Friday, April 27, 2012

Blank Barack

The American commentator Thomas L. Friedman was in Beirut this week and had two interesting things to say about the upcoming American presidential election. He remarked that “barring some crisis between now and November, foreign policy will be a net plus for Barack Obama.” And, from what we can see today, the election will be “very, very close” and could come down to the vote in Ohio and Florida. “This could be Bush-Gore all over again,” Friedman said.

These observations tell us something significant about America’s approach to the Middle East under Obama. The Democrats, to gain votes, will point especially to the president’s decision to end or wind down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are tired of a decade of conflict, and Obama justifiably intends to exploit this.

The closeness of the race, in turn, will ensure that the president sidesteps all risks. No one should expect major initiatives, let alone imagination, from Obama. Like most lawyers, he was risk-averse to start with, which is why he has been so timorous when addressing the carnage in Syria, or for that matter the recent detention of American democracy workers in Egypt. Though Obama supported the Egyptian revolt last year, he has been wary of the consequences. Washington still feels most comfortable dealing with the country’s army, because it remains the guarantor of the peace with Israel.

But avoiding problems and removing soldiers is not a strategy. As we look back on Obama’s achievements in the Middle East, the record is not particularly impressive. There are three principal reasons for this, all interlinked. Obama has spent too much time fighting the legacy of George W. Bush; he has put forward no powerful idea to inspire his decisions; and he has worked at cross-purposes in trying to manage an American disengagement from the region while also pursuing objectives that require considerable regional attention.

A good case can be made that Obama has done well to position himself as a contrast to Bush. Americans were weary of Iraq when the president took office, and all he did was accelerate a pullout that was coming anyway. Certainly, an indefinite American presence was untenable. However, you do have to wonder, then, why the United States sacrificed so many lives, Iraqi and American, if the end result was a hasty exit that has left Washington with little to salvage politically from its long Iraqi campaign, and Iran much stronger.

Obama also had his eye on Bush when he argued that Afghanistan was the “right war,” unlike Iraq, because that was where the threat from al-Qaeda was most pronounced. Perhaps, but then the president transcended his relatively limited anti-terrorism priorities and embarked on a belated and ambitious nation-building project that he almost immediately appeared to doubt. Once Osama bin Laden was killed, it became possible to declare victory and act on that doubt. Obama saw a ticket out of a country that had become a headache.

Obama’s wavering has reflected his most blatant flaw, namely the absence of an overriding philosophy guiding his foreign policy actions. The president has managed crises, but has rarely allowed deep-felt ideas to define his behavior. What does Obama stand for? No one knows. He says the right things, about human rights and democracy for instance, but never quite seems to mean them.

The Middle East has been a case in point. Obama made good decisions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but only after others had taken the lead and imposed choices on Washington. Sometimes a values man, sometimes a realist, but never deploying these in tandem in a well-defined direction, the president has confused many people. Obama has also frequently allowed events to dominate him, rather than use American power to shape events to America’s advantage.

Partly, this has been the consequence of his foreign policy contradictions. The president tends to desire things and their opposite. If the Obama administration seeks to contain Iran in the Gulf, as it claims it does, then it should, and could, have done much more to leave behind conditions in Iraq that made this possible. To simply depart from the country without preparing the political aftermath in a way that preserved American interests was foolish.

Similarly, when Obama announced his troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009, it made no sense for him to simultaneously announce it with a timetable for withdrawal. Anyone watching the president, friend and foe alike, knew that he would be indecisive, when he sought to send precisely the opposite message. Today, Obama is realigning America toward Asia. That’s sensible in absolute terms, but the challenges in the Middle East remain immense, and the president doesn’t have the luxury of simply dropping a vital region as if it were an unwanted toy.

There was a time when the mood in Washington was characterized by greater foreign policy consensus. That began breaking down under Bush, and Obama has faced an even more polarized political climate. That doesn’t make it easy to settle on the best options. However, the president has not helped by seeming so equivocal about a world that he once assured us he knew well, by virtue of his adolescent travels.

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