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.
The administration weakened the G8 but failed to scrap it in favor of the G20, as it was inclined to do in its first year in office. Mr. Obama had come to power as part of the movement believing in the decline of the West. The crux of the declinists’ program was to get away from the West-West institutions — NATO, the OECD, the G8 — that provide some cohesion to the West and, with it, some cohesive leadership for the international order. A Russian analyst gloated that, since America was bent on always leading, now it was leading in arranging its own decline. But, at Obama’s first G8 summit, Japan and Canada would not agree to scrap the G8. By the time Obama’s second G8 summit rolled around, he had learned from experience that, when his own core values were at stake abroad, he could hope for nothing from the G20 and was compelled to revert to relying on the G8 and its sister institutions, the OECD and NATO. He subsequently dropped the language of decline, if only for domestic political purposes; he now speaks in patriotic terms of “American leadership” (but does not refer to “the West”). The administration has proceeded nonetheless in weakening the Western positions in the Bretton Woods institutions.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration fought credibly. However, it largely wasted its — our — costly efforts by announcing withdrawal dates for domestic political consumption.
In Libya, NATO won. But the success was compromised by ending the operation when Qaddafi was killed; we refused the request of the new regime for NATO to stay and help it clean up the weapons and militias. There is a direct line from this decision to the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The issue is being wrongly debated as “engagement, pro or con.” The real issue is how to engage — and on whose side.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially testified to Congress against intervention in Libya, saying we must not be seen as serving our self-interest as well as our principles. She was onto the real issue — but on the wrong side.
Too often we have had a repetition of the fatal sensibility of President Carter: righteously refusing to pursue our own legitimate interests, giving benefits of the doubt to our foes, zealously denouncing our friends for lesser faults, proudly joining in toppling them — in sum, a double standard against ourselves and our friends. It is the wrong double standard, favoring greater evils over lesser ones. Its sources seem to lie in a transference to the Left of the function of the bearer of the conscience; we have seen repeatedly a deferential, leaning-over-backwards response to the accusations from the Left — inevitable accusations, no matter what we do — of our having a self-interested double standard. Our leaders seem unaware that a pro-self double standard is normal and healthy, and often necessary if there is to be any morality at all.
A huge question flows from this: Are people bred on the Carter sensibility — a Hillary Clinton of the 1960s Left, an Obama of the successor generation of “community organizers” (to use the accepted euphemism) — capable of rational moral agency on behalf of the United States? That is now part of their job description. It is their basic moral responsibility. They have proved in the decisive instances unfit for it.
Obama has at lesser moments seemed partly fit, thanks to his having read Reinhold Niebuhr. But in the Arab Spring he reverted to his activist roots and stepped forth with pronouncements on strategy for the Revolution, as if he were its leader and not America’s.
The damage would almost certainly go further in a second Obama term. Our main Arab ally-regime still extant, Saudi Arabia, is fragile. Proponents of the administration’s policy, such as foreign-policy analyst Robin Wright, urge us to focus on undermining it, and meanwhile to go on helping the ideologically hostile new regime in Egypt. After consolidation, Islamist Egypt would logically begin its own development of nuclear weapons, with an ample educated technical class for the job, and with prospects for material help from fellow Sunni Islamists in Pakistan.
Additionally, the administration, after it pulls out of Afghanistan, could join the chorus that will proclaim defeat, blame it on NATO, and seek to finally dissolve the alliance. Members of the administration already joined that same chorus after the war in Libya, despite the fact that we won. There is still some underlying distaste in the administration for NATO and for Western global leadership; it explains why we refused Libya’s request for NATO to stay.
Mr. Romney has answered with a call for “U.S. leadership.” This, like “engagement or not,” misses the real issue. However, his formulations have imported into the phrase, as if by sublimation, a normal instinct as to which side is our side, contrasting to the often reversed instinct of Obama.
The damage from the wrong instinct has been of global proportions. The prospect of its continuation provides a compelling reason for a change of administration.
— <a href="mailto:email@example.comIra Straus is executive director of The Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.