Thursday, July 12, 2012

America writes itself out of the script

Lately, the U.S. administration has been so preoccupied with domestic issues vital to President Barack Obama’s re-election, that you wonder where the Middle East stands in Washington’s future. That’s not to say that American officials are ignoring the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has devoted much effort to Syria and Iran, while related American concerns further afield, such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have also preoccupied decision-makers. The problem is more fundamental. Because the president’s mind is focused elsewhere, there is a sense of conceptual confusion when addressing the Middle East.

It is understandable that Obama’s aims are to revive the U.S. economy and shift foreign and defense priorities toward Asia, where American interests are bound to expand in the coming decades. What is less explicable is that at such a revolutionary moment in the Arab world, when foreign policy certitudes are collapsing almost on a daily basis, the administration does not appear to have any long-term overriding vision or interpretation of the region to help define how the United States must act to advance its national interests.

In many ways strategy is a narrative that policymakers apply to situations to explain probable outcomes, allowing them to take the long view in planning advantageous behavior.

Developing a foreign policy strategy is complex, demanding clear direction from the president or a State Department mandated by the White House to take the lead in policy formulation. It entails interaction between different, often competing, government bureaucracies, which have to ultimately hammer out compromises (successful or not) that ensure everyone is on the same page. At some stage Congress, which controls the money, is brought on board, and usually will try to impose alternative paths of its own. Ideally, a strategy requires flexibility, so that Washington can adapt to political surprises, which tend to overwhelm the big ideas and can substantially rewrite the story.

But if crafting a strategy is never easy, articulating it so that foreign capitals and the public know what is going on is not rocket science. The administration will insert relevant references in speeches. Officials will write op-ed pieces and publish papers. Think tanks will be enlisted to disseminate or will pick up new policy vibes from the administration. And the president and his aides will get on an airplane and spread the good word. Time is valuable, so the time that a president devotes to an issue shows how important he thinks it is.

On the basis of all this, the Middle East seems to be a rather poor cousin in the Obama administration. After high-profile visits early in his term, Obama has kept away from the Arab world. Even in his speeches, his disinterest is palpable. And the speeches of others reflect no guidance on the region from the White House, but rather multiple guidances that rarely seem properly integrated.

For instance, in Syria, where the Americans have the capacity to politically cripple a principal regional rival, namely Iran, the Obama administration is still dependent on the goodwill of Russia and China, two countries that want to see American power reduced.

Is that surprising? Washington is still stuck in the old ways. During the past 18 months there has been no visible overhaul in American thinking to adapt to the transformations in the Arab world. There have been conferences, statements of purpose, reactions to events, promises, much sound and fury, but none of it noticeably part of a larger cohesive framework in the minds of administration figures.

Even the military involvement in Libya last year was done in spite of Obama’s manifest misgivings. The president allowed himself to be dragged into the conflict because he did not want to be accused of allowing a massacre in Benghazi. As in Egypt a few weeks earlier, the U.S. seemed to be caught off guard, propelled by events largely outside its control, for which it seemed inadequately prepared.

Most of the pillars sustaining American involvement in the Middle East since the end of World War II have collapsed. The relationship with Saudi Arabia has been severely shaken during Obama’s term. Egypt has entered a new phase of its history, one in which American influence is in decline. The so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace process is without a process and offers no prospects of peace.

On the more encouraging side, a prominent American adversary, Syrian President Bashar Assad, is struggling to survive, and his almost certain fall will weaken two American enemies, Iran and their Lebanese followers in Hezbollah. And Iraq, while it remains under the significant sway of Tehran, will slowly move away from Iran and assert its political independence, not least thanks to the revitalization of its oil production capacities.

It is astonishing that at such a crucial stage in the Arab world, Washington is doing little hard thinking. Obama has written himself out of the script, a distant apparition alien to the peoples of the Middle East. But the region remains critical, no matter what the president believes, and it can still bite the world in the rear end. When that happens, the Americans cannot afford to lead from behind. They need to be up front, knowing precisely what they want.

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