I can’t wait to read Obama’s White House memoirs. The main reason is that I think I might find in those memoirs some explanation of the reasoning behind his foreign policy. For example, there must be some logical reason why he pushed Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt after a few days of mostly nonviolent protests in Cairo, but it took eight months of killing on a massive scale in Syria before he was willing to offend Bashar Assad by calling for him to step down. When a policy seems utterly senseless, it’s usually not because it’s utterly senseless. But every explanation I can think of seems highly implausible.
One of those explanations is based on Obama’s history of mistreating allies (Israel, Colombia, Britain) and bowing to adversaries (Russia, Syria). According to this explanation, Obama combines the qualities of bully and coward. But I don’t buy it. Everyone knows that Obama likes bullying subordinate allies in order to show both how liberal and how tough he is. The bully-coward theory explains his approach to Egypt well enough. Yet I don’t think cowardice, properly so called, can explain his tenderness towards Bashar Assad these many months. There must be something else.
Perhaps the explanation for Obama’s approach to Syria is that Sen. John Kerry got involved, thereby drastically lowering the average intelligence of whatever group of advisers was formulating the policy. This explanation is more convincing than the coward theory. We know that Kerry worked hard to stay the administration’s hand on Syria for months: He had spent the previous two years making secret trips to Damascus for weekend stays at Assad’s palace. Apparently the wives get along famously — and Assad himself was really nice and genuinely interested in being friends with America, if we could only earn his trust.
As Kerry explained in one interview, “There was an opportunity staring us in the face on foreign affairs.” Assad is a secular guy who’s worried about the rise of religious fundamentalism in his country (Kerry can certainly empathize there). He’s not religious at all, so he has no interest in being allied with Iran, and did so only when he was forced into it — first by the menace from Saddam Hussein, then by the menace from George W. Bush. And now both of them are gone.
Hence the opportunity the Kerry imagined was “staring us in the face”; Assad’s a doctor for chrissakes, so why would he willingly chose to be a terrorist? (By the way, even if you already think John Kerry is the dumbest person in Washington, you will be amazed by his involvement with Syria; please read this classic Wall Street Journal story from early June.) That explains a lot, but even if Kerry could succeed in talking the White House into embracing such a crazy position, that can’t explain why the president held onto it for as long as he did, with people getting killed by the hundreds in brutal military repression in cities across Syria.
There is a third possible explanation for the inconsistency in Obama’s approach to Syria and Egypt. Perhaps the administration’s lead-from-the-rear, slow-caress, pragmatic approach to Syria is actually the Obama administration’s default “establishment” policy, and his approach to Egypt is an exception to the rule. One classic New York Times story from back in February lays this theory out nicely:
A president who himself is often torn between idealism and pragmatism was navigating the counsel of a traditional foreign policy establishment led by Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, against that of a next-generation White House staff who worried that the American preoccupation with stability could put a historic president on the wrong side of history.
The story goes on to talk about how Obama struggled between his idealism and his pragmatism and simply couldn’t bring himself to give up his bond with the protesters in Egypt just to satisfy some bureaucratic State Department fogies interest in preserving our alliance with Egypt, the Camp David accords, and the foundations of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. So he forcefully intervened to make darn sure that we were out there calling for Mubarak’s ouster right away. (The New York Times story is a must-read, by the way, if only for the spectacle of a president leaking against his own administration for a front-page story.)
Well, Mubarak fell, and in the weeks and months that followed, it became apparent that the mob in Cairo was no more sympathetic to Obama than it had been before. Now, with the Rafah crossing permanently open, weapons flooding into Hamas arsenals in Gaza, Fatah caving in and forming a unity government with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood about to take over Egypt, and essential elements of the Camp David accords teetering on the brink of revision, the Israelis probably weren’t the only ones showing up at the White House to explain to the president that he really had screwed everything up. Perhaps the president learned not to overrule his advisers on a subject on which he’s essentially a complete amateur.
There’s one major reason to doubt this explanation, namely that the president is one of the smartest people in the world, and whenever something goes wrong, it’s generally not because he made a mistake, but because he didn’t explain himself well enough, and that’s obviously his listeners’ fault, because he’s the greatest orator since Lincoln, so he’s obviously able to explain himself, but you have to smart enough to follow him, you see.
Any other theories out there?