- President Obama’s speech to State Department employees today was billed as a major address on recasting American foreign policy in the Middle East.
- It lived up to its billing. President Obama has deep-sixed the ‘realism’ that marked the first two years of his approach to the Middle East. He has returned to the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
The United States is no longer, the President told us in words he could have borrowed from his predecessor, a status quo power in the Middle East. The realist course of cooperating with oppressive regimes in a quest for international calm is a dead end. It breeds toxic resentment against the United States; it stores up fuel for an inevitable conflagration when the oppressors weaken; it stokes anti-Israel resentment when hatred of Israel becomes the only form of political activism open to ordinary people; it strengthens the hold of extremist religion and strangles the growth of liberal forces.
More, he attacked Iran. All that talk about avoiding polarization with Iran is gone. Instead, President Obama singled out Iran as an oppressive, tyrannical regime supporting terror and running an “illicit nuclear program” as well.
He also followed Bush in attacking some US allies, calling on Bahrain and Yemen to make changes. It was a speech that enraged almost every powerful actor in the Middle East and put America out on a limb. Like Bush, Obama is willing to confront some of America’s closest allies (the Saudis, who back the crackdown in Bahrain). Like Bush, he hailed Iraq as an example of democracy and pluralism that can play a vital role in the transformation of the region. Like Bush, he proposes to work with opposition groups in friendly countries.
His policy on Israel-Palestine is also looking Bushesque. Like Bush, he wants a sovereign but demilitarized Palestinian state. Like Bush, he believes that the 1967 lines with minor and mutually agreed changes should be the basis for the permanent boundaries between the two countries — and like Bush he set Jerusalem and the refugees to one side.
The President is nailing his colors to the mast of the Anglo-American revolutionary tradition. Open societies, open economies, religious freedom, minority rights: these are revolutionary ideas in much of the world. Americans have often been globally isolated as we stand for the rights of ordinary people (like immigrant African chambermaids in New York hotels) against the privilege of elites. A faith in the capacity of the common woman and the common man to make good decisions (and in their right to make those decisions even if they are sometimes wrong) is the basis of America’s political faith; President Obama proclaimed today that this needs to be the basis of our policy in the Middle East.
In Power, Terror, Peace, and War, I wrote that the Bush administration had articulated a post 9/11 national strategy for the United States that was not only right, it was inescapable. But the Bush administration’s tactical errors and profoundly wrongheaded public diplomacy undermined support for those policies at home and abroad.
President Obama has long hesitated between the idea that Bush had the wrong strategy and the idea that the strategy was sound but that the tactics and presentation was poor. He seems now to have come down firmly on the side of the core elements of the Bush strategy. This frankly is more or less where I thought he would end up; American interests, American values and the state of the region don’t actually leave us that many alternatives.
The question President Obama — and we — now face is whether he can advance this strategy more effectively than President Bush did. I very much hope so, but the obstacles are high. President Obama offended and annoyed virtually every important leader in the Middle East during his short speech. Some of the objectives he outlined (in particular, for successful economic development in Egypt) are horribly difficult to achieve. Our open enemies and many of our so-called ‘friends’ in the region will be working to foil our plans. One of the President’s assets, his relative popularity in the Arab world, is in free-fall as the latest Pew Survey reveals.
President Bush was and President Obama is, I believe, right to proclaim that history, even in the Middle East, is on America’s side. But history doesn’t always move on America’s timetable.