The problem with Obama’s Middle East policy is that there is no policy, and that’s why we have heard nothing consistent or comprehensive from the administration that would try to explain our glee at Mubarak and Ali leaving but outreach to the far worse Assad, the monster Ahmadinejad’s enjoying exemption from “meddling” butQaddafi’s being merely “unacceptable,” talk of going into Libya as good but no talk of Saudi Arabia going into Bahrain as good or bad, reset diplomacy as not judging other regimes but human rights declared universal, no idea whether plebiscites without constitutional guarantees will bring governments worse than the pro-American autocracies that fall, and loud declarations of Bush’s policies as bad but also reset diplomacy’s quietly embracing most of them in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the not-to-be-named war on terror.
All this is in line with simultaneously establishing withdrawal dates and surging into Afghanistan, virtually closing Guantanamo, and regretting Iraq while claiming it as a possible “greatest achievement.” All that can be said for it is that the chaos keeps our friends and enemies guessing — and that confused inaction is, I suppose, preferable to confused intervention.
What then is or was at the heart of U.S. bewilderment in the region?
Three flawed assumptions:
1) Not being George Bush meant that we should keep mum about “democracy” and “human rights” and not judge the culturally constructed practices of ‘other’ indigenous governments. We saw that rhetoric early in 2009, and it was reified by our silence over the Iranian protests six months later. Oddly, we were to assume that a right-wing Bush had been too idealistic, and that a left-wing Obama was going to return to realpolitik dressed up in multicultural platitudes of non-intervention. The result is that we have become loud multicultural neocons who sermonize but are not taken too seriously;
2) We trumpeted multilateralism in the sense that we would follow the lead of the U.N. or the EU/NATO or the Arab League, all of whom are always waiting to follow America’s lead. Apparently, the administration believed that the usual serial criticism from these international bodies meant that they don’t like U.S. leadership. In fact, they both do like us to lead and even more do like to criticize us for leading — and find absolutely no contradiction in that at all. The result is that they are all unhappy that they finally got what they have always wanted and did not want.
3) As we saw in Obama’s first interview (with al Arabiya), his Cairo speech, and commentary from his advisers, the president as Barack Hussein Obama believed that his unique racial heritage, his non-traditional name, his father’s Muslim ancestry, and his left-of-center politics were all supposed to combine to reassure our former enemies and suspicious neutrals that we were now on the right side of progressive history-making — as if a democratic, capitalist, wealthy military superpower could at last be seen as quasi-revolutionary, and therefore they should both like us and desist from inappropriate behavior. It was almost the foreign-policy equivalent of a stuffy, big-city establishment organization cynically hiring a hip community-organizing liaison to go out into the neighborhood and convince suspicious locals that it was ‘really’ on their side — and it has worked about as well as these things usually do for all parties involved.
So where do we go from here? In the next crisis, I suggest that we can always boycott the Olympics.