews, especially in the swing states. There are far more Christian Zionists in the United States than there are Jewish ones.

There is another reason, possibly at least, for the wildly disproportionate attention paid to Israel in the debate: Jewcentricity.

As I have been at pains to argue over several years now, Jews are interesting, especially to Christians and Muslims for all sorts of historical and psychological reasons. (Read the book if you don’t understand why—please read the book.) There are many people who see Jewish influence where it simply doesn’t exist, because it is habitual and even comforting to explain elusive and complicated matters by recourse to a faithful old explanatory template.

Of course this gets you into some tricky calculations. Are Obama and Romney doing this because they themselves are Jewcentric, or because they realistically think that others are? It’s hard to say, and asking them would not necessarily get you a particularly useful answer. Maybe one day I’ll get to ask Romney this question; I have met him and tried, at least, to work with him four years ago. Perhaps I’ll get to meet him again, whether he becomes President or not. (I have never met Obama and am not likely to.) I’ll report the results, I promise.

When I say that the foreign policy debate wasn’t really a debate I don’t mean only that, as several commentators have noted, they didn’t really disagree about anything substantive. There was a nuance here and an emphasis there, but on the whole the debate wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Giants–Cardinals game on another channel. No, what I mean is that they never really dug down to the core or source of any of the issues facing the country. Neither one of them said a thing about strategy, let alone grand strategy, and President Obama’s genuflection to statecraft—he repeatedly tried to connect fixing the American economy as prior to foreign policy and national security matters—was at best superficial. I would be prepared to bet that neither one of them can express the grand strategy of the United States, more or less a constant in its current formulation since the middle of World War II, in just a few sentences, and that’s really all it takes, because a grand strategy that cannot be expressed in just a few sentences is not a grand strategy at all.

When you cannot connect the dots between strategy, missions, resources and tactics, you cannot talk coherently about policy—which is why neither of them did, and which is why there was essentially nothing to debate about. And when you cannot connect the dots between something that happened just a year ago and current circumstances, you are not even ready to take the training wheels off your brain, let alone engage in an actual debate. But that is exactly what we saw the other night. Let me give you just one example that will not come as a surprise to those familiar with my analysis over the years.

For weeks now there has been a desultory “debate” over what happened in Benghazi to Ambassador Stevens and three other unfortunate Americans. This debate has been about security issues: whether the State Department has the slightest idea what it’s doing; whether Ambassador Stephens was much too cavalier about his own safety; whether the Obama Administration was playing politics with this tragedy by misrepresenting its nature; whether the Romney campaign was playing politics in the nature of its early criticism; whether the weak and fragile Libyan government is capable of doing anything about the perpetrators and, therefore, how we in turn should handle them; and so on and so forth. But with the single exception of a Ross Douhat column in the New York Times, not a single person—and certainly not President Obama or Governor Romney—has had the sense to admit that the decision to start a war in Libya is the real reason why all of this has happened.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Let me repeat that I have never had any affection for Muammar Qaddafi. He was a thug and a murderer of a particularly exotic kind. That said, he was not, in March of last year, a particular problem to us. After the successful seizure of Baghdad, the loon of Libya turned “state’s evidence”, handing over his weapons of mass destruction junk, such as it was, to the West. We made what amounts to a deal with him in return for this gesture: Don’t do these bad things with WMD, don’t support terrorists, and we will basically leave you alone, at least for now. Given how full our hands were at the time, this struck me as a very realistic way to handle Libya: back-burner it.

The Obama Administration thought otherwise. And now we have a country that cannot police its own territory or even its own capital. Neither we nor NATO bothered to think through the “after the fall” scenario, in much the same way that the Bush Administration failed to think through Iraq after regime collapse. So Libya has become a place where Islamist terrorists of sundry sorts are running wild. Tuareg revolutionaries from Libya—some Islamist, some not, but both with stolen arms and money in hand—have aided mightily their brethren in Niger and Mali. In the latter place, they have all but destroyed a fledgling democratic state (as well as some pretty wonderful archaeological treasures in and around Timbuktu). And this isn’t over yet, either.

It is absurd to say that no one warned against these maladies. Plenty of people sounded warnings, and I was one of them. Nobody listened, and nobody remembers, or wants to remember, so now these two guys running for President act like there’s no connection between our own behavior and the downstream consequences of it. They reminded me the other night a little of their complete incapacity in the first debate to distinguish between the actual reasons why healthcare costs are rising so fast and how we arrange an insurance market to pay for them. These are analytically distinct subjects, though obviously related, but you wouldn’t have a clue of that from what these two guys said. The point is that, whether we’re talking about domestic policy or foreign policy, you really can’t have a debate if neither debater understands or owns up to basic causality. What we saw instead was a form of magical thinking, but without the fun. What happened during the Giants–Cardinals game was vastly more logical and satisfying than what happened at the third presidential debate.

Let me close for now with just a note on the terrorist offensive that, if one can believe what one reads in the newspaper, was barely averted in Jordan. The facts are not (yet) in dispute: A group of al-Qaeda associated Jordanian nationals, having gathered lots of weapons in Syria, had planned a fairly sophisticated operation in which murderous rampages at shopping centers and other places where civilians congregated were designed to suck away Jordanian security forces, leaving the American Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and other Jordanian government buildings open to attack.

What is noteworthy about this plan, aside from its relative sophistication, is that it appears to be modeled to some extent on the Benghazi attack. If that is true, then it means that even terrorist cells without any kind of central organization and management are capable of rapidly learning from one another, and that other copycat operations are to be expected now and in the future. In short, I am proposing that what happened in Benghazi and what nearly happened in Amman are probably connected.

This is very bad news, for there are lots of American embassies and other properties in places where copycat operations are quite likely to succeed. Both the expense and the political ramifications of turning these embassies into even more off-putting fortresses than they already are…well, let’s just say that we would rather not have to do that, but now we sort of do. Now there’s a worthy subject for a debate; no doubt others are taking up the subject inside the U.S. government even now. Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2013, and whoever occupies a certain inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department shortly thereafter, will care how this debate turns out.

  • Anthony

    I saw Zbigniew Brzezinski today on Charlie Rose and he coherently talked about policy (i.e. grand strategy vis-a-vis Syria) as well as connect dots between Russia, China, United States, and Middle East region – a version of foreign policy discussion as you lamented gone missing from last Presidential debate. Finally, your copycat description certainly ought to give pause – even before January 2013.

  • Alan Lux

    Wasn’t The Libyan intervention hailed by the best and the brightest as a model for US foreign policy?