Criticize the Administration’s Syria policy without providing alternative recommendations, and the President will dismiss you for mere carping. Argue, say, for a no-fly zone, however, and you will be dismissed for lacking the information and advice that only the President can have. Either way, in his view, you are a dummy, or, as he so artfully said of his previous Secretary of State, a peddler of “mumbo jumbo.”
This pervasive contempt for the views of others is one of the President’s greatest weaknesses and least attractive traits. Inevitably, it percolates throughout his Administration and prevails in particular at the White House. Yet it seems not to deter those on the outside—apolitical experts, some Democrats, and not a few veterans of Republican Administrations—from attempting, in all sincerity, to devise and argue for alternative approaches.
Not only are their efforts pointless—if Obama is his own strategist, why should he listen to you, foolish or wicked veterans of the Bush Administration?—they are misguided. One can only judge a policy on its implementation, and although a no-fly zone conceived by a tough-minded Commander in Chief and implemented by Bob Gates might be just the thing, a no-fly zone put into place by the President who brought you vanishing red lines, a botched withdrawal from Iraq, the reset with Russia that wasn’t, repeated groveling apologies for the inevitable accidents of war, and much else, could be a debacle.
And at a deeper level, trying to prescribe tactics from an external perch is, as Henry Kissinger pointed out in White House Years, a mistake—the President has something of a point. Outside of government one does not, in fact, have access to all the intelligence data and military advice to make most tactical decisions wisely. Yet commentators and experts most assuredly should discuss the larger direction of policy, and are as competent to do so as any on the inside. Indeed, often more so. Insiders rarely have the leisure and often lack the aptitude for framing the larger questions: what are the first-order stakes here? How goes “the tendency of things”, as the Chinese have been known to put it? What motivates others, insofar as we can understand them? And what principles should guide our policy? We could use a discussion of these matters, for our own edification, if nothing else.
Almost assuredly, a deeper set of assumptions about the Middle East informs President Obama’s passivity as Russia deploys forces to Tartus and Latakia, fires cruise missiles, and conducts bombing runs, while Iranian generals get themselves killed leading Syrian militias and Hizballah irregulars in an escalating war. It is worth debating, and probably goes something like this:
“We would do well to have nothing to do with the Middle East.
The Bush Administration idiotically got us deeply involved in 2003—the mistake from which most of our troubles have flowed. Our real interests, and in particular our economic interests, lie in Asia. The Europeans will have to learn to handle refugee flows on their own. Admittedly, many Middle Eastern terrorists would like to attack us, but they have their hands full with local enemies, and for those who want to target North America we have drones and special operators.
We have all the oil and natural gas we need: our geo-economic interests in the region are negligible. The Russians and Iranians want to pacify Syria? Fine. Let them try it and see what happens—both will get bled by it, which is fine with us. Besides, the Sunni Arab states will naturally act to balance Persian Shi‘a power.
And really, who wants to engage deeply in the politics of peoples whose main activities seems to be holding days of rage, and engaging in bouts of suicide-bombing and beheading? The Israelis can take care of themselves, not that we care for them all that much anyway. Humanitarian concerns about the rest? A pity, but we cannot go around solving all the world’s problems. We are, in a word, realists, unlike our soft-headed critics on left and right.”
That, or an extended and more tactfully expressed version of it, is what the President probably thinks. It is a coherent, if in many (not all) respects deeply misconceived view.
At this point, Middle Eastern turmoil only to a limited degree derives from the initial decision to invade in Iraq; rather, our botched withdrawal from that country and our mishandling of the upheavals of the Arab spring (including the undeclared Libya war) deserve most of the blame. We may think ourselves well-supplied with oil, but it is a fungible commodity, and if supplies get disrupted or fall under the control of hostile powers, we will regret it. Depending on who controls the spigot, oil revenues can (and in the case of Iran, thanks to the deal the President just cut, will) go to some very bad causes, including nuclear programs.
The Russians got bogged down in Afghanistan, yes, but only because we helped that along—it did not happen of its own accord. The Arab states may balance against Iran, but then again, they may also make their accommodations, an outcome far from unprecedented in the long course of Middle Eastern history. Nor have we any interest in the opposite result—a long and increasingly bitter sectarian war between Sunni and Shi‘a. Humanitarian issues loom in all cases, unless American foreign policy has become fundamentally indifferent to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people and the near-extermination of Christians in large parts of the world. Nor is it the case that, so to speak, what happens in the Middle East stays in the Middle East—in a way, that was the whole point of September 11.
One could go on, but the point remains: public discussion ought to address the nature of American interests in the Middle East, the deeper trends there, and the broad policy instruments available for securing those interests. Those are the first-order questions a new Administration will face in 16 months, and they are worth discussing now.
We must also trace the likely consequences of our non-policy thus far. The Administration seems not to take seriously the repeated humiliations that the United States has received from Russia and Iran, among others. The President apparently (judging by his recent interview on “Sixty Minutes”) does not even believe that we have been humiliated, as when the Russians fail even to notify us of their bombing runs until an hour before they occur and even then, in a deliberate mockery, pass the word in Iraq. The Obama foreign policy has eroded our credibility and reputation—not its least consequence by far. A new administration will have to restore them—not its least challenge. The reconstruction of American foreign policy will require making a coherent case to the American people and to the world about our interests and our values, and how we aim to secure both.
For the next 16 months, those of us who have deep reservations about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy will stand at a distance, as spectators (and perhaps incidental victims) of the continued, and worsening, policy equivalents of five-alarm fires, multiple car pileups, and train derailments. But let us accept that the Administration does not care what we think, and never will. Even those tactical recommendations useful to insiders will be obsolete by next month, let alone by the time a less doggedly introverted and self-regarding President takes charge. Our best course, therefore, is to renew our understanding of a world that gets nastier, more unstable, and more troubled by the week, and hope that the next President can listen to voices other than his own.