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Obama's Middle East Recessional
Part 4: The President’s Mental Map

The conclusion to a four-part essay looking Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Published on: January 21, 2014
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  • Fat_Man

    The End?

    • Yup, for now. I know it ends seemingly abruptly, but it really was one essay before. We split it up like this after some discussion, and the last part ended up a little… brief.

      • rheddles

        the last part ended up a little… brief.

        Well what should one have expected with the title “The President’s Mental Map”?

        • Kavanna


          Of course, the double fiasco of Obamacare and Iran-with-nukes will be “legacy” of this administration.

  • rheddles

    One other comment. No matter what he does, Obama will not bring peace to the middle east, so he will not be remembered for anything that happens there beyond Iran getting nukes. What Obama will be remembered for is Obamacare. And it is on the bubble. So how many brain cycles does he have to devote to the middle east after he worries about Obamacare and Iranian nukes? I suggest not many, regardless of how many he started with.

  • Jim Speed, CPA, CHAE (ret.)


  • Anthony

    “Not traditional commitments, not reputational capital, not obligations that flow from habit instead of fresh thought – but genuine vital interest?” The above brings to mind both capacity limitations and confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies; that is, setting realistic objectives as well as not letting paradigms dominate your way of thinking encompasses quote. In any event, not bad guidance for someone short on experience in specified area of essay’s thrust.

  • qet

    Well I for one learned a great deal from this essay/series. I wonder if Garfinkle isn’t doing a little of what he mentioned in the last essay–overlaying some of his own ideas onto US actions in order to give them more coherence than they really possess. Or, rather, Garfinkle presents multiple possible explanations, and each one has a coherence seemingly suggested by US actions, but if a series of actions supports multiple theories, isn’t that in itself a pretty good indication that the acts taken together are incoherent?

    • ljgude

      I felt much the same thing. I welcome the attempt to understand the president, but he may be much like a computer generated post modern essay onto which we mistakenly project meaning.

  • Arkeygeezer

    This is a very good essay on the political instability of the Middle East. However, the cause of the instability is religious, not political. It is an Islamic reaction to the ideals of freedom and democracy. The area was politically controlled in the past by a small group of autocratic governments. The area prospered due to its natural resources of oil and gas which brought modernization. Movies and the internet brought a view of the Western World to the masses. They viewed this world as secular and anti-Islamic.

    The small group of autocratic governments moved to assimilate with the western world and profit from their oil and gas resources. Like the monarchs of Europe in the 19th century, they felt that they had to maintain control over their populations and modernize their nations. While this was going on a religious reaction was simmering on the Arab street. Initially, this boiled over in Iran with the overthrow of the Shah and take over by the mullahs. It has now spread throughout the Middle East and is spreading to other areas in Africa and Asia.

    No American president can control this situation. As we found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how powerful your military forces are, you cannot control a religious revolution. The Roman Catholic church discovered that fact in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Monarchs of Europe discovered this fact in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the colonial powers discovered the fact in the latter half of the 20th century. Each revolution resulted in prolonged periods of instability, such as the reformation and counter reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Kings of Europe were deposed by WW1. The colonial powers lost their colonies after WW2. In each case, bloody periods proceeded the event. A similar revolution is materializing in the islamic world.

    President Obama is right to realize this and to act preemptively to prevent islamic terrorist attacks that kill American civilians, especially on U.S. soil. You cannot conquer a religious revolution. You can only defend your own country from the terrorist instability such a revolution ignites.

    • Kavanna

      If Obama were acting to quarantine the Islamic world — I mean closing embassies, ending commercial ties and travel, etc., with at least the countries of the Arab/Iranian “core” — then what you’re saying would make sense.

      But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s actively selling out American interests, allies, and friends in pursuit of a fantasy, a non-existent accommodation with radical forces. It failed in Turkey, in Egypt, in Libya, and elsewhere, and it will not work with Iran or Syria. We’re watching that unfold before our eyes. Unfortunately, the US media is largely uninterested and has no reporters in Geneva anyway.

      While people in the West debate this issue in abstract terms, it is shocking that the media has barely mentioned the Western investors eager to get in on “secondary” business in Iran, involving the flow of money into Iran, not the flow of oil out. Except for some brave articles from Reuters and the Journal, zip.

      OTOH, few have noticed the shoes that didn’t drop: the oil traders who daily discover price on the Brent (international) oil contract have seen fit to send the world oil price higher in the aftermath of the Western sellout to Syria and Iran, not lower. Similarly, the big integrated “oil majors” haven’t taken the bait to get back involved with “primary” investment in oil production in Iran. These guys know the region and its history and thus know better. Iran is a promoter of terrorism with an ultra-corrupt, statist economy. Those in the know are wise to remain far away.

      • Arkeygeezer

        OK. Given the fact that getting into another middle eastern war is politically impossible in the United States today, and the fact that few people on the Arab street view the U,S, as a friend, what grand strategy would you have if you were President??

        • Kavanna

          Good question. Perhaps what I first wrote above, at least a partial quarantine of the region. It doesn’t require selling out friends and allies. But the US can remain detached from the region, at least up to a point.

          Unfortunately, scrapping the sanctions on Iran and (effectively) on Syria has made this option essentially impossible. We now have the worst of both worlds. We’re engaged, with vulnerable interests across the region, yet have nothing to show for the sellout. Sounds like a bad deal to me.

  • Kavanna

    A great multi-part article! It should be a small book.

  • diderot à la campagne

    Some interesting lines, it is clearly evident that a game with several actors is much complicated to play than the old more simple dualism particular to the Cold war. This geopolitical field is basically difficult and all sort of discourse on someone (the party in opposition alluded) being more experienced is a non-sensical myth, the US have never succeeded at creating any enduring peace before the coming of the Obama mandate as we know.

    It is not difficult to understand why Obama is cautious and he is absolutely right to say that this region is overrated, because it is a fact. Nothing constructive and inspiring for mankind as a whole has ever emerged from that particular place. Amazingly, the writer ignores the importance of the role played by Israel as relevant and influential actor behind the apparent stage.

    The end of the analysis is not a “happy ending” at all, the writer falls alas into some kind of unnecessary cheap psychologism. He should be aware of and analyze his own unconscious value structures, fears, identity politics, wishes, degree of aggression apparently projected an imagined screen called the president Obama. This is always the problem of hermeneutics at work in a complex domain like this field studied, it is basically difficult.

  • rw

    Wow! Great Read: I had to laugh remembering the old western movies where the sheriff takes out a deputy’s badge and pins it on some incredulous looking guy(s) standing near by (Rouhani/Maliki) Here! You guys are in charge, I’ve had enough of this shit; I’m going home. This idea sounds interesting. Make a deal with the more reasonable Shia’s, and let them deal with the Sunni’s. However, I think this arrangement could be extremely dangerous; especially the notion of the Saudi’s buying ready made nukes at Pakistan’s “Bombs Are Us” convenience store, in response. But I see it. At least the West can sit down at a table with Iranians and have a reasonably intelligent conversation. Al Qaeda? Not so much. What a mess! I certainly don’t envy Obama.

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