Chastened Obama-voter Walter Russell Mead surveys the Middle East in today’s Wall Street Journal and draws the only possible conclusion: Obama’s policy in the region has been a colossal failure.
Mead is hardly the first to note the point. Still, he describes the situation well:
This month the Middle East seems to be reverting to that primeval state: Iraq continues to unravel, the Syrian War grinds on with violence spreading to Lebanon and allegations of chemical attacks this week, and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war with the generals crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and street mobs torching churches. Turkey's prime minister, once widely hailed as President Obama's best friend in the region, blames Egypt's violence on the Jews; pretty much everyone else blames it on the U.S.
How did the Obama administration get it so wrong? How did someone as intelligent and capable as Walter Russell Mead get fooled into thinking that Obama could conduct foreign policy successfully? After all, Mead holds a chair in foreign affairs at Bard College. I have often had occasion to quote his excellent and informative blog, Via Meadia.
Or better, once you have so thoroughly misjudged a presidential candidate how do you save some face?
Mead does so by saying that the Obama administration based its policies on reasonable assumptions and good intentions. He says that administration strategy was: “well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued.”
It is not quite a whitewash of failure, but it removes the charge that the administration was incompetent and inept. If Obama was not up to the job, those who voted for him could and should have known it.
What were the administration’s reasonable assumptions about the Middle East? Mead explains:
The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey's AK Party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the 'moderate middle' of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.
The plan may have been simple and elegant, but it had nothing to do with reality. Mead himself goes on to explain that none of these assumptions turned out to be true.
When your batting average is Zero, it means that you need more time in the minors. It means that you are not ready for the major leagues. It is meaningless to say that you had a simple and elegant plan, that you pursued it consistently, but that, alas, you never got a hit.
Mead then goes on to show how badly the Obama administration missed the point:
With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported; it misread the political situation in Egypt; it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America's two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region; and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.
Most of Mead’s article explains how the administration misread every particular of the situation in the Middle East. But note well, the face-saving phrase: “with the advantages of hindsight.”
Mead is suggesting that every rational individual, handed the situation that Barack Obama faced in 2009 would have made the same assumptions and conducted policy the same way. That, of course, is untrue.
I have never had a problem finding intelligent and perspicacious analysts of Middle Eastern politics who knew from the onset of the Arab Spring that the Obama administration was making a complete mess of the situation. I mention David Goldman and Caroline Glick. Neither of them needed the advantage of hindsight to see the reality.
I would also underscore a point that commenter Lastango made in response to an earlier post. Why is it that Mead fails to mention the Secretary of State who was charged with formulating and implementing administration policy?
Is Mead trying to distance Hillary Clinton from the foreign policy failures that occurred while she was Secretary of State?
If we grant the Obama administration the best of intentions, these are for nothing when foreign policy is being conducted by people who are inexperienced and incompetent. Everyone should have known that President Obama had no experience in foreign policy and that his understanding of the realities of world politics was grossly inadequate.
That being the case, he was obliged to run a policy that referred, not to reality, but to a fictional world he did understand.
You will say that many American presidents come to office with little experience in foreign affairs. Obama’s problem was not that he did not know, but that he did not know that he did not know. His fawning admirers thought that his towering intellect would allow him to grasp all of the nuances of foreign policy in a few short weeks.
Obama bought the idea, but in order to maintain the illusion that he was competent he needed to surround himself with people who knew less than he did. Case in point, Hillary Clinton.