Inside the whirlwind of the Middle East’s current turmoil, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Obama administration’s original strategy for the region has crashed and burned. Recall its key elements. Extending a hand to Iran’s mullahs so as to demonstrate America’s benign intentions and charm Khomeini’s heirs into abandoning their nuclear ambitions. “Engaging” Syria’s tyranny in hopes of luring it away from a decades-long embrace of Iran, terrorism, and anti-Americanism. Indulging the canard that the Palestinian conflict lies at the root of all that ails the Middle East; that Israeli settlements pose the most pressing obstacle to peace; and that demonstrating American even-handedness by muscling our Israeli ally would win us goodwill across the Arab/Muslim world. Refuting the “freedom agenda” by slashing democratization programs and letting it be known that a hard-nosed realism had returned to U.S. foreign policy that would concern itself little with the way Middle Eastern regimes treat, or mistreat, their own peoples. And, of course, putting in America’s rearview mirror as quickly as possible an Iraq project that had been midwifed by an allegedly illegal and immoral war.
All of it now lies largely in tatters. Obama’s outreach to Iran and Syria was greeted with predictable contempt. His quixotic fixation on the holy grail of a settlements freeze left peace talks dead in the water. The explosion of popular unrest that first shook Iran in 2009, and which is now sweeping Arab lands, exposed the intellectual vacuity of Obama’s studied disregard of the region’s freedom deficit. Similarly, the president’s seeming inability to grasp America’s vital interest in Iraq’s success, and his headlong rush for the exits by the end of 2011, has rendered that country’s democratic experiment increasingly untethered and at the mercy of Iran’s Islamic Republic.
An instinct for reassuring hardened enemies, disregarding longtime friends, and distrusting the exercise of American power. These were, unfortunately, the dominant notes that a troubled region heard emanating from Obama’s uncertain trumpet for much of the last two years. “Where is U.S. leadership?” What is U.S. policy?” Who’s in charge?” The most fundamental questions about American purpose, which anxious Middle Eastern leaders struggled in vain to divine answers to from visiting U.S. friends. The unhappy results? A pervasive — and corrosive — sense of waning American power. Adversaries emboldened to continue pressing every challenge. Disheartened friends resorting both at home and abroad to short-sighted measures of self-help and self-preservation. And a vital region of the world increasingly brought near the boiling point, poised between revolution, chaos, and civil war; teetering between the malignant ambitions of an aspiring Persian hegemon and the withering resolve of a traditional patron grown uncertain in the rightness of its cause and weary of shouldering the burdens of leadership.
Multiple muses seemed responsible for the badly misguided framework that the president brought to office. A worldview heavily shaped by the leftist, anti-Western claptrap that pervades much of what passes for Middle East studies in the American academy. An obsession with distinguishing himself from everything Bush. And a remarkably naive conviction that simply by showing up on the world stage, Obama — by virtue of biography, personality, and charisma — could somehow transcend the immutable laws of an international system dominated by self-interested nation states, several of which happen to be ruled by tyrannical regimes that perceive their very survival as inextricably linked to the humbling of American power, influence, and prestige. The “Obama Factor,” like so much else in the president’s Middle East policy, did not survive first contact with the enemy.
So what next? Will there be an Obama Middle East policy 2.0? To some extent, the administration has no option. It’s been mugged by reality. Iran’s unyielding hostility in the face of Obama’s repeated entreaties for dialogue laid waste the president’s engagement strategy, leaving him little choice but to resort, albeit belatedly, to the stick of sanctions. Likewise, the eruption of mass protests across the Middle East, threatening both pro- and anti-U.S. regimes, has forced issues of democratization and reform to the very top of the administration’s agenda, whether it wished them there or not.
But much, much more needs to be done to advance American interests. Having committed U.S. forces to battle, the war in Libya must be hastened to a rapid conclusion that sees Qaddafi ousted and replaced by a more decent, non-terrorist regime. Egypt’s revolution needs help achieving a soft landing that contains the Muslim Brothers, bolsters liberal democratic forces, and preserves the country’s role as a bulwark of regional moderation. Iraq policy must be taken off auto-pilot, and the president must at long last engage himself personally in the urgent task of defining a post-2011 U.S.-Iraqi security relationship that maximizes the chances of safeguarding the significant gains won by American blood and treasure.
Perhaps most importantly, everything possible must be done to bring home to Iran and Syria the full force of the revolt of 2011. Syria — Iran’s land bridge to Hezbollah; tormenter of Lebanese independence; safe haven for Palestinian terror groups; and facilitator of jihadists who killed American soldiers in Iraq — has been badly shaken already by several weeks of protests. At a minimum, the Obama administration must now avoid doing anything that throws the Assad regime a political lifeline. In Iran, a systematic strategy must be quickly developed aimed at strengthening the Green Movement which, while badly battered, is alive and well, looking for the right opportunity to again challenge the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.
It was, of course, in Iran in 2009 that the true folly of Obama’s Middle East policy reached its most tragic denouement. At the Green Movement’s height, with the Islamic Republic at real risk of fracture and collapse — when protesters cried out “Obama, are you with us or are you with the regime?” — the president was largely paralyzed, mute and detached, worried that an embrace of Iranian freedom might put at risk his delusion of brokering a meaningful diplomatic breakthrough with the murderers of Neda Soltan. An historic opportunity to end the mullahs’ 30-year war on America, erase the darkening shadow of a nuclear Iran, and drive a stake through the heart of radical Islamic extremism was lost. Figuring out how to help resurrect it, and atone for that monumental strategic error, would be a fitting place for the president to start the process of rebuilding a viable Middle East strategy for the final two years of his term.
— John Hannah is a former national-security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.