The Middle East: All Bad Choices
From Libya to Iran, our past actions have drastically limited our current choices.

Cairo, August 14, 2013


Victor Davis Hanson

Survey the Middle East, and there is nothing about which to be optimistic.

Iran is either fueling violence in Syria or racing toward a bomb, or both.

Syria is past imploding. Take your pick in a now-Manichean standoff between an authoritarian, thuggish Bashar Assad and al-Qaeda franchises that envision a Taliban-like state. There is increasingly not much in between, other than the chaos of something like another Sudan.

Our Libyan “leading from behind” led to Mogadishu-like chaos and Benghazi. Do we even remember the moral urgency of bombing Tripoli as articulated by the ethical triad of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power?

A day late and a dollar short, we piggybacked on the Arab Spring in Egypt, damning the damnable Mubarak without much thought of who or what would take his place. The result is that a kleptocratic dictatorship gave way to a one-vote/one-time Muslim Brotherhood theocracy — and then full circle back to the familiar strongmen with epaulets and sunglasses. Even in the Middle East, it is hard to get yourself hated all at once by Islamists, the military, the Arab Street, Christian minorities, and secular reformists. In Egypt, the Obama administration has somehow managed all that and more. I wonder about all those supposedly pro-Western Google-using types who toppled Mubarak: Are they still there? Were they ever there? For now, the military is engaged in an existential struggle against the Islamists, who retaliate by going after Christians — a crime of enormous proportions going on throughout the Middle East, which is completely ignored by Western governments.

In Iraq, would it have been that hard to leave 5,000 U.S. troops at a fortified air base so that they could monitor Iraq’s air space, hunt down remnants of al-Qaeda, and keep the Maliki government somewhat constitutional — given the toll up to that point in American blood and treasure? In terms of strategic policy and U.S. self-interest, the answer is no; in terms of Obama’s 2012 reelection talking points, certainly it would have been problematic.

What is left to be said about our twelve years in Afghanistan? Obama’s 2008 “good war” that he was going to “put our eye back on” descended into surges, deadlines, withdrawals, musical-chair commanders, drone proxy wars, and finally inattention. The only remaining mystery is how many Afghan refugees and asylum seekers do we let in once the Taliban replays the North Vietnamese scenario and Kabul becomes a sort of Saigon 1975.

The West Bank is quiet to the degree that the Obama administration does not give loud lectures on solving the “Middle East problem” — as if Egyptians were killing Copts over Jewish settlements or Syrians leveling towns because of an Israeli checkpoint. But if John Kerry keeps trying to match Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, then we may yet stir things up enough for another intifada.

Turkey was supposed to be Obama’s model for an authentic Middle East, the circle of Islamic democracy squared by Erdogan’s New Ottomanism. For now we are in the surreal situation of pointing to Turkey as the model of compatibility between Islamism and democracy as Erdogan is doing his best to make the two incompatible.

Obama ran in 2008 on the notion of resetting the Middle East — his qualifications as a new sort of messianic leader being little more than that he was a utopian African-American novice senator with an Islamic middle name, and thus the opposite of the supposedly hated Texan George Bush. That was the subtext of every word Obama spoke for two years, culminating in the Al Arabiya interview and the Cairo speech. Five years later, the region is in chaos, and American popularity there is still at historical lows. False affinities and cheap visuals turn out to be a poor substitute for no-nonsense talk backed by strength.

What is the current status of the war on terror? It is something waged against somebody, but what and how and why, we are not being told. I think Islamists are the terrorist bad guys trying to kill us, but who knows, since the Obama administration has defined jihad as a holy struggle, had classified the Tsarnaevs as poor political refugees, and considers Major Nisan a danger to the Army’s diversity program? About April or May 2009, Guantanamo was virtually closed, renditions were declared over, tribunals and preventive detentions left the side of the barn wall, and the ghost of George Bush kept droning thousands of poor innocents. But do we remember when Senator/candidate Obama referred to the drone bombings by saying, “We’ve got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.” When I heard that, I supposed he wanted a vast curtailment of the drone war and a new, rugged conflict on the ground in Afghanistan. Six years later, it hasn’t turned out that way.

What are our options at this point?