The most important outcome of the Obama administration’s actions abroad has been the deposing of America’s allies in Egypt and Tunisia. This will weigh more heavily on the historical scales than everything else in the last four years.
Egypt is the natural leader of the Arab world. Under Mubarak it led the region, painstakingly, toward peace and moderation. It is now leading it down a heady Islamist path, one that spells danger for the region and the world.
The Obama administration played a substantial role in this shift from the start, even a decisive one, although it does not seem to realize this. Its role began in the first moments of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt when it, alongside Al-Jazeera and the Western global media, treated the demonstrators as special, almost sacred. It called the regimes “intolerable” if they took any of the traditional measures through which they had always easily dispersed such demonstrations before they could get out of hand (and if they blocked Twitter). The U.S. government twisted the arms of the national militaries — utilizing its long-cultivated, well-paid influence over them — to get them to tolerate the demonstrations, depose Ben Ali and Mubarak, and fully legalize the Islamist parties (even while outlawing and expropriating the secular national parties of the old regimes, which were the main rallying points for moderates in the two countries). It denounced the militaries for trying to hold onto some of their traditional power as guarantors of national moderation. It pressed them to truly empower the elected Muslim Brotherhood leaders. It prepared to punish Egypt if the old-school moderate Ahmed Shafiq won the presidential election, but to send emergency aid to reward a victory by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi won, by a thin 3 percent margin; the U.S. pressures added together made far more than this 3 percent difference. The U.S. continues, to this day, providing aid with the specified aim of making a success of the new Muslim Brotherhood government.
The Obama administration is in denial about the extent of the harm in this. It is too deeply invested in the policy. The U.S. government can be expected to continue to help with the consolidation of the new Islamist regimes as long as Barack Obama remains in office. More damage has to be expected.
Could this historic loss be half compensated for, people wondered early on, if we were to likewise help topple three of the more anti-Western leaders in the region: Qaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and the Ayatollahs in Iran? They all had far less public support than Mubarak in Egypt (where, in the elections after his ouster, 48 percent voted for his prime minister, Shafiq, despite global demonization of both of them).
Qaddafi was subsequently toppled with a NATO intervention. The Obama administration was slower to call his regime “intolerable” than it was those of several other countries in the region that had similar protests; it waited for thousands of deaths in Libya, as opposed to dozens of deaths in Mubarak’s Egypt, or four in the Sunni-ruled Bahrain. The administration has been slower still with Assad, whose killings have run into the tens of thousands. If Assad is finally toppled, will there be a domino effect in Lebanon and Iran? Perhaps we will yet learn — if too much momentum has not been lost from the delay.
The administration re-destabilized Bahrain after the Al Khalifa regime had successfully cleared its main square; we backed off only when Saudi Arabia physically intervened — against us, going into open opposition to our policy of undermining allies.
The other achievements of the administration can be described only briefly here.
It made a “reset” in relations with Russia. Regrettably, this fizzled. However, in this case President Obama was not — whatever he may have believed — striking out into new territory. Every previous new president since 1989 made such a reset. Each reset raised hopes of finally fulfilling the promise of a positive relationship with Russia after the end of Communism. Each fizzled after a few years, requiring a new reset. Romney could be the author of the next one.