Thursday, May 10, 2012

Middle East policy radically revised in Bush-Obama years

George W Bush and Barack Obama would wince at the comparison, but they have more in common in the Middle East than they care to admit. Both, in different ways, challenged the consensus that had for decades shaped American policy toward the region.

What was this consensus? It varied over time, but from the 1940s onward and throughout the cold war, the United States saw the Arab world mainly through the prism of oil and containment of the Soviet Union. Washington accepted friendly regimes as they were - and most were authoritarian - supporting a status quo that guaranteed the steady supply of cheap oil while denying Moscow a regional foothold.

This was only partly successful, as Egypt, Syria and Iraq developed close ties with the Soviet Union, albeit usually as equals. That is one reason why, during the late 1960s, the Americans strengthened the bond with Israel and, as a corollary, Washington came to regard Arab-Israeli peace as a near-permanent political objective.

This prioritisation of peace and the preservation of an equilibrium, not to say stalemate, in Arab governance systems was last pursued by President Bill Clinton. Yet Mr Clinton was only replicating the ways of his predecessor George H W Bush, who, though he went further than Ronald Reagan in the "peace process", was yet working within a framework that no president from the time of Richard Nixon ever disputed.

The September 11 attacks broke the pattern. George W Bush, the man least likely to overhaul foreign policy thinking anywhere, did precisely that in the Middle East. The president adopted a pre-emptive strategy to neutralise emerging threats, undermining the prior devotion to balance. He also ordered the invasion of Iraq, which was viewed additionally as a means of keeping Saudi Arabia in line.

While Mr Bush was focused on exercising American power, he raised the exhilarating banner of democratisation. Many regarded this as hypocritical, an effort to lend life to his wilting Iraq campaign. Yet that does not tell the whole story. The president's evocation of democracy was destabilising to Washington's Arab partners, even if it was unevenly practised. Freedom was at the heart of Mr Bush's second inaugural address, and in Iraq and Lebanon the president remained surprisingly consistent on the issue.

That did not mean Mr Bush welcomed a break with the Egyptians and Saudis, Washington's principal regional allies. Throughout his two terms there was a profound tension between Mr Bush's aspirations and conduct, between an impulse to effect a radical repositioning in the Arab world and allegiance to the old ways.

This was contradictory. However, Mr Bush introduced a volatile element into US perceptions of the Middle East - an urge for change. Mr Bush was not the godfather of the Arab revolts last year, but his removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, like the Lebanese intifada against Syria in 2005 that he backed, helped define the first decade of the new century as one in which old certitudes were no longer persuasive.

When Barack Obama took office, his aim was to rid the United States of Mr Bush's Middle East legacy. The new president sought an accelerated path out of Iraq, toned down references to democracy and characterised his role as that of reconciling America with a Muslim world that Mr Bush had allegedly alienated.

Where Mr Obama was most innovative was in his wilful decision to break free of the Middle East's embrace. After observing Mr Bush devote much blood and treasure to successive wars in the region, the president believed that America had to move on, not least because of its economic constraints. Earlier this year, Mr Obama announced an American realignment toward Asia, but the flip side of that proposition was that too much had been invested in the Middle East.

This modest recognition of American limitations had far-reaching consequences. Mr Obama, no less than Mr Bush, although in a contrary way, abandoned the traditional American approach to the region. He promised to midwife a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, but soon lost interest; supposedly a realist, he promised to consult with America's established Arab comrades, but in the end helped topple President Hosni Mubarak, and has presided over a relationship with Saudi Arabia riven with mistrust.

With the drawdown in American forces in Iraq came a more subtle drawdown in America's psychological obligation to the region. The United States remains a key actor in the Middle East, and nothing will alter that, but Mr Obama has been elsewhere mentally. Even when finally succumbing to them, he has resisted dynamics entailing a greater commitment of American energies than he would like.

That is why Mr Obama reacted with such uneasiness, and a lack of political imagination, to the Arab uprisings. At the very moment when Arab societies demonstrated their revolutionary potential, the president was reluctant to deal proactively with the new situation. That is not to say the administration has done nothing. Rather, it has failed to formulate a comprehensive design that lends coherence to its myriad, frequently disjointed, regional reactions.

Mr Bush overstated American power, hard and soft, while Mr Obama has understated it. But the Middle East is a place that disappoints the over-ambitious and entraps the wary.

Neither president has offered a successful model to emulate, but both sensed, correctly, that the smugness and predictability of the past was unsustainable.

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