According to Christopher Dickey and John Barry writing in The Daily Beast, “The president’s ineffectual statement on Friday’s massacre in Syria is the latest act in a White House drama that began in 2009, starring a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events.”
Truly Obama''s "strategy" is ineffective. But the fact that the authors attribute the confused and hesitant strategy to Obama is both to overstate and understate the facts of the policy. The author’s reference to Obama as "brilliant" suggests motives other than partisanship. But the only alternative to partisanship, is to read the authors as naïve or unaware of the history of this confused and hesitant, decades-long American Middle East "strategy." A few examples:
To his credit Obama appears a moral, ethical and humanitarian president who cares about people. Certainly this suggests an explanation for his innumerable missteps regarding the Palestinians and the never-ending “peace process.” Attempting to rein in Israel on the settlements issue in order to impress Abbas and lure him back to the negotiating table was a serious miscalculation. It assumed that the settlements were the stumbling block, which they had not previously been. In fact, according to WikiLeaks, and many reports over the years, the issue of the settlements and, for that matter, the borders, were all but agreed to long before. Settlements were turned into a precondition, and contributed to the breakdown in negotiations, by the president.
But all this presupposes that peace between the parties is both possible and at hand, an assumption worth considering. Who are the parties to the negotiations, a weak and fractured Fatah and Palestinian Authority who survive only as the result of international assistance, and Israel’s military providing security? Or perhaps with Hamas, allied with Iran and Hezbollah, and a constant threat to the survival of Ramallah? With the Arab Spring in full bloom, arguably there has never been a less likely time to launch a “peace” effort.
Whatever Netanyahu’s strengths or weaknesses as prime minister, he did suspend building within the settlement blocs for nearly a year, a favor to Obama. The result was that Abbas chose not to respond to the gesture, waited until two weeks from the expiration of the moratorium and a visit by Biden to agree. Two weeks later the moratorium ended and Abbas, following Obama’s lead, demanded a halt to settlement activity as a “pre-condition” to continuing to talk. Having ignored the Israeli gesture until the end speaks volumes for Abbas’s motivation; creating the problem of settlements as a condition for peace talks is Obama’s baby.
In recent history, Obama’s failure to anticipate the consequences of that pre-condition can only be compared to Bush not recognizing the consequences of creating a Shi’ite “democracy” in Iraq; of Reagan providing arms to Iran in the wake of the embassy hostage crisis; of Carter supporting the “democratic” forces demanding the ouster of the Shah; or of Eisenhower ordering England, France and Israel to leave Suez after Nasser nationalized it in 1956. And the list goes on…
As if having created the settlements issue as a non-starter to negotiations were not enough, President Obama followed this with a deadline for peace and Palestinian statehood. September 2011 now became an ax hanging over the parties for a UN vote that will, if taken, create chaos for the Palestinians, the Israelis, an already unstable Middle East, and an American presence in an oil-rich region critical to the United States and the world.
But this is precisely my point: Yes Obama is naive, but he is only the latest advocate of a naive multi-generational foreign policy the focus of which seems primarily to convert the (third) world to western-style liberal democratic governance. It is a policy that refuses to learn and apply lessons of serial failures, with no apparent impact on future generations of presidents and their advisers. Facts don’t seem to matter. How else can you describe the phenomenon other than a Theology of Democracy? Because unlike universally accepted national interests such as oil, peace, unrestricted trade, etc., things the success of which are measurable and provide for course-correction, theology is based on faith, and faith prevails regardless of the contradictory facts.
So while I agree that the Obama Administration has a poor understanding of foreign policy and its realization through diplomacy (our military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan simply a reflection of this policy failure) neither did the buck start with Obama; nor is it likely to stop with him.
The president’s support, for example, of assisting in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak succeeded only in replacing a military regime dressed in civilian clothes with a military regime in uniform; and one, for that matter, so weakened by US interference to be apparently teetering on the brink of collapsing into a Muslim Brotherhood theocracy. But was Obama’s ill-considered realpolitik assault on Mubarak more short-sighted than Bush’s failing to anticipate that an America-installed Shi’ite-dominated "democracy" in Iraq would, in the end, choose coreligionist Shi’ite Iran over its Christian-American invader? Or that in 1979 the democratic forces in Iran would within months of a US-assisted overthrow of the shah transform from the shah’s secular autocracy into Khomeini’s Islamist theocracy? And is it an accident that in 2011 America’s role in Egypt is a direct replication of America’s role in 1979 Iran?
Theologians can spend millennia arguing about angels and heads of pins. But in the real world, American policy, and not just Obama, has laid the foundation for a regional power vacuum, for the collapse of what had at least been a relatively stable if imperfect by American standards Middle East. That stability had allowed the Arabs to produce their oil, provided for free passage of that oil through the Straits of Hormuz, and ensured free passage for international shipping through the Suez Canal. It also provided the US a military staging area to project strategic power north and south, east and west.
And if the results of our involvement in the overthrow of the Iranian shah is an example, America’s best intentions are likely to result in many times more death and hardship to those “democratic forces seeking freedom” on whose behalf we beneficently intervene.
America’s loss of position, not only in the Middle East but in the world, should be obvious to all but the most committed believers. But to attribute that loss only to Obama, Messrs. Dickey and Barry, miss the point and lessen the possibility of addressing and correcting the real problem. Whatever we, individually, may think of Obama as president; whatever our party affiliation or ideological identity, to blame this president, simply to call him names, may feel good, but serves only to promote the problem.
And that problem is the cumulative impact of decades of a failed foreign policy based on a theological belief, a foreign policy based on missionizing democracy to the natives.