“Americans,” Robert Kaplan has observed, “champion idealism while employing realists perhaps because we need to have a high opinion of ourselves while pursuing our own interests.”
There’s a lot of truth to this. After all, beneath the soaring rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy, the most successful foreign-policy presidents tend to espouse a kind of principled pragmatism. For example, FDR’s mission statement for World War II—the Atlantic Charter—was built on a commitment to free government and a denunciation of territorial aggrandizement, and yet he made common cause with a dictator who gobbled up territory before, during and after the war. Eisenhower’s advisors talked of “rollback” but averted their gazes as Soviet tanks rolled through Hungary. Reagan backed freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain while standing by less-than-democratic partners in Turkey, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Philippines. The elder Bush envisioned “a new world order” premised on “justice and fair play” but left Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and stayed out of Bosnia.
But in President Barack Obama it seems the American people have employed neither a realist nor an idealist nor a principled pragmatist. Obama’s foreign policy, as we can gather from what’s happening in Syria and Egypt, is either a none-of-the-above or all-of-the-above proposition. And that’s why it has been unsuccessful.
Neither Principled Nor Pragmatic
Any discussion of the President’s confused and confusing approach the Arab Spring’s hot spots has to begin with Libya. We were told that Libya would be the template for a better, smarter way of dealing with problems in the troubled Arab world. America would “lead from behind”—the oxymoronic phrase coined by the president’s staff to justify his standoff approach. What we have learned since the White House floated this unfortunate phrase is that no one likes a backseat driver, especially one who is uncertain about which direction to go.
In announcing his decision to participate in attacks on Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, Obama declared, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.”
If that sounds like today’s Syria—and it does—Obama’s inaction over the past two-plus years is glaringly inconsistent. Qaddafi didn’t do half of what Bashar al-Assad has done. Yet Qaddafi’s mere threat to stamp out the rebels in Benghazi prompted U.S. military intervention. Assad has killed 100,000 of his people, fired into neighboring countries, shot down a Turkish plane and used chemical weapons—all of which has prompted, thus far, little more than stern words, a promise “to document atrocities so killers face justice” and the delivery of non-lethal aid.
The Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons—there were at least ten prior to the large-scale attack outside Damascus—is itself evidence that Obama’s none-of-the-above policy approach has failed. If words and warnings were enough, Assad would have kept his WMDs holstered; for that matter, he would have stepped down by now, as Obama demanded in 2011.
Moreover, the defense that this was all part of some calculating strategy to reset America’s hyperactive Middle East policy is belied by the very threat of U.S. missile strikes aimed at punishing Assad for his large-scale chemical attacks. There’s nothing calculating about bluffing that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” drawing rhetorical “red lines,” doing nothing when those red lines are crossed, and then doing something so limited and so late as to highlight weakness rather than strength.
At its best, Obama’s Syria policy is reactive and improvised; at its worst, it’s the opposite of principled pragmatism.
Faults and Defaults
If Syria is case study in the perils of a none-of-the-above foreign policy, Egypt is an example of the problems with an all-of-the-above foreign policy.
Either Wilsonian idealism or principled pragmatism would have been preferable to the incoherent muddle the President has made of America’s approach to Egypt. The former would have obliged Obama to support regime opponents based on the notion that spreading democracy is always in American interests—even when democracy ushers in instability. The latter would have obliged Obama to support the Mubarak government, because American interests are more important than American ideals, and when the two diverge, it’s a President’s responsibility to follow the course that serves American interests.
In early 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were firmly in the principled-pragmatist camp. Biden called Mubarak an “ally” and said, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Even as the crowds gathered in Tahrir Square, Clinton defended Mubarak as “a partner in trying to stabilize a region that is subject to a lot of challenges”—and it was understandable that she should do so. Mubarak was a moderating influence in the Arab world, a bulwark of stability and dependability. He kept peace with Israel, kept the Suez open to U.S. warships, kept extremist elements like the Muslim Brotherhood at bay, and kept problem states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the mullahs’ Iran on the margins of Mideast politics. Under the headline, “Clinton Calls for Democracy in Egypt, but not Mubarak’s Ouster,” The Washington Post reported that Clinton was worried about what would come after Mubarak, expressing concerns about “a so-called democracy that leads to what we’ve seen in Iran” and warning that revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”
Obama, for his part, was more circumspect. His State of the Union address that year didn’t mention Egypt. In other remarks, the President called Mubarak “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East” and asked the Mubarak government “to be careful about not resorting to violence.” As The Washington Post concluded at the end of January 2011, the overall message from the Administration was that “democracy and human rights in Egypt [were] not a top priority. When given the opportunity to use the biggest megaphone in the world—the voice of the president of the United States—the words were whispered, if said at all.”
Obama, it seemed, had defaulted his way to the principled-pragmatist camp.
But by February 10, just 14 days after his initial remarks praising Mubarak for standing with the United States on “tough issues in the Middle East”, Obama pulled the rug out from under his man in Cairo, demanding that Mubarak “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy.” He added, “It is imperative that the government not respond to the aspirations of their people with repression or brutality.” A week later, the President bluntly called on Mubarak “to step down immediately.”
Obama had switched to the idealist camp.
For the next several months, Obama supported Egypt’s post-Mubarak experiment, even as it trampled on minority rights, rammed through an illiberal constitution, and carried out policies that destabilized Egypt’s neighborhood and worried its allies. It pays to recall that Egypt’s post-Mubarak governing authorities detained representatives from U.S. non-governmental organizations, failed to provide security outside the U.S. Embassy, allowed the Sinai to become a nest for jihadists and hosted Iran’s head of state—the first such visit since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
But then, Egypt’s once-fractured opposition came together, united by just one thing: they all loathed Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. So they rallied in the streets by the millions and demanded Morsi’s resignation. The army’s hand in all this, General Abdel Sisi, gave Morsi an ultimatum to set a date for early elections or be ousted. When Morsi refused, his fate was sealed—and Egypt was headed from what Tocqueville once called “the despotism of the majority” back to old-fashioned military despotism.
The Obama Administration, doubling back into the principled-pragmatist camp, refused to call the military coup a coup. Even as the military crushed Morsi’s party, Secretary of State John Kerry said General Sisi was “restoring democracy.” Not only was it Orwellian to call the military ouster of a democratically elected government an act of “restoring democracy” (how can you restore something that never existed in the first place?); the Egyptian military’s action against Morsi and his party virtually ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood would reject the political process going forward and would instead deal exclusively in terrorism and radicalism.
Two and a half years earlier, Obama warned Mubarak’s generals to avoid “repression or brutality.” But in August 2013, all that Obama could muster as General Sisi bludgeoned Morsi’s party was a statement that “No transition to democracy comes without difficulty.”
Only after hundreds were killed by the government did Obama, scrambling to defend American ideals, condemn “the dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people.” He then canceled the biannual U.S.-Egypt war games known as Bright Star—but not the $1.5 billion annual military aid package.
Kerry recently said that the Administration’s approach to the chemical-weapons attacks in Syria “is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense.” That sounds like principled pragmatism. It’s too bad the Administration didn’t follow that formula in crafting a broader policy response to the Arab Spring.